It’s not because Hughes is five-foot-10 that he’s not a huge wild card, it’s because he was arguably Vancouver’s best defencemen in the five National Hockey League games he played at the end of this season after leaving the University of Michigan.
The 19-year-old had three assists and drove possession (55-per cent Corsi-close) with twice as many controlled zone exits as any other Vancouver blueliner.
Perhaps he should actually, you know, play next season before anyone gives him the Calder Trophy. But no one is worried about Hughes, who should favourably impact Vancouver’s defence more than anyone else they acquire between now and training camp.
Edler was the Canucks’s top defenceman this season but is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1. Offensively, the 33-year-old’s 0.61 points-per-game were his best since 2011 and in the 56 games Edler played, the Canucks were nominally a playoff team. They went 7-14-5 during his two injuries. There is a serious issue about Edler’s durability, but not his importance to the club.
He flexed his no-trade clause at the deadline because he doesn’t want to play anywhere else, and both player and team are optimistic the sides will agree on a two- or three-year extension before July 1. If they don’t and Edler leaves, it will create a new crater in the Canuck landscape.
Edler has played 814 NHL games. Juolevi hasn’t played any, but the 21-year-old is the other great uncertainty for next season.
The fifth-overall pick from the 2016 draft, Juolevi has been eclipsed early on by later defence picks Mikhail Sergachev, Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Chychrun. But Juolevi made progress last season in Finland and was doing so again this past fall in the American Hockey League until he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November that included a torn meniscus and major surgery.
Juolevi was supposed to be elevated to the Canucks during the second half of this season and certainly would have been, considering Vancouver’s injuries. Ideally, this would have prepped him to become an NHL regular in 2019-20.
Instead, he remains the great unknown. If Juolevi is healthy and ready for NHL duty, his arrival with Hughes would alleviate some of the concern about the future of the defence in Vancouver.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning will be looking to add an impactful defenceman in free agency regardless of Juolevi’s recovery. But if Hughes and Juolevi are both on the roster in October — and Edler re-signs — one additional defenceman may be all Benning needs.
Chris Tanev, who finished another season on the injured list and has missed 96 games the last three years, will return in a shutdown role. The 29-year-old will be in the final season of his contract, and Benning could trade Tanev if he stays healthy enough for his market value to come out of recession.
Ben Hutton, 26, and Troy Stecher, 25, developed into more dependable NHLers this season after struggling for consistency. If Juolevi is ready, it will put more pressure on Hutton on the left side. But Stecher, a smart puck-mover who helps drive possession, looks like a long-term fit on the right side.
Depth defencemen Alex Biega and Luke Schenn, assuming the latter is re-signed after an impressive 18 games with the Canucks following a last-chance trade from the Anaheim Ducks, are excellent role models who can be plugged into the top six when there are injuries.
With Edler and Tanev, there almost certainly will be. Stir in the uncertainty over Juolevi and you can understand why Benning is determined to add a 20-minute-a-night defenceman in free agency or trade.
“Maybe we have to look at the trade market to acquire someone like that,” Benning said. “I’m not just looking at free agency, I want to keep the trade avenue open, too. I’ve started talking to other teams now, and as we get closer to the draft we’ll see what the marketplace looks like and what we can get figured out.”
Benning must be careful. He has fulfilled former GM Brian Burke’s prophecy by making his biggest mistake on July 1 (See: Eriksson, Loui, 2016). And despite the $26 million in cap space currently available, the Canucks must save room for restricted free agent Brock Boeser’s new deal and project potential franchise-record contracts for Hughes and Elias Pettersson after their entry-level deals expire in two years.
This is why it’s unaffordable, and probably downright foolish, for the Canucks to chase a defenceman like Erik Karlsson in free agency. But there are a few defencemen in a second, still-expensive, tier that could help the Canucks.
The best of these are Jake Gardiner, 28, and Tyler Myers, 29. Both are probably going to get overpaid, compensated in another thin free-agent class like No. 1 or No. 2 defencemen, even though they’re second-pairing guys. They’re also still young enough to command long-term deals, but how long is Benning willing to go?
A lot of teams liked checking centre Jay Beagle last summer, but only the Canucks were willing to give the 33-year-old a four-year deal.
The Canucks may have a better chance at landing Myers, who is less offensive (read: cheaper) than Gardiner, grew up in Calgary and played junior hockey in Kelowna, where he met his wife. Myers also plays the right side, where the Canucks are more needy. Both Hughes and Juolevi are lefties.
After Myers and Gardiner, Anton Stralman and Ben Chiarot are among the other options. The quality of unrestricted free-agent defencemen plummets quickly beyond the first handful, which is why Benning may have to find one in a trade.
Canucks minor-league prospects Ashton Sautner, 25, and Guillaume Brisebois, 21, got auditions near the end of the season but neither looked ready to be an NHL regular, while Derrick Pouliot, 25, played his way off the team after two inconsistent seasons.
College free agent Brogan Rafferty, 23, was impressive in one of his two cameos at the end of the season after leaving Quinnipiac University, and may eventually play on Vancouver’s blue-line.