Warren Foegele had two goals and a career-high five points, Leon Draisaitl scored for the third straight game and the Edmonton Oilers routed the Anaheim Ducks 7-2 on Sunday to extend their winning streak to five.
VANCOUVER – In the 11 months since Rick Tocchet became head coach, the Vancouver Canucks have undergone a massive transformation on defence. They also have a bunch of new defencemen.
With Carson Soucy fully practising again Saturday and ready to return after missing seven weeks due to a cracked bone in his lower leg, the Canucks will soon ice one of the biggest blue lines in the National Hockey League. And this is even with their average size brought down by five-foot-10 Norris Trophy candidate Quinn Hughes.
Hughes and Tyler Myers are the only Vancouver defencemen who remain from the National Hockey League team Tocchet inherited last January.
General manager Patrik Allvin traded for defenceman Filip Hronek last March, signed unrestricted free agents Soucy and Ian Cole on July 1, and a month ago acquired six-foot-six Nikita Zadorov from the Calgary Flames.
It is not by accident that the Canucks have beefed up the blue line under Tocchet, who after a 4-3 loss to Vegas near the end of last season lauded the Golden Knights’ defence as the best in the NHL and a template for other teams.
“A big defence that can move the puck, and then jump up in the play,” Tocchet said last March. “I think the reason why (Vegas is) so good is their defence.”
And then as if to prove Tocchet’s point, the Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup with a defence that averaged six-foot-three and 216 pounds and further advanced the bigger-is-better blue-line movement that helped drive the Tampa Bay Lightning to two championships and three finals.
“History has shown, especially recent history, that having big guys on the back end seems to be a common denominator,” Myers, who is listed at six-foot-eight and 229 pounds, said after a second straight high-intensity practice at Rogers Arena. “But they’re also mobile and can make passes. It’s a matter of playing within our system, but I really like what we have on our D-corps right now and the size that we bring.
“I really like our size. I feel like our corps is hard to play against in that sense. But we also bring a lot of skill, especially with Huggy and Hronek. I think it’s a really good balance that we have going right now.”
The Canucks’ bottom four on defence – Myers, Cole, Zadorov and Soucy – are an imposing six-foot-five and 228 pounds on average, according to the NHL’s official (nudge, wink) roster listings.
“Hrones and I are probably about the same size and after that, it’s just monsters,” depth defenceman Noah Juulsen said Saturday.
Given the chance to play while Soucy was out, Juulsen, six-foot-one and 201 pounds, has actually been Vancouver’s most physical defenceman, averaging 10 hits per 60 minutes of ice time. Recalled from the minors one month after Tocchet replaced Bruce Boudreau last season, Juulsen has proven over a small sample to be an NHL defenceman, and will likely be the Canucks’ seventh D-man when Soucy returns.
Factoring in the elite and dynamic top pairing of Hughes (5-10, 180) and Hronek (6-0, 190) the Canucks’ six-man defence will average six-foot-three and 213 pounds — remarkably close to the Golden Knights’ championship blue line in size.
Size, of course, is irrelevant if it can’t play. Actually, it’s detrimental when that’s the case. But the big bodies on Vancouver’s defence can all skate and make an outlet pass.
The Canucks are third in the NHL with 2.56 goals-against per game. And while a lot of that is due to the top-five goaltending of Thatcher Demko and Casey DeSmith, the team ranks 11th in shot-attempts-against per game at five-on-five, ninth in shots allowed and 11th in scoring chances surrendered. And Vancouver’s offence leads the league, scoring 3.78 times per game.
In an informal conversation with reporters after a recent practice, Tocchet indicated the Canucks fare even better within their own analytics data due to how they have prioritized protecting the front of its net and limiting cross-ice passes for the opposition.
In any case, a team that one year ago was inarguably one of the worst in the NHL defensively is now in the top third — and backed by elite goaltending.
“The narrative at the beginning of the season was, like, “Well, this team’s not very good and their defence is really thin,’” Cole said. “But I never thought that. I thought we had a really great group, and then we added Z (Zadorov), who’s been a good player for us. I think we have one of the stronger groups in the NHL in terms of just our ability to defend and also create a little bit offensively.
“I think it’s a really well-rounded, really solid group. Anytime you put good NHL hockey players together, six or seven or eight of us, and you also have good people and good personalities that can mesh in the right culture, and the right coaching staff, all of that goes into the recipe and you have every opportunity. . . to become a really good group.
“In Pittsburgh when we won our second Cup (in 2017), Kris Letang didn’t play the second half of the year or the playoffs. We just had six really good NHL defencemen. We all just played a strong, really solid game and we won a Stanley Cup. So the thought that we need, you know, three or four All-Star defencemen, that’s not the case. We need to play really tight and really well within our system, and we need to rely on our forwards to help us, and we need to help them by getting the puck out of our end quickly. All these things feed off each other.”
Of the literal and figurative growth on the Canucks’ defence, Soucy said: “I think it’s just good players. We’ve brought in some guys that have pretty good experience — and in bigger roles and smaller roles. And I think we just have a good mix of guys who can bring it offensively. . . coming from the bottom four, not always just Huggy and Fil. And then obviously those guys are just elite when they get going.”
Reminded Saturday of his comments from last spring about the Vegas defence, Tocchet said: “I mean, we’ve got some long defenceman. When Soucy gets back in the lineup, you look at our D and it’s very long and big. When you play a team in a seven-game kind of series, those are the teams that are hard to play against. So we’re trying to create that. But. . . you’ve still got to make plays, you’ve still got to protect the middle of the ice and stuff like that. We’re still not there yet, but we’re getting there.”
With Sunday off and another practice on Monday, the Canucks open their 2024 schedule Tuesday at home against the Ottawa Senators. If Soucy doesn’t play then, he’ll certainly return to the lineup during a seven-game road marathon that begins Thursday in St Louis.
“We all kind of like, you know, when there’s big defencemen that can skate,” Tocchet said. “I mean, if you can get those guys, get them. They’re hard to find, so it’s good that we have a bunch of those guys.”