Rejuvenated Schenn keeps rolling out the hits with Canucks

Vancouver Canucks' Luke Schenn (2) checks Dallas Stars' Marian Studenic (43), of Slovakia, during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 18, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER — Three thousand hits get you into the Hall of Fame in baseball, but Luke Schenn has no delusions about it doing the same for him in hockey.

Still, it is a remarkable milestone he approaches. Dumped into the minors four years ago by the Anaheim Ducks, Schenn looked to most like a 29-year-old, old-school dinosaur whose time in the National Hockey League was probably over.

But here he is in 2022 with two Stanley Cup rings from the Tampa Bay Lightning, playing perhaps the best hockey of his career with the Vancouver Canucks, averaging nearly 18 hard minutes a night as a steady partner for top defenceman Quinn Hughes, and still hitting people. Lots of people.

“We were on the bus last year in Chicago, pulling into the hotel from the airport, and I think it was Millsy (J.T. Miller) who asked how many career hits I had,” Schenn, 33, told Sportsnet Wednesday at Rogers Arena. “I said: ‘I’ve never even looked.’ So he looked it up and he’s like, ‘Maybe you can catch Orpik for defencemen.’ I kind of had a laugh and didn’t really think too much of it, but a couple of guys brought it up lately. I don’t really care too much about the number; it’s more about the guys who I see at the top of that list. . . guys who I feel play hard and don’t cheat the game.”

As the Canucks head into Thursday’s home game against the Florida Panthers, Schenn’s 2,937 hits are second all-time among NHL defencemen to Orpik’s 2,946. The league has been tracking hits only since the 2005 lockout, and the top five players are all forwards. Since Cal Clutterbuck (No. 1 with 3,647 hits) and Matt Martin (No. 3, 3,486) are still playing, Schenn probably isn’t catching them.

But he will pass Orpik on the Canucks’ four-game homestand (if not tonight) and should blow through 3,000 hits later this season. Schenn’s 97 hits in 23 games so far were second in the league, one slobber-knocker behind Philadelphia Flyer forward Nic Deslauriers.

“I’ve got to be honest, we’ve been looking it up,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said after practice. “We’ve been keeping tabs. We’re just like, ‘Man, he’s going to get it.’ And rightfully so. I mean, he hits everything in sight. But he never gets himself out of position when he hits, too, which is huge. He’s kind of found that art to it a little bit where he’s not looking to run over guys, he just plays physical.”

“As a guy that tries to be pretty physical myself, you know, I try to get a good amount (of hits) every year,” Miller said. “Prior to last game, I think I had like 45 hits and I was like second or third on the team. And we were 50 behind Luke. It’s just special, a guy that’s played for 15 years and has continually played that brand of hockey. There’s not a whole lot of old-school guys like him around. It’s nice to have a guy like that on your team that can also, after he hits, back it up by beating up almost anyone in the league.”

Luke Schenn is what hockey people call “good-guy tough.” He fights for teammates or when challenged, always does what is asked without complaint, and doesn’t take selfish penalties. Good character, good leader.

But these plaudits still do a kind of disservice to Schenn because there is so much more to him than toughness and character. Hitting helps, but that’s not what allowed him to save his career, to make that U-turn on what was supposed to be a one-way street to the minors.

Schenn is one of the smartest players on the Canucks and, after coming face to face with his NHL mortality, one of the most driven to continue improving and evolving. Think about how much faster the game is now than four years ago. At 225 pounds, the former fifth-overall pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs still doesn’t look like he can outskate the Zamboni. And yet, he is rarely caught up ice, rarely out of position, makes smart plays when he has the puck and is laser-focussed when he doesn’t. Schenn’s brawn wouldn’t mean anything without the brain behind it.

“The first time I got put on waivers, I was 29 and everyone’s like, ‘Well, work on your skating, work on your skating,’” Schenn recalls. “In reality, you can work on your stride and your edges as much as you want, but at 29 or 30 years old and 230 pounds, you’re not suddenly going to get way faster. But put yourself in a situation where you’re thinking the game so you’re not in a foot race every single shift. If your feet are in the right position and your body is in the right position, and you’re reading the play and seeing where all their players are, maybe you’re on top of the play rather than reacting to it.”

Schenn, who works in the off-season with former player and coach Adam Oates, uses a football analogy to describe positioning, noting how a cornerback lines up tight against a wideout but may already have his feet and shoulders angled to stay ahead of the receiver.

The Canuck said he has looked at other NHL players who have thrived in their 30s to see what they’ve done to beat back time.

“If you look at guys like David Perron or Joe Pavelski, speed isn’t their game,” Schenn said. “It’s more thinking the game, making plays, using their body in different situations. You’re not trying to get in a foot race, but you’re just thinking the game to put yourself in the right situations. So yeah, I’m trying to improve on it and at the same time, too, I don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface. That’s the way my mind works — I’m trying to figure out ways to get better.

“Honestly, the way I look at it — and I’m just throwing a number out — maybe five per cent of guys get better after 30, and 95 per cent don’t. But I try not to look at the 95; I look more at the five per cent getting better.”

“He’s a great human being, first of all,” Hughes, 23, said of his mentor. “But he gets better every year. He’s better this year than he was last year. It’s a credit to how hard he works in the summer and what he does. Mainly for him, I think it’s studying the game. You know, it’s a good thing for all of us; maybe my best days will be when I’m 32.”

Schenn, who is from Saskatoon, said teammates have been chirping him since they became aware that he’s closing in on Orpik’s record for hits by a defenceman.

“They’ll jokingly go: ‘You only had five last game; you’ve been playing kind of soft,’” he said. “Chirping me a little bit, trying to get me going even a little bit more.”

“How he prepares,” defenceman Kyle Burroughs said, “how he watches the game, how he understands the game, his timing. . . he’s a great role model for me. Even outside of the rink or off the ice, the way he takes care of his body to make sure that he can do this every night is something that I’ve tried to mirror the last couple of years. I’ve tried to work with him a lot and pick his brain. He’s a unicorn in the sense of how he approaches the game and how he thinks it and what he does to prepare.”

As a physical blue-liner who didn’t become an NHL regular until last season, at age 26, Burroughs is smart to try to emulate Schenn.

“A lot of the times you see guys chasing hits and that’s usually when you see that they’re out of position,” Burroughs said. “That’s one thing Luke doesn’t do. I don’t think that he gets enough credit for that because people maybe don’t understand how hard it is to play that role and how (well) he handles it.”

Schenn admits he had to adapt or perish when the Ducks gave up on him, insisting the Canucks accept him in January, 2019 trade that saw Anaheim take Michael Del Zotto off Vancouver’s roster.

The Canucks merely changed Schenn’s American Hockey League team, sending him to Utica, N.Y. from San Diego. But Vancouver ran into injuries and called him up to the NHL a month later.

Schenn partnered Hughes in the phenom’s NHL debut that March and did well enough in 18 games with the Canucks that the Lightning signed him as a free agent to provide blue-line depth. Schenn won two Cups in two seasons with the Lightning, then signed a bargain two-year contract with the Canucks before last season because he wanted to repay the organization for giving him the chance to save his career. Schenn’s off-season home is in Kelowna.

“When I was in San Diego for the first time and in the minors, I remember having conversations with my dad and my brother and saying, ‘I think I’ve got another five or six years left in me,’” Schenn said. “I just had to figure out a way to do that. That’s been the challenging part and the enjoyable part — that grind and that process and figuring out ways to get better. Now we’re four years since then. . . so I want to tack a few more onto that.”

And maybe another thousand hits.

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