The Question for the Vancouver Canucks on Defence

Vancouver Canucks defence

The Vancouver Canucks 2022-23 season opening night draws nearer. Heck, the Young Stars tournament isn’t just coming back this year, it’s only two weeks away! And, as always, there are questions all around. We’re limiting those questions to a three-part series: forward, defence and in goal. Questions now can change with a single trade or signing, because… Well, you know. We talked up the question at forward, so now for the blue line.

The Big Vancouver Canucks Defence Question

You want to question the Canucks defence? Well, good news! This is a team that offers you plenty of options. Who is getting moved to the right side if Tucker Poolman can’t play? Will Oliver Ekman-Larsson get to play a more offensive game? How much ice time can rookie Jack Rathbone handle? If Tyler Myers is actually moved, who takes his place?

Given that only six – sometimes seven – defencemen are on the ice in any game, there are a lot of questions around them. Certainly more than a paltry half-dozen. So which one really boils down every doubt about the Canucks defence? Which player signifies the pre-season Fog of War that will clear as the year goes on? If you guessed Quinn Hughes, you’re close.

Where Luke Schenn Starts

When Luke Schenn originally joined the Vancouver Canucks defence back in 2019, he was a faded star. The former fifth-overall pick never lived up to his draft position. After making the 2008-09 All-Rookie Team he’s never been close to any sort of individual award. His peak offence is five goals and 22 points, and that was eight seasons and five teams earlier. Even the trade was underwhelming: Michael Del Zotto went to the Anaheim Ducks, a seventh-round pick* went to Vancouver, and Schenn went to Utica.

Yep. The veteran defender went straight to the AHL after playing eight games for Anaheim. But no great loss, as Vancouver got a bunch of cap relief out of it. And hey! Seventh-round pick! Eventually, they did recall Schenn to finish out the year. He got into 18 games, including five babysitting their Bright, Shiny Pick Quinn Hughes. They did reasonably well on a quite mediocre team, then Schenn signed on as a spare with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And that, in any reasonable world, would have been the last Vancouver heard of him. But winning two Stanley Cups and a desperate (read: cheap) team brought him back to the Canucks. The popular joke was that he would be rejoining the vastly improved partner. Well, after trying Hughes with literally everyone else, guess what?

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Crazy Enough to Work

The Canucks second most frequent tandem was indeed Schenn-Hughes. They broke even as a pair – expected goals for and against was 2.33 in 2021-22 – but Hughes made up for it on the power play. Schenn took a regular shift on the penalty kill, and late in games, he would get replaced by Tyler Myers if the Canucks needed a goal. Still, the two played 644 minutes together for one reason: they were good enough.

That sounds like a harsh assessment, but it’s difficult to claim more. They were at evens. That’s not really good enough when you are skating with a top-ten defenceman in the league. Schenn is turning 33 this season. While he’s reasonably mobile, he’s never been known for his skating. We don’t know exactly who is going to work best with Hughes, but we do know the team is hoping someone will. Someone other than Schenn, that is.

Late arrival Travis Dermott got in a few minutes with his ability to switch sides. They went very well, but it was also a VERY few minutes – 24 spread over 13 games. That doesn’t tell coaches a whole heck of a lot about compatibility. It does tell us how much coach Bruce Boudreau liked the pairing, though.

Yes, It’s About Hughes

But more importantly, it’s about how the pairings are going to line up. There is talk of either Hughes or Ekman-Larsson switching to the right side to pair together. The adjustment might be easier for Hughes to make, but you hesitate to make a gifted player uncomfortable. He’s a very smart skater, but that’s a major change. Adding a half-second to his processing time lessens the advantage of having him.

Ideally, someone like Dermott – who is somehow entering his sixth season – can make it work. The fast-skating pair lacks anything like physicality, but the puck won’t be staying long in their end anyway. Hopefully. Maybe Hughes and Myers are made into a regular pairing. Myers, unlike Schenn, has the speed to keep up with Hughes and is more offence-oriented, despite being in the Canucks’ shut-down pair with Ekman-Larsson.

This leaves the team looking for a shut-down pair. If Tucker Poolman remains unable to play, maybe here is where Schenn starts. Jack Rathbone needs a home, but it won’t be in such a vital spot. Schenn playing mentor to another rookie isn’t a terrible idea, at least to start the season.

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The Bottom (Blue) Line

Luke Schenn being Quinn Hughes’ primary partner for 2022-23 is, in the end, a bad sign. The Canucks want to use Hughes to his maximum ability, and Schenn isn’t going to bring that out. Whether they have anyone who will is up for debate. But they should be trying anything else the instant camp opens.

Another year of Schenn-Hughes is either a failure of imagination in the coach or a failure of acquisition in management.

*The unsigned and back in Finland Viktor Persson

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