Canucks excited for what Hronek will bring to potential Hughes pairing

Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet gives the latest on two injured defencemen, saying that Filip Hronek is a 'good possibility' to suit up against the Sharks and that Oliver Ekman-Larsson is on track for a great 2023-24 season.

VANCOUVER — The first thing Adam Foote noticed about Filip Hronek were his hands. Foote knew the defenceman could skate and was competitive, but it was the hands.

“Hronek comes out in practice the first day and I was chuckling,” Foote, the assistant coach in charge of Vancouver Canuck defencemen, said after Wednesday’s practice. “I knew his compete (level), but when I saw him with his hands always in front of him and how smooth he was with the puck … I loved it because the other D are, like, looking at him. 

“I think he’s going to bring that element of making big plays. And he competes and he’s fast and he’s smart. I think he’s a big piece for us.”

He better be after Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin sent a mid-first-round pick and early-second to the Detroit Red Wings three weeks ago for the 25-year-old, right-shot, top-four defenceman.

Injured the night before the trade, Hronek is expected to make his Canucks debut Thursday at home against the San Jose Sharks. And he could start on a super-pairing with star blue-liner Quinn Hughes, who has lacked a legitimate top-pairing partner since Chris Tanev was allowed to leave Vancouver in free agency three years ago.

“Of course, every time you get hurt, it’s frustrating and especially (I get) traded here and I couldn’t do much,” Hronek told reporters on Tuesday during the most loquacious moment of his media availability. “So, that was the biggest thing, I think.”

Whether it happens Thursday or next week or next season, it seems appropriate that Hughes and Hronek should be paired together. Hronek is an ultra-competitive Czech who, according to Foote, has more offensive skill than people realize, while Hughes is a skating and puck-handling wizard who defends better than people think and has blown away his new coaches with his competitiveness.

“I think we’ll probably put the two together for a little bit because we have injuries,” Foote said Wednesday. “But we’ll see. We’re talking about it. We may have to spread them out, too. It should be interesting to see how they play. I’m going to have fun working with them.”

Hughes is having a season worthy of at least some Norris Trophy discussion, except the Canucks are trying to clean up another disastrous campaign that led to January’s coaching change and the hiring of Rick Tocchet. And, of course, there is also what seems to be a deeply rooted narrative that the five-foot-10 Hughes can’t defend and is one dimensional — a falsehood that rankles both the player and his head coach.

With 62 assists and 67 points in 66 games, Hughes is the first NHL defenceman to register consecutive 60-assist seasons since Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey did it 30 years ago. On a Canuck team that has been outscored by 19 goals at even strength, Hughes is also plus-16 and has positive possession metrics while averaging 25:27 of ice time.

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“I’m proud that I’m plus and I’m playing a lot of minutes and defensively I’ve been trusted against the top lines,” Hughes said Tuesday. “Anyone that says I’m a defensive liability, frankly, doesn’t watch me play at this point.”

Tocchet said after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights that Hughes absolutely does defend, doing so with his skating and intelligence.

Foote went even further on Wednesday by saying the 23-year-old is a complete package.

“He’s a great defender and he’s got good instincts, but the biggest thing I love is that he competes,” Foote said. “He wants to win so bad. He’s like Ray Bourque; he wants to be out there (every shift). He just wants to go.

“I knew he was something … but I didn’t know he had a complete package. He absorbs information. I think he’s a great leader, too. He’s just fun to be around. He’s fun to coach.”

Winning is always more fun, and the Canucks are 13-9-2 since Tocchet replaced Bruce Boudreau and brought Foote with him. Far more impressive than the record is the transformation in style, the establishment of some defensive structure and accountability and what Tocchet calls his “non-negotiables.”

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Inheriting a team that was 31st in the NHL in team defence, Tocchet has lifted the Canucks to mid-pack by averaging 3.25 goals against. But shots against have fallen to 28.3 per game from 32.2, and all of the Canucks’ defensive numbers have been suppressed by a team save percentage of 88.51, which ranks 28th despite the return to form (and health) this month of starter Thatcher Demko.

Foote has had a key role in the defensive revolution, connecting with his defencemen and constantly teaching bits of tradecraft learned over a 19-year playing career that saw him win a pair of Stanley Cups with the Colorado Avalanche.

Although he has coached youth hockey and worked in skills development since his retirement in 2011, the 51-year-old had never been behind an NHL bench before Tocchet recruited him. Foote’s most prominent coaching stop was a disappointing 2019-20 season running the Kelowna Rockets, for whom his son, Nolan, was the Western Hockey League team’s captain.

“I’ll be honest, sometimes you have to take a leap of faith,” Tocchet, who coached Foote as an assistant in Colorado 20 years ago, explained of his choice. “But I just think the character and the way he played the game and just being in contact, his hockey IQ and his work ethic — he fits the bill. The defence love him. He’s a very calming influence.”

Canuck defenceman Christian Wolanin said what sets Tocchet and Foote apart from some other “experiences” he has had is that both understand the game has changed since they played. They aren’t trying to build their coaching relationships based on what they did as players.

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“Their ability to adapt, it shows,” Wolanin said. “They’re taking what I am and trying to add traits that’ll make me harder to play against. I don’t think (Foote) has told one thing where I’ve gone, ‘Oh, that’s not true.’”

“All guys are different,” Foote explained. “A guy like Scotty Bowman was so good because he knew what each player was and he put that player in place to help the team win. It didn’t matter to him if the guy was from Mars, he placed the player to have success within the team.

“I believe in what we’re teaching. It’s all so simple — like recoveries through the dots. Not enough guys have been coached about managing the ice and coming through the dots, knowing where to go when the puck leaves your area. We’re not as spread out, more connected. I think it’s helping.”

Foote said this is the most fun he has had in hockey since he stopped playing, but the workload of being an NHL assistant coach was an eye-opener.

“I was so tired the first two weeks; my brain wasn’t used to it,” he laughed. “I think I did more presentations than I did in high school. But I love it. It doesn’t seem like work to me. It’s fun to be back. I just make sure I do my laundry early (in the day) because something could come up.”

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