Canucks head coach Travis Green and defence coach Nolan Baumgartner like to play defencemen on their strong sides. That’s fairly common league-wide: left-handed defencemen play on the left and right-handed defencemen play on the right.
It’s a preference that’s borne out by results: defensive pairings with both a left and right-handed defenceman perform better, in general, than pairings with two left or two right-handed defencemen.
That can become a problem when you don’t have enough good right-handed defencemen. 127 right-handed defencemen played at least one game in the NHL this season, compared to 195 left-handed defencemen. There just aren’t enough right-handed defencemen around.
The Canucks are well aware of that. They have a dearth of right-side defencemen, something they’ve tried to address at the draft (Jett Woo), via trade (Luke Schenn), and through undrafted free agents (Mitch Elliot, Brogan Rafferty). What they really need, however, is a top-pairing right-side defenceman to take over from Chris Tanev, as age and injuries have caught up to the once-dominant defensive defenceman.
Finding a high-end right-side defenceman won’t be easy. Teams are loath to let them go when they find one, so they can be pricey to acquire via trade and even more expensive if they hit free agency, with multiple teams bidding for their services. Acquiring a top-pairing right-side defenceman could be the toughest test faced by the Canucks’ current management group.
Unless the Canucks have already got one.
Amidst all the fuss over whether or not Quinn Hughes would play on the first power play unit, less attention was paid to a different experiment explored by the Canucks on Tuesday night. The Canucks’ top prospect spent most of the game on the left side with Luke Schenn as his defence partner, but for a decent chunk of his ice time, Hughes actually played on the right alongside Alex Edler.
“We talked to Quinn when he got here about his thoughts of playing on the right side,” said Green after the game. “I thought if he could play the right, it’s going to give him a chance to play in different spots, with different partners. We tried him with Eddy a few times.”
All told, Hughes played 4:34 with Edler at 5-on-5, as well as a brief stint on the power play. Allowing for the extreme smallness of the sample size as well as that they were deployed primarily in the offensive zone, the results were very positive. The Canucks out-attempted the Sharks 8-1 with Hughes and Edler together at 5-on-5 and scoring chances were 4-0 for the Canucks.
The true test will come when Hughes plays more significant minutes on the right side with tougher deployment.
When Hughes was drafted, he made it clear the he felt he could play both sides equally well.
“I feel just as comfortable on the right as I do on the left,” said Hughes. “There’s positives and negatives to both. If I’m a rightie on the blue line, I can just walk in on my forehand. if I’m a leftie, I have to skate over. I don’t know if I explained that the best, but trust me, there’s positives and negatives to both.”
The challenges a defenceman faces on his off side are significant and have an impact on every aspect of the game. It results in a defenceman having to take a puck off the boards on their backhand both in the defensive zone and offensive zone, as well as taking D-to-D passes on the backhand more often, which is a little more difficult than on the forehand.
It can also be more difficult to defend the rush on the off side. Defencemen are forced to use just one hand on their stick to keep opposing forwards to the outside, which results in less control and strength on the stick. Defencemen used to playing their strong side can also have skating issues when played on their off side, as they learn to pivot and turn certain ways that become problematic on the opposite side.
On the other hand, there are positives, particularly in the offensive zone, as mentioned by Hughes. Playing on the off side can make it easier to step up in the offensive zone for scoring chances, as it’s easier to get a shot away from your off side rather than shooting across your body on your strong side. It also opens up more opportunities for one-timers.
Hughes has the skill to handle the puck on his backhand, the skating to close gaps and pivot cleanly, and the hockey sense to make the right reads no matter what side he plays. It just might work. That said, Hughes rarely played on the right side in college, so there’s little evidence to go on that he can handle the role.
Canucks fans have a great example of how a left-handed defenceman can have a positive impact on the right side. Back in 2010-11, the left-shooting Christian Ehrhoff was primarily paired with Edler on the top pairing and the duo was dominant. Ehrhoff put up 14 goals and 50 points, including 28 points on the power play, where he also played his off side with Edler.
At the very least, Ehrhoff shows how a defenceman on his off side can play on a top pairing and excel.
“I don’t really know Vancouver’s defencemen that well,” Hughes added at the draft. “If they have a lot of righties, then I’ll probably be playing left and if they have a lot of lefties, maybe I’ll be playing right.”
The Canucks don’t have a lot of “righties.” Troy Stecher is their best right-side defenceman, but is better suited to the second pairing. Tanev needs fewer minutes. Schenn and Alex Biega make more sense as sixth or seventh defencemen. There is a distinct need for someone to play big minutes on the right side.
Meanwhile, the Canucks have a surfeit of left-side defencemen. There’s the likely-to-re-sign Alex Edler, the resurgent Ben Hutton, and prospect Olli Juolevi, as well as decent depth options in Ashton Sautner, Josh Teves, and Guillaume Brisebois.
If Hughes can find a place on the right, the Canucks defence could look a little something like this next season:
That doesn’t seem too bad. It might almost be good.