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Who Should Play With Quinn Hughes?

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The Canucks have struck gold with defenceman Quinn Hughes. Now the problem becomes how to best utilize and support Quinn to get him to perform to his full potential.

Minnesota Wild v Vancouver Canucks

For Canucks fans, the draft lottery has become an annual lesson in disappointment. Year after year the hype builds as the day of the lottery approaches and without fail, the Canucks inevitably fall down the order.

Those ping pong balls hold a plethora of value. Take this chart, from Don't Tell Me About Heart who was named one of hockey’s top 40 under 40 by Greg Custance, detailing the value of the top ten draft picks in the first round.

Chart from Don’t Tell Me About Heart
http://donttellmeaboutheart.blogspot.com/p/draft-pick-value.html

By looking at the values associated with each draft slot it becomes painfully obvious how much those ping pong balls can alter the fate of a franchise. The difference between the value of slots near the top of the draft are much more pronounced than differences in values later in the round, and it becomes clear just how hard it is to draft franchise players outside of the top few picks.

In the 2017 draft lottery the Canucks fell three slots, awarded the fifth pick after having finishing second last. The difference in values for these picks would be equivalent to the Canucks losing the 24th pick of the 3rd round. The Canucks last two selections in the third round have been Tyler Madden and Michael DiPietro, both highly rated prospects who have strong chances of becoming NHL players.

Finding franchise building blocks is the hardest part of building any team. Once a team has found these players they hold onto them with an iron grip, and it is hard to trade or sign a true franchise players. The draft then becomes the easiest place to find these gems, yet as we have discussed above beyond the first few picks it becomes a crapshoot.

The ping pong balls did not bounce in favour of Vancouver, yet in recent years they have proven that it does not matter. It is widely rumoured that the Canucks had Cale Makar and Elias Pettersson ahead of top selections Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick on their draft board, yet either way the team made the best of them dropping in the draft and chose Pettersson fifth. So far, they could not be happier with the result.

Chicago Blackhawks v Vancouver Canucks Getty Images

Only one season after drafting Pettersson, the Canucks dropped in the lottery but, once again, struck gold with the selection of Quinn Hughes. Finding two franchise players past the top three picks has accelerated the Canucks rebuild and put them in a spot where they can compete for a Stanley Cup sooner than some believe. Having two players who have such a large impact on the game while still on their ELC gives the Canucks a competitive advantage with their team building.

Theoretically, with Pettersson and Hughes currently counting for under $1 million each against the cap before bonuses, there should be plenty of money to go around for the rest of the team. Of course, reality is more complicated than this as the Canucks have several bloated contracts on their roster. It will be the responsibility of Jim Benning and company to find a way to get rid of some of these overpaid players and better utilize the cap space.

Now the question becomes how to best maximize the strengths of your stars. The Canucks have done a good job of surrounding Elias Pettersson with elite talent, acquiring wingers such as J.T. Miller and Tyler Toffoli who have meshed great with the young, Swedish superstar.

Not even the most optimistic of fans could have predicted a rookie season such as this one. He burst onto the scene and has looked every part of a number one defenceman. It’s a shame his amazing rookie season was cut short because he was on pace to have his name all over the record books.

This 20-year-old kid looks like the most offensively gifted defenceman the franchise has ever seen, and for him to have the largest impact possible on the game it is important to make sure he has a good defence partner who can complement his style.

Hughes played primarily with two different partners this season: Tyler Myers and Chris Tanev. He played around 700 minutes of 5-on-5 with Tanev and around 350 minutes of 5-on-5 with Tyler Myers. Tanev has built himself a reputation as strong in his own zone which may have been a factor in Travis Green’s decision to pair him with the risk-taking Hughes. Was that the right decision though? Let's take a deeper look.

Coach Travis Green seemed to make a conscious effort to put Quinn in positions to succeed as Hughes spotted an 64.36% offensive zone face-off percentage. This number rose to above 80% when Hughes played with Myers and was only 56.22% when he played with Tanev. It seems like the Hughes/Myers pairing was not one that the coaching staff trusted defensively but instead as a powerful offensive combo.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Vancouver Canucks Getty Images

However Tanev’s reputation may have been giving the coaching staff the wrong idea as many of his defensive stats this year took a step backwards. For every 60 minutes of ice time he allowed a rate of 2.93 Goals Against, the worst of his career. This number was about the same as Tyler Myers rate of 2.9 Goals Against per 60 minutes. This brings into question if Tanev is still the same defensive player he once was?

There are other factors that must be taken into consideration. First, Tanev had tougher deployment than Myers did. Tanev faced tougher competition and had to do so while starting in his own zone or the neutral zone more often. Look at these competition charts for the two players. The right side represents the opposing team, and the numbers 1-12 represent the opposing forwards ranked by ice-time on any given night. The red line represents league average, so we can see that Tanev sees an increased percentage of a teams 1-4 forwards.

We can see that Tanev has to deal with the opposing top line more often than average.
From HockeyViz.com
Tyler Myers on the other hand faces average competition
from HockeyViz.com

On the other hand, Tyler Myers faced about league average competition. This is a key factor to keep in mind when looking at the possible struggles that Tanev faced when compared to Myers advanced stats. Still, Tanev did not perform to his usual standard this season of a strong defensive defenceman. If Tanev is not performing at a higher defensive level does it still make sense to play him with Hughes?

With Tanev an unrestricted free agent this summer and money looking tight, if the Canucks thought that Hughes could excel beside Myers they could use the money they would save from letting Tanev walk. With Tanev’s drop off in performance, this could be a realistic option, especially if management was determined to keep UFA Tyler Toffoli around.

Yet Hughes still has to work on parts of his game. Take a look at this clip below. Keep in mind this is Nathan MacKinnon, one of the best players and fastest skaters in the league, bearing down on Hughes but watch how Mackinnon manages to get the jump on Hughes before spinning back and finding Johnson who is now in empty space.

Both Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers are offensively-inclined defensemen who can be caught taking risks or out of position in their own zone. They have only played together for half the time that Hughes played with Tanev at 5-on-5, possibly showing a lack of trust from Travis Green. In addition, Tanev provides more than just his on-ice contribution as he has been on the Canucks since the 2011 cup run and can mentor Hughes. Having someone that can take you under their wing and demonstrate how to be a professional is value that numbers will never catch.

Yet the salary situation on the Canucks is tight, and now COVID-19 could create further struggles. It’s a tough situation for the Canucks, and if they choose to not re-sign Tanev it can be hard to find a player of the same caliber. Maybe the answer is Tanev or maybe it is Myers or it could be something else entirely.

Hughes excelled this season and looks to potentially be the kind of players that transcends the game and will perform no matter what. The Canucks are lucky to have a special talent like him and he makes this a great time to be a Canucks fan.