VANCOUVER — As October arrives, it’s time again on the West Coast to ask that annual, all-consuming, autumnal question. And it’s not: When will the rain stop?
It is: Who will play with Quinn Hughes?
The answer on Saturday: Anyone, because anyone would look good with Hughes.
Without a long-term, everyday defence partner since Chris Tanev was allowed to leave the Vancouver Canucks in free agency three years ago, Hughes, the best defenceman in franchise history, has continued to improve and grow more dominant regardless of the turnstyle spinning defencemen on to his right side.
In the Canucks’ 5-2 pre-season victory over the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena, the partner-of-the-day was Cole McWard, an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State University who has caught the eye of the Vancouver coaching staff partly because he can skate and shoots right.
It helps McWard that the Canucks would rather deploy Filip Hronek, their ace righty, on a different pairing than their ace lefty so that either Hronek or Hughes is on the ice for most of the game.
But this was actually the second time in two National Hockey League exhibition games against the Oilers that McWard got the prized deployment beside Hughes, so the 22-year-old from St. Louis should not be dismissed. Still, any teammate in Hughes’ orbit would have looked good on Saturday as the Canucks’ new captain skated circles around the Oilers — and we mean that literally in some cases — while asserting himself offensively.
A 76-point scorer last season when he finished ninth in Norris Trophy balloting, Hughes scored twice by accelerating past opponents, assisted on Andrei Kuzmenko’s power-play goal and registered eight shots on net, which would have been a career-high were it not a pre-season game.
“I think I’m smoother,” the 23-year-old told reporters of his off-season upgrades. “I can, like, accelerate with the puck and where I want to shoot it, and get to my point a little quicker. It’s something I’ve worked on for two summers, but I’m starting to feel really comfortable with it now.
“This is probably the most confident I feel in my abilities on the blue line for sure. For me, it’s always just defending hard and doing what I need to do for the team, and then I think I’m going to get my looks this year for sure.”
After a quiet opening week of the pre-season when the Canucks went 0-2-1, scored only two goals and generally lacked any inspired individual performances, there was a lot to like about their fourth of six pre-season games.
They dominated the final two periods after getting outshot 14-5 in the first, when the Oilers had the only two power plays. They got goals from players they need to score — Hughes, Kuzmenko and Elias Pettersson — finished 2-for-6 on coach Rick Tocchet’s new power play, killed off all four penalties the Canucks took, and got a 24-save performance from starting goalie Thatcher Demko.
All of which made them feel good, and none of which will matter on Oct. 11 when the Oilers, we suspect, decide to actually bring Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with them when they travel to Vancouver for the teams’ regular season opener.
“If we’re who we think we are, we’ve got to win these games,” Hughes said. “But my immaturity a couple of years ago, I would have said: ‘Yeah, this is great.’ But I know that they have the two best players in the world and they weren’t playing tonight. So they were a much different team. We’ve got to do it in Games 1 and 2 when it really matters.”
COULD McWARD REALLY START WITH HUGHES?
It wasn’t a great night for McWard, who did finish plus-two but with an expected goals-for of 39.6 per cent. McWard’s shots-for percentage was 61.9 in 11:52 of five-on-five ice time with Hughes and just 14.3 per cent in the 4:16 he logged without him. The rookie also took three minor penalties.
“Talking to Footer (assistant coach Adam Foote) it’s just details like down-low battles and moving my feet a little bit more, staying on a guy’s hip instead of getting my arms wrapped around him,” McWard said of his six minutes in penalties. “I was a little frustrated with a couple of the calls but at the same time, when you’ve got three on your back, you know you’re doing something wrong. So I’m trying to clean that up and not have that be a part of my game.”
On playing with Hughes, he said: “Honestly, it’s the best opportunity I could have asked for. He’s a world-class player and he’s helping me a ton out there and he’s pretty easy to play with. He’s an even better leader off the ice — just taking care of me and trying to help me out, give me the best opportunity to do good out there.”
It’s difficult to envision an opening-night lineup that includes McWard instead of, say, experienced minor-league graduate Guillaume Brisebois, who is subject to waivers and was not part of Tocchet’s close-to-full-strength lineup on Saturday.
If not Hronek, who seems to have natural chemistry with newcomer Ian Cole on a second pairing, then it seems Carson Soucy would be the logical partner for Hughes. Although he shoots left, Soucy did play a season in Seattle on the right side of Mark Giordano, and has plenty of experience partnering skilled defencemen.
“He’s obviously given us some options,” Tocchet said of McWard, who got five games in the NHL at the end of last season as an incentive for leaving school to sign with the Canucks as a free agent. “He’s young, but he’s not 19. A mature guy. I don’t know if he’s going to make the team or not, but there’s guys that have come out of college at 22 and have done well in the NHL. Maybe he can be that guy. But it is nice that he can sling that puck (on his forehand) to Hughsie a lot.”
That’s a good strategy, too, for McWard.
Winger Brock Boeser was finding teammates with passes all night and finished with four assists, and linemate J.T. Miller posted an expected-goals share of 96 per cent. But the guy who really stood out on their line was left winger Phil Di Giuseppe, who had a goal and two assists and has all but guaranteed himself a prime spot on opening night after starting training camp as a fourth-line bubble player.
“I mean, he’s north-south, goes the net, low-maintenance guy, big guy,” Tocchet summarized. “How can you not love a guy like that. I know he’s 29 years old, but I’ve seen a lot of guys start to play well at 29 and then continue to play. I like him a lot, love him a lot. He’s just a pleasure to coach.”
The Canucks play the Kraken Wednesday in Abbotsford, B.C., in their minor-league rink, before concluding their pre-season with a home game Friday against the Calgary Flames.