VICTORIA – Who knows who tomorrow brings for Quinn Hughes?
And Saturday, when the Canucks hold their only scrimmage of camp, who among the other 19 defencemen on Vancouver Island will partner Hughes?
“They all want to, I know that,” head coach Rick Tocchet said Friday. “I don’t know, to be honest here. But it’s a situation where, especially early, if you want to try things, do it now. But I’m not going to experiment for three weeks. We’ve got to make sure we get someone there.”
Hughes, the dynamic defenceman and newly-anointed captain who had 76 points in 78 games last season, has not had an everyday, “permanent” defence partner since the Canucks allowed Chris Tanev to leave in free agency three years ago after Hughes’ rookie season.
Hughes’ most frequent partner last season, Luke Schenn, was traded by the Canucks in February as a deadline rental and later signed in free agency with the Nashville Predators.
So the auditions continue to the right side of the most talented defenceman in Canucks history.
But Soucy’s turn on Friday didn’t look like an “experiment.”
The Canucks used their summer spending money to buy Soucy and Ian Cole in free agency – both left-shot defencemen expected to bolster the middle of a blue line that has been largely rebuilt by general manager Patrik Allvin since the start of last season.
Soucy profiles as a robust, physical, stay-at-home defenceman like Schenn, and the new Canuck spent his two seasons with the Seattle Kraken as a partner to offensively-inclined blue-liners Mark Giordano and Justin Schultz. And with Giordano, two years ago, Soucy played the right side.
“I think it would be pretty similar,” Soucy said. “I think it’s just understanding that when they have the opportunity (to join the rush), let them do it. I think we got caught one time today where I was just a little too much up ice instead of just kind of hanging back. It’s just understanding that that is what Quinn’s obviously really good at. And I’ve got to play to my strengths.”
Tocchet re-iterated his preference for natural lefty-righty defence pairings. But the only right-shot defencemen capable of matching Hughes’ workload is Filip Hronek, and the Canucks’ would rather Hughes and Hronek play on different pairings so that one or the other is on the ice for most of the game.
The coach floated the idea that playing with Hughes could be a job-share, with two players splitting time beside him while Vancouver’s No. 1 defencemen logs 23-24 minutes a night.
“The right side has it’s challenges,” Soucy conceded. “It’s almost easier sometimes in games. In practice, you just start drills differently. In games, you kind of make those reads just as the game goes on. Playing with Hughsie, it’s just knowing he can do a lot of it himself with the puck. I just kind of give him the space to do it, and I’m also just kind of protecting him when he jumps up.
“I think if we did get to play with each other, it definitely would be a little bit of an adjustment. But I think that would come pretty easy just with how good he is and how much he can do with the puck himself.
“He’s so dynamic, so smart with the puck. And I think he’s better at defence than people will give him credit for. He closes well, and he’s got a good stick. You might think you have space but he’s also right there. He might not be physical, but he’ll still close with his stick and with the skating. And then obviously with the puck he is one of the best in the league.”
Who wouldn’t want to play with a guy like that?
PROJECTING: If Tocchet leaves Soucy and Hughes together for Saturday’s scrimmage and carries the pairing into next week, it’s not hard based on training-camp pairings to project what the defence might look like for the Oct. 11 season-opener. Hronek has been skating on the right side with Cole, which would be the second pairing, while Guillaume Brisebois has spent the first two days of camp on the left side of Tyler Myers, which would be the third pair. But check back with us on Oct. 10.
PODKOLZIN 2.0: The re-establishment of Vasily Podkolzin as an NHL player continues.
After a two-month banishment to the American Hockey League last season for remedial work, the 2019 first-round pick who scored 14 goals as an NHL rookie two years ago, has looked good on left wing in a prime spot beside centre J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser.
“Great linemates, great players,” Podkolzin said Friday. “I was so happy when they send us the lineup. I feel more confident after that.”
Asked for his biggest takeaway from last season, the 22-year-old said: “Just don’t worry about (what is) outside the hockey team, and try to be confident everywhere. Just be a little easier to yourself and be responsible and be confident. Hockey is funny game. I want to be happy when I play.”
Goal-less in his first 16 games last season, Podkolzin was sent to the minors in November by former coach Bruce Boudreau. Coached in the AHL by Jeremy Colliton and the Abbotsford Canucks staff, and counselled by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the Russian returned to the Canucks in February soon after Tocchet replaced Boudreau.
Both coaches noticed that Podkolzin needs to play instinctively, and that when he overthinks the game he becomes hesitant and loses his impact as a power forward.
“He’s a great kid,” Tocchet said Friday. “He takes everything literally, though. You tell him something and that’s all he thinks about. When he thinks too much, I think he gets into trouble. So that’s on me to get him to relax. But I’ve liked him so far. He’s just a pleasure to coach. Terrific kid. He worked his ass off this summer. Now it’s just (about getting him) to relax.”
Podkolzin said Miller and Boeser have been encouraging him.
Also a big, first-round pick who went backwards in his second NHL season with a stint in the minors, Miller understands what Podkolzin is going through.
“He’s had to do a lot more in the sense he’s learning English, his learning and understanding,” Miller told reporters on Thursday. “He’s still so young. He seems like a mature player for his age, which is awesome.”
“It’s definitely a big season for me,” Podkolzin said. “But I don’t feel any, like, extra pressure. I just want to play hockey. It has been a long summer, four or five months without hockey. I just want to be my best version right now. I had great work in the summer in the gym and on the ice. I can’t wait to play my first game.”
IF YOU’RE NOT EARLY, YOU’RE LATE: Know who else can’t wait? The Canucks’ roster.
It is rare to see players circling fresh ice ready to practise but entirely without coaches. But it happened after both mid-session floods on Friday: players returned to the ice eager to go, but had to wait for the coaching staff to show up.
“I want to kind of see who’s out there,” Tocchet explained. “I do that on purpose to see who’s out there, and the whole team is out there.”
MIKHEYEV UPDATE: Tocchet said there was a chance that winger Ilya Mikheyev, who left training camp before the first session on Thursday due to a personal matter, could re-join the Canucks on Saturday. But he won’t participate in the intra-camp scrimmage, Tocchet said. Mikheyev hasn’t played since January after undergoing ACL surgery, but was expected to participate in training camp in a non-contact jersey.