By the end of the 2017-18 season, Troy Stecher was playing big minutes for the Vancouver Canucks. In back-to-back wins against Anaheim and Edmonton in March, he played 26 and 27 minutes. Over the final ten games of the season, he was averaging 22:36 in ice time per game, second only behind Alex Edler on the Canucks.
This season, however, it seems like Stecher is back at square one with Canucks head coach Travis Green. He’s averaging just over 17 minutes per game, lowest among Canucks defencemen aside from Alex Biega. While his most frequent defence partner last season was Edler, this season he’s been paired primarily with Derrick Pouliot and Michael Del Zotto on the third pairing.
Then, on November 24th against the Los Angeles Kings, Stecher was a healthy scratch.
“You’re never happy when you come out of the lineup, you’re pretty pissed off, doesn’t matter who you are,” said Stecher on Thursday. “You come back in, you definitely want to make a statement that you belong in the lineup.”
In the Canucks rematch with the Kings a few days later, Stecher got his chance. Erik Gudbranson suffered a minor neck injury during practice that took him out of the lineup and Stecher joined Ben Hutton on the second pairing. While the Canucks fell short in that game, Stecher and Hutton played well together.
“You can make statements different ways, depending on who you are as a player,” said Stecher. “It wasn’t like I was going to go out there and score two goals, or make a big hit or a fight, so I think it was just to be solid defensively, not give up chances, and try to continue to be a plus player for our team and make sure I’m trying to help us win.”
It’s been a tough season overall for Stecher, who has played limited minutes largely because he’s not used much on special teams. Some Canucks fans are eager to see Stecher get an opportunity with the top power play unit thanks to his right-hand shot at the point, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
Similarly, analytics suggest that Stecher is one of the Canucks’ best penalty killers, but he’s rarely been used in that role this season. Even with Gudbranson out of the lineup, Stecher played just under a minute on the penalty kill, while Del Zotto, Hutton, Edler, and Chris Tanev took the majority of the shorthanded minutes.
In fact, analytics are very kind to Stecher in all situations, as he’s one of the best Canucks defencemen at transitioning the puck up ice and defending the blue line.
Stecher also sees that as a strength of his game, particularly when he’s partnered with Hutton.
“I think we’re both smart defencemen,” he said. “We have good gaps in the neutral zone. We’re not overly big, we’re not going to knock guys over, but I think we try to make it difficult for teams to enter the zone with possession.”
Hutton, meanwhile, emphasized their ability to move the puck.
“I thought we played really well together, our breakouts were clean,” said Hutton. “We were just talking, communicating the whole time, made life easy on the back end.”
While it can be tough to quickly build chemistry with a new defence partner, particularly when that partnership might be temporary, it’s a little easier because Stecher and Hutton are good friends away from the rink.
“Me and Stech are pretty close off the ice and I feel like that can translate on the ice a bit, we’re pretty comfortable with each other,” said Hutton.
“Ben and I have a good relationship off the ice,” said Stecher, “I think it translated well on the ice. We talked after the game, just the two of us, and we thought that overall, as a group, we didn’t really have the first two periods that we wanted, but as a D pairing, we thought we were pretty solid.”
Hutton knows what Stecher is going through, as he went through a similar experience last season.
“It’s never an easy situation to get scratched or have limited ice time, it’s tough,” he said. “At the same time, I told Stechy, you know, I’ve been there. You just gotta come to the rink with your hard hat on and go to work, and eventually things will turn over and you’ll be back in the good books.”
According to Green, however, Stecher isn’t in his bad books at all.
“He doesn’t have to prove himself,” he said prior to Thursday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights. “Even when I pulled him out...it wasn’t because he was playing awful, we needed Biega’s energy.”
“Stech was just the guy that drew out that night,” he continued. “It’s not surprising that he went back in and played well. I mean, we’ve got eight defencemen and I don’t think I can sit here and say that all eight are guys that can never come out of the lineup. We’ve seen Hutton come out, Pouliot, Del Zotto, Stecher. It’s just one game, he’s back in now, it’s not a big deal.”
Understandably, it felt like a big deal to Stecher. When you’re in the league that you’ve dreamed of playing in for your entire life and working hard to reach your potential, sitting in the press box is the last thing you want.
“It’s kind of a tough subject to talk about,” said Stecher. “Nobody’s going to be happy when they’re out of the lineup. You look at [Hutton] this year, he’s come back, he’s worked extremely hard, I know all the guys are really proud of him. He’s playing some good hockey, so I don’t know why I can’t be that guy to turn the page after a healthy scratch and hopefully secure a spot in this lineup.”