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THE MOJ: It’s amazing what a year has done for the Vancouver Canucks

Remember last January, when Canuck fans were urging the team to tank for Connor Bedard?
Vancouver defenseman Nikita Zadorov, shown here in Tuesday night’s 5-2 win against the Islanders in New York, has been one the pieces acquired in the team’s blueline overhaul. Vancouver Canucks photo

What a difference a year makes.

On Jan. 10, 2023, the Canucks went into Pittsburgh to play the Penguins, having lost four of their previous five games.

Bruce Boudreau was on his last legs as head coach, Brock Boeser had requested a trade and Canuck Nation was clamoring for a tank job to improve the chances of landing Connor Bedard in the NHL Entry Draft.

The Canucks would lose to Pittsburgh that night by a 5-4 margin to drop to 17-20-3.

Fast forward 365 days later.

The Canucks are in Pittsburgh again but under a totally different set of circumstances.

They are coming off their first ever “New York Hat Trick” – beating the Devils, Rangers and Islanders on the same road trip for the first time ever in team history to improve their record to 27-11-3 and are battling for first place in the overall standings. Boeser has 25 goals, tied for fifth in the league, and head coach Rick Tocchet has his team playing with such structure and poise that people are talking about the Canucks as Stanley Cup contenders.

While many are heaping praise on the likes of Tocchet, Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and J.T. Miller to name a few, one person who probably warrants a little more recognition is Canucks President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford.

Hiring Tocchet was a tremendous move but Rutherford’s job of revamping the team’s blue line is flying under the radar.

When the Canucks played the Penguins last year their defensive corps that night featured Hughes, Tyler Myers, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ethan Bear, Luke Schenn and Travis Dermott with Kyle Burroughs and Riley Stillman as scratches.

Only Hughes and Myers remain.

The organization has jettisoned everyone else and acquired the likes of Filip Hronek (trade), Ian Cole (free agent), Carson Soucy (free agent), Nikita Zadorov (trade), Noah Juulsen (trade) and Mark Friedman (trade).

It’s been a remarkable transformation actually.

The blueline was identified early during Rutherford’s tenure as an area that needed to be improved.

In fact, during an interview on HNIC’s After Hours on Oct. 22, 2022, Rutherford told Scott Oake and John Garrett “…it’s not that easy. We don’t play fantasy hockey; we got a cap to deal with. We’ve got contracts that maybe we’d like to move that we can’t move, your hands kind of get tied a little bit. But we’re well aware that that’s an area that we need to improve.”

Unfortunately for Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin, one of those contracts was Ekman-Larsson’s but the subsequent buy-out of the 32-year-old Swede during the summer allowed the organization some flexibility to sign Cole and Soucy but the rebuild process actually started last March when the team acquired Hronek from the Islanders in the Bo Horvat deal.

Hronek, benefitting from being paired with Hughes, is putting up ridiculous numbers this season. He scored the first goal in Tuesday’s 5-2 win against the Islanders in New York to up his season totals to 3-30-33. Hronek is on pace for 66 points, which would shatter his season-high of 38 points with Detroit.

Cole, lured away from Tampa Bay, has provided the team with solid play as the Canucks third defenseman in terms of minutes played, particularly when Soucy was knocked out of the lineup for two months with an ankle injury.

Zadorov’s acquisition from Calgary on December 3rd for a couple of draft choices surprised many, and although there have been some bumps in adapting to the Canucks system, he has been a solid depth acquisition.

Then there is the improvement from within.

Myers’ game has been more consistent with a reduction in turnovers. No longer having to go up against the opposition’s top forwards on a regular basis, Myers has played a role that is better suited to his skills.

Juulsen, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise for the most part.

Forced into the lineup with Soucy’s injury, Juulsen’s game has improved to the point where Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet has enough confidence in playing the Abbotsford minor hockey product to give Cole the night off against the Islanders.

And, of course, there is Hughes.

Now in his fifth full season with the Canucks, Hughes has taken his game to another level and is the engine that drives the hockey club.

If you venture onto the Canucks website, you will find plenty of statistical nuggets regarding Hughes’ performance but the one that grabbed me was the fact that with an assist against the Rangers, Hughes became the ninth defenseman in NHL history to post 50-plus points through their first 40 games of a season.

Let that resonate for a second.

The ninth defenseman in NHL history…yeah, the University of Michigan product is that special.

There is not much to be said about Hughes’ play that hasn’t been said.

The new and improved blue line has allowed Tocchet and his staff to manage the workload of Hughes and Hronek, and now with everyone fully healthy, it will allow Tocchet to rotate players in and out of the group during the course of the season.

It’s a good problem to have, yet at the same time, it can be trying when you have to tell someone who is playing well that they’re coming out of the lineup for the night.

“It’s the world I live in right now. We’ve got some healthy D. We’ve got some decisions to make but we will worry about that later,” Tocchet told the assembled media after the win in Long Island.

He expanded when questioned on Cole’s reaction to sitting out, mentioning that Cole may not have liked the decision but understood it. Tocchet also noted that Cole was in the dressing room fist-pumping teammates prior to the game.

“That’s why we acquired a guy like Ian Cole,” said Tocchet, referring to the team-first attitude displayed by the 34-year-old.

That comment brought me back to something B.C. Lions head coach Rick Campbell mentioned to me at one point this past season. You have to bring in good players, explained Campbell, but you also have to bring in good people. Given what we have seen and heard from this team, it won’t be an issue for the Canucks because they do have good people.

One too many defensemen is a great ‘problem’ to have – especially considering where this team was a year ago when it came to its blue line.


* The win Tuesday night against the Islanders came on the heels of a 6-3 triumph against the Rangers on Monday. Vancouver beat the Devils 6-4 on Saturday to open the New York portion of their seven-game road trip. The ‘New York Hat Trick” was the first for the Canucks since the Devils moved to New Jersey in 1982 – they were previously known as the Colorado Rockies (1976-1982) and the Kansas City Scouts (1974-76) prior to that.

* Hughes probably took some satisfaction in Michigan’s 34-13 mauling of the Washington Huskies in the NCAA Championship game. Hughes spent two years in Ann Arbor with the Wolverines prior to joining the Canucks organization at the tail end of the 2018-19 season.

* Next up for the Canucks is a trip to Buffalo to face the Sabres on Saturday. Buffalo has been near the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings and is 4-6 in their last 10 games heading into Friday’s matchup against Ottawa.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media.

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