VANCOUVER — When hockey teams claim to have two starting goalies, it usually means they have none.
A tandem of 1A and 1B is profoundly less common than 2A and 2B because if you have a true starting goalie, there is no need for the lettering. Or even the discussion.
When Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet said Monday that he doesn’t envision a single, regular partner for ace defenceman Quinn Hughes this season but a committee of capable “relievers” who can interchange and skate with the best blue-liner in franchise history, it sounded a little like the old boast about two starting goaltenders.
If the Canucks had the ideal right-shot partner for Hughes, something they’ve needed under two management regimes over the three years since Chris Tanev left Vancouver in free agency, that player would be skating beside Hughes every day getting ready for the National Hockey League season.
But Tuesday, as it has been for a week, 22-year-old rookie Cole McWard — an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State University — was on Hughes’ right side when the Canucks practised at the University of British Columbia.
What McWard has shown is potential. He is athletic, skates well, moves the puck and, critically, carries his hockey stick with his right hand low.
Coaxed out of college last spring by the Canucks and director of player personnel Scott Young, McWard appears to be a great get for the organization — a legitimate NHL prospect who chose Vancouver ahead of other teams.
But his entire professional resume is the five games the Canucks gave him at the end of last season, a prospects tournament in Penticton, B.C., last month and the two weeks since the team opened training camp in Victoria on Sept. 21.
And yet here is McWard, skating with Hughes and one of just 25 players still on the Canucks roster with two pre-season games remaining: Wednesday versus the Seattle Kraken and Friday against the Calgary Flames.
Tanev became one of the best shutdown defencemen in the NHL — and Hughes’ rookie-season partner and mentor — after the Canucks signed him as a 20-year-old undrafted free agent out of college in 2010. But Tanev started his career in the American Hockey League and spent about half of each of his first three seasons in the minors.
Of course, Tanev was trying to crack a Canucks lineup that was winning Presidents’ Trophies and went to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. McWard is trying to make a team that has missed the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons.
He is getting an opportunity to play with Hughes because the Canucks lack an ideal candidate. Actually, Filip Hronek would be perfect on the right side of the top pairing — except for the overall imperfection of a roster that has led Tocchet to rightly conclude it is wiser to deploy his two best blue liners on different pairings.
And so Hughes is left with a bullpen of relievers that, depending on game situations and individual form, will see him partner with a variety of teammates.
“I don’t think we’re going to have true partners the whole year, so we might as well get used to playing with different guys,” Tocchet said Monday. “We’re built as a committee, and I like that.”
Do the players?
“I think we’ve got a lot of different guys that I can play with,” Hughes said Tuesday, citing the additions of Hronek, Carson Soucy and Ian Cole. “And so he is definitely right that we can do it by committee. And I know if there’s one coach that can spread us around, it’s Footer (assistant coach Adam Foote). I’m really looking forward to trying it out with everyone.
“But of course, the more you play with one guy, the more chemistry you’re going to get. Obviously, one (partner) would be best, but I’m lucky in the sense that we’ve got so many guys that I can play with and, like Toc said, we can spread it around.”
Soucy and Cole are both left-shot defencemen and there is a clear preference from Foote and Tocchet to go with lefty-righty combinations. The right-shot candidates — besides McWard and Hronek — are minor-leaguer Noah Juulsen and 33-year-old Tyler Myers, who seems better suited at this stage of his career to third-pairing-plus-PK minutes.
“There are tons of little, let’s call them micro situations, where you want to mix and match,” Cole said. “I think the most important part of that is everyone being on the same page — everyone knowing what their job is, what their role is, what their responsibility is on either side. It takes a little bit of a wider worldview in terms of your game. But I think being on the same page and having an understanding is key to having that work.”
But players like McWard, Juulsen and left-side defenceman Guillaume Brisebois haven’t played enough in the NHL to have a “worldview” at this level.
It’s harder for them to interchange on the ice than it is for players like Cole, who said he has spent about half his career playing on his off-side and last season in Tampa would frequently partner Erik Cernak, then swap sides late in games to play with Victor Hedman.
“Yeah, maybe,” Cole agreed of the experience advantage. “I have been in the league a long time. I’ve made tons of mistakes, countless mistakes on the ice. You try to learn from them or at least… figure out what works in certain situations and what doesn’t for you as a player. At this point, I have it pretty well down what works and what doesn’t.
“You mentioned a younger guy with less experience and he doesn’t quite have that playbook. But we have younger guys that are very smart. They’re very intellectual, very mature. So hopefully they can wade through those mistakes quickly and move forward.”
Connor McDavid will be at Rogers Arena next Wednesday to exploit whatever mistakes the Canucks make when Vancouver opens its regular season against the Edmonton Oilers.