Unlike this season, the Canucks won’t be bringing back the same defence corps next season. That became a certainty when Canucks GM Jim Benning traded Michael Del Zotto to the Anaheim Ducks earlier in the season and continued when Benning moved Erik Gudbranson to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline.
The biggest and most important change, however, came on Sunday, when the Canucks inked their top prospect, Quinn Hughes, to a three-year, entry-level contract.
The signing was an inevitability — as soon as Hughes decided to go back to the University of Michigan, there was talk of him signing at the end of his college season to play for the Canucks. It’s similar to the path taken by Brock Boeser and Adam Gaudette, who both played games with the Canucks after their college seasons ended prior to their rookie season, though Hughes will make his debut at a younger age.
While Hughes signing with the Canucks was expected, it still provides a jolt of excitement for a fanbase badly in need of one. Over the last five weeks, the Canucks have slid out of playoff contention and are once again heading towards a high lottery pick in the NHL Entry Draft.
The Canucks’ biggest issues are on the backend, where Benning believes that Quinn Hughes can be a difference maker, though it may take some time.
“I want him to get in here and get adjusted, get accustomed to the speed and the strength of the NHL players,” said Benning on Monday. “I think there’s some aspects of his game that he can step in and help our group right now.
“His ability to get back and transition the puck up ice, beat that first forechecker, he could help us there. Even on the power play, his ability to walk the line and snap passes to either side, or change the angle on shots and get them through and on the net, I think that’s something that he’s very good at and he could help us on our power play.”
The power play could certainly use the help. Since January 2nd, the Canucks are 6-for-76 with the man advantage, for a putrid percentage of 7.89%. It’s expecting a lot to ask Hughes to fix the Canucks’ power play issues, but he has the skill, vision, and creativity to be a power play quarterback at the NHL level.
Even if he can improve the power play, there will be the challenge of playing against some of the best players in the world at even-strength.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on him, it’s a big step,” said Benning. “He’s a 19-year-old kid, he’s gonna play his first NHL games. There’s lots of expectation for him and I just want him to come in here and do what he’s capable of and feel comfortable and get experience.”
It’s going to be hard for Hughes to avoid that pressure, however, and there are several reasons why.
The first is an obvious one: the Canucks badly need change on defence. They’re simply not good enough defensively and don’t get much offensively from their blue line. Their transition game is lacking because their defence, as a whole, struggle to move the puck up ice.
There are certainly some bright spots — Ben Hutton has taken a step forward this season and Troy Stecher has developed into one of their most important defencemen — but they badly need top end talent on the backend.
Hughes has to be a huge part of that top end talent, mainly because they have few other players in the prospect pipeline that promise to be a top-pairing defenceman.
Apart from Hughes, the Canucks’ best prospect on defence is Olli Juolevi, who looked good in the AHL with the Utica Comets before suffering a season-ending injury. The young defenceman has undergone two surgeries over the past year that have taken a chunk out of his development and training, but the Canucks are confident that he’ll be ready to take the step to the NHL next season.
The issue is that Juolevi seems more likely to be a second-pairing defenceman than a minute-munching top-pairing defenceman. Perhaps he’ll reach a higher ceiling than expected, but it’s frustrating to see other defencemen taken after him in the 2016 draft already playing big minutes in the NHL.
After Hughes and Juolevi, the Canucks’ prospect depth on defence takes a dive. Jett Woo has had a strong season in the WHL, but is still a long-term project. Jalen Chatfield and Ashton Sautner both seem like their ceiling is potential seventh defencemen on a playoff team. Jack Rathbone and Toni Utunen are both lottery tickets, whose value is completely up in the air right now. And Nikita Tryamkin may never return from Russia.
There’s hope that a couple NHL defencemen may emerge from that group, which also includes Mitch Eliot, Matt Brassard, and Guillaume Brisebois, but the Canucks need more than just NHL defencemen — they need a gamechanger on the blue line.
That means the pressure is on Hughes, whether Benning likes it or not. If Hughes doesn’t develop into a top-pairing, defenceman capable of scoring at least 40-50 points every season, the Canucks don’t have anyone else with that kind of potential.
On the plus side, Hughes can look to the example of someone like Zach Werenski, who put up similar numbers to Hughes in the NCAA. Werenski immediately put up 47 points in his rookie year and is a top-pairing defenceman for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Charlie McAvoy likewise took a similar path to the NHL as Hughes and Werenski, and is on the top pairing with the Boston Bruins.
Adding to the pressure is the fact that the Canucks’ top two defencemen are aging veterans that haven’t been able to stay healthy: Alex Edler and Chris Tanev.
“Quite honestly, it’s been hard, because they’ve been our top two defencemen,” said Benning. “When you’re mapping out what your team looks like, you count on those guys to be your top two D and to play a significant amount of games and, as it turns out, they’ve been injured, both, and they’ve missed a lot of time.
“We’ve tried to address that in the last four years or three years, we’ve drafted two defencemen in the first round. With Olli, unfortunately he’s been hurt, because I think we would’ve seen him up and playing games this year.”
In other words, Hughes and Juolevi are the succession plan for Edler and Tanev. If they don’t pan out, the Canucks don’t have any other options.
That could change, of course, as Benning looks to reshape the Canucks defence corps heading into next season.
“We’re working right now on college free agency,” said Benning. “We’ve talked to some players, done some interviews the last couple days. We’re hoping that we can get a defenceman signed through college free agency. And then our next step is to, y’know, there’s July 1st free agency, we can look there, and I guess our other thing is we’ll look at possible trades too, to try to help improve our backend.”
The Canucks defence, then, could look significantly different next season, and Quinn Hughes will play a large role. Next season, however, is a long way off. Until then, Benning has simple expectations for Hughes:
“Just come in and do the things that you’re capable of doing and everybody’s going to be happy.”