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Projecting the Canucks Defence Pairings

Trent Leith / August 6, 2021  

Quinn Hughes is now the longest-tenured Canucks defender, Let that sink in for a second. Hughes still feels like the team’s new toy, and yet here we are. Half of the Vancouver Canucks defencemen from the 2020-21 season have departed from the team. With the Canucks new acquisitions it leaves fans wondering exactly what the back end of this team’s defence will look like. 

Last week we covered all the players and assets both coming and going from the Vancouver Canucks and now we will take a look at what the defence Corps will likely look like throughout the season. With eight big names available and only six places for them to land on the roster, it’s interesting to project where everyone will wind up.

Top Pairing

The top pairing likely carries the least amount of intrigue. Travis Hamonic and Quinn Hughes will no doubt be back as the first pairing for the Vancouver Canucks. Although both Hughes and Hamonic are unfortunately for the club, coming off down years.

Quinn Hughes was strong in the offensive zone last season but struggled significantly in the defensive end of the ice versus his rookie year. There are lots of reasons for his regression last year, from a “sophomore slump” to the unprecedented COVID outbreak in the middle of the season. I don’t think the Quinn Hughes we saw on the ice this past season is the Quinn Hughes we should expect to see next season. 

When Chris Tanev departed from the Vancouver Canucks last offseason we wondered who would replace the “Dad” of the team, and in came “Stepdad” Hamonic. It took a little while for Hamonic to hit his stride as a Vancouver Canuck, as he didn’t officially sign with the team until the season had started. Travis not only missed training camp before the season, he also opted out of the Bubble in 2020, so needless to say he entered the last season a little bit cold. 

In the back half of the 2020-21 season, Travis ended up finding his game and playing alongside Quinn Hughes very well. With a full training camp and a “regular season” both of these players will bounce back and take a step beyond where they were last season, and only further prove that they are the most important pairing on the team. 

Second Pairing

This is where some critical thinking and some speculation starts to come in. Once again I am projecting one new guy and one old guy to fill out the second pairing next season. Jim Benning sees Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the club’s number one defenseman but many who watch and cover the sport disagree with such a high evaluation of OEL, but that doesn’t mean he’s totally washed up yet.

Many of OEL’s numbers over the last few seasons have dipped since he was a Norris calibre defenceman in Arizona in the prime of his career. I project a bit of a bounce-back season for Ekman-Larsson in his new role and environment. His best years are definitely behind him, but he still has something to give and I think that will be in a second-pairing role along with Tyler Myers next season. 

Many of the same criticisms of OEL can be applied to Tyler Myers as well. Including being paid to be a top-end player and no longer living up to that pay range especially on a contract that may be too long. He is still an important player on the team if you put the dollar figure aside. Tyler Myers is an offensively-minded defenceman and is another player who doesn’t exactly thrive in his own end.

Myers has had a Corsi percentage below 50% since 2015-16. The thing about Tyler Myers is you know exactly what to expect with him, versus a guy like OEL. That means it’s hard to talk yourself into thinking he is going to have a better season than any of his recent ones.

Both of these players are going to be important for the Vancouver Canucks in the next two to three years, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be a defensive liability. I am projecting this line to be the most one-dimensional pairing the Canucks will ice next season. The Myers-OEL Pairing will score and put up lots of points, but they will also let in a lot of goals and allow lots of offence in their own end.

Third Pairing

The third pairing is the one that is most up in the air with four players still in the mix, Luke Schenn, Tucker Poolman, Jack Rathbone and Olli Juolevi, There are only two spots on the roster remaining. It’s very likely that this third pairing will change significantly over the season. The pairing that I think will play the most ice time together will be Jack Rathbone and Luke Schenn. Maybe that is a bit of a hot take as Poolman has signed a four-year 10 million-dollar contract. Still, I think Poolman will be outworked by Luke Schenn on his $850,000 cap hit. 

Luke Schenn proved that he can play with an offensive-minded young player a couple of years ago, during Quinn Hughes’s late-season debut with the Vancouver Canucks. It was a small sample size, but it was a matchup that undeniably worked in its short time before Luke Schenn left for Tampa Bay.

Schenn went out and played a small role on a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion team and in the end, has come back to Vancouver to help lead this young core to contention. It is a tall ask for a player like Shen to be an everyday player in the NHL, but I think in the right situation it is an easy bar to clear in Vancouver.

Vancouver fans got a taste of Jack Rathbone near the end of last season and while he didn’t blow the doors off like recent rookies including Hughes, he did play really well. especially compared to other players who can slide in deeper into the line-up. The third pairing left side spot is Rathbone’s to lose in camp, and I think he will hold on to that position for most of the 2021-22 season.

There’s still lots to be proven about Rathbone’s game, but I am quite high on him as a player and if it weren’t for the log jam of “top pairing guys”  on the second pair, I could see him playing even farther up the line-up and potentially running the second power play.

I projected this pairing to be a very reliable and underrated pairing for the Vancouver Canucks next season. There will be high turnover and different combinations of players in the third pairing. I just think that Schenn end Rathbone will click his partners and will be undeniably well-suited to play with each other.

The Outside Looking in 

That leaves two players in the press box or in the AHL playing for the Abbotsford Canucks, Olli Juolevi and Tucker Poolman. As I said with the third pairing there will be lots of changes and the players on the outside looking in will rotate, which is not a bad thing. Having internal competition driving players to be better than to earn spots is something that is good for a team and will drive players to be better. 

Olli Juolevi had every chance to lock down the third left-side defenseman position last season and he couldn’t hang on to it. Juolevi eventually losing the spot when Rathbone got his cup of coffee. Juolevi will likely be a player in the NHL, but may never live up to his draft position of fifth overall.

The unfortunate part about Juolevi not being in the lineup is he has to clear waivers now, and with his draft calibre, the chances of him getting scooped up on waivers are high. There are a lot of teams around the league that would be willing to take a chance on Juolevi should they be able to acquire him for free. 

The last player on the outside looking in is Tucker Poolman. Poolman is another unfortunate exclusion from the top three pairings as he just signed a four-year 2.5 million-dollar contract. Poolman is likely to open the season on Rathbone’s flank, but I feel like he is more likely to lose that spot.

I don’t expect his leash to be too long with Schenn in the wings waiting for a chance. Poolman does not have the most flattering or longest resume in the NHL. Poolman has only played 120 NHL games, and is 28 years old, and is likely fully developed as a player. Poolman has 5 career goals and only 19 total points. Last season he only had a single point. Poolman doesn’t make up for his awful offensive numbers with defence either, at a career Corsi of 46.4%. 

There is a very real chance I am way off and this will age like milk, but that’s the beauty of projecting lines before camp, anything goes until we see progress in training camp. But I stand by my predictions, so feel free to screen grab them and rake me over the coals on Twitter next season if I’m wrong, but I don’t plan on it.