Can Quinn Hughes excel on the right side?
It was one of the biggest question marks heading into Vancouver Canucks training camp, but the answer may be irrelevant.
The more pressing question is, can loading up one defence pair offset the disaster it creates on the second pairing?
It’s no secret the Canucks are in need of a top-four defenceman or two on the right side. It’s why the left-shooting Hughes volunteered to move to his off-side this summer.
Hughes has been paired with Oliver Ekman-Larsson throughout the first week of training camp, so it appears that Bruce Boudreau is going to give that pairing a look in preseason. Both players sat out on Sunday but should see game action together soon.
If there’s a player that should be able to excel at playing his off-side, it’s Hughes, who is one of the best skating and puck-handling defencemen in the NHL. And pairing him with Ekman-Larsson gives the Canucks a bonafide top pairing.
But what will it do to pairing No. 2?
Ekman-Larsson found surprise success with Tyler Myers as a matchup pairing last season, leaving Hughes to play with Luke Schenn — which also turned out better than expected.
Given Canucks GM Patrik Allvin was unable to improve his defence in any meaningful way this offseason, Boudreau has two options: try to stay afloat by keeping the status quo, or rearrange the deck chairs.
But the hole this creates in their middle pairing threatens to sink the ship.
By elevating Hughes to the first pair, it drops Myers to the second pair and Schenn to pairing No. 3 — unquestionably better spots for both right-shot blueliners.
But the move also necessitates elevating a left-shot defenceman into the Canucks’ top four. That begs the question then, who is ready to step up?
Is it Travis Dermott, who was injured at Tuesday’s practice? Dermott turns 26 in December and is unproven as a top-four defenceman, as he averaged under 16 minutes of ice time in the last four seasons, cumulatively.
Is it Jack Rathbone, who has just 17 games of NHL experience?
Or is it Danny DeKeyser, the former Detroit Red Wings defenceman on a PTO who began camp paired with Myers? The 32-year-old has a lengthy resume, but is he still a top-four defenceman at this stage of his career? Underlying metrics from recent seasons suggest he is not.
Whoever steps into the top-four spot on the left side will be playing with Myers, a blueliner that isn’t exactly known for being a stabilizing force.
If Ekman-Larsson and Hughes can be so exceptional on a top pair, playing close to 30 minutes a night, then perhaps the experiment will be worth it.
But make no mistake, it essentially leaves the Canucks with two third pairings, which is a terrifying thought on the road, when opposing coaches with last change can get their top lines to feast on them.
It’s early, so if there was ever a time for experimentation, it’s right now.
But the problem for the Canucks is they don’t have much room for error. It’s why players have repeatedly spoken about the need for a good start to the season.
The Canucks are better on paper than they were last season, but they’re still not a favourite to make the playoffs. Their defence will probably need to be the best version of itself to make the postseason.