Drance: By naming Quinn Hughes captain, Canucks double down on core at a crossroads

It’s been difficult to parse the overarching, big-picture vision of the Jim Rutherford, Patrik Allvin-led management group since they took over in Vancouver in the early part of the 2022 calendar year.

On some occasions, Rutherford and Allvin have seemed to be conservative operators diligently mining European and NCAA free agent pools, prioritizing AHL development, signing depth contributors to value contracts and making sure to trade pending veteran UFAs before the trade deadline.

On other occasions, Rutherford and Allvin have seemed to be — in a fashion more typical of the Jim Benning regime — recklessly chasing the big marquee move that will make everything fall into place, like when they extended a 29-year-old J.T. Miller with a lucrative a seven-year deal, used 85 percent of their available free agent budget one summer to sign a winger in Ilya Mikheyev, or dealt significant futures for Filip Hronek from 27th place by point percentage in the NHL standings.

One thing has been relatively consistent in Allvin and Rutherford’s actions and public commentary, however. When asked about the best players on this Canucks team, the so-called “core group”, Allvin and Rutherford have expressed belief and faith with unwavering consistency.

“My expectation is to make the playoffs with the players we have here,” Allvin said after the trade deadline in March 2023. “Especially when you have an elite goalie in Thatcher Demko, Filip Hronek, Quinn Hughes, (Elias) Pettersson, Miller, (Andrei) Kuzmenko — we have good players, no doubt about it. We need to learn how to play as a team.”

It was a close match with what Allvin had said in September of 2022, shortly after extending Miller, although back then the core still included Bo Horvat.

“I think you have a tremendous goalie in Demko,” Allvin began, “and then you have Quinn Hughes on the back end, you’ve got Pettersson, and Miller, and Horvat, you know. I think that they’re as good a players as (there are) in the league, in this age where you believe that they’re going to be able to take the next step in order for us to get better.”

On Monday, the Canucks named Hughes captain. He’s the 15th captain in Canucks franchise history, and one of the youngest players to ever wear the “C” for the Canucks franchise, trailing only 20-year-old Trevor Linden (who might as well have been born an NHL captain, based on how ably he wore the letter on his jersey).

Hughes is 23 and will turn 24 in just over a month’s time. He’s now smack in the middle of his statistical prime.

In his dealings with the media and the public, Hughes has matured into a compelling spokesperson for the organization during his four NHL seasons. He’s proven himself able to stickhandle controversial issues, he addressed the fans superbly following the club’s final regular season home game last year and it’s worth noting that he pointedly and publicly stood up for teammate Tanner Pearson last season — showing real guts and leadership in the process.

Beyond being one of the absolute best defensemen in the NHL, Hughes is an excellent choice and a worthy captain for who he is as a person.

By naming Hughes captain Canucks management and ownership appear to be meaningfully and symbolically doubling down on a young core group of players that have produced at an extraordinary clip in their NHL careers, but have yet to prove that they can combine to be more than the sum of their parts on a winning team.

They’ve yet to show that they can sublimate individual goals for the good of the team. They’ve yet to make it out of the first month of the season with a realistic playoff shot, never mind making the postseason with any consistency, or actually contending.

Now that isn’t on Hughes necessarily as an individual player. Nor is it on Pettersson, or Miller, or Demko. This team has been light on depth talent for years and ill-constructed: too slow on the back end, too small up front and too shallow in net. There’s only so much that a small high-end group of individual players can accomplish at the NHL level without the infrastructure to support them.

Going into this season, however, the organization is intent on projecting stability and alignment. They’ve got a coach and a management team working together with a shared purpose. They’ve got the “structure” that they so love to talk about.

The club has spent the past six months adding some penalty-killing experience up front, size and defensive know-how on the back end and a top-four, right-handed puck mover. And the club has a captain now, and it seems obvious — although Allvin declined to specifically identify the team’s alternate captains on Monday — that Pettersson and Miller will wear A’s on their sweaters this season.

There are still some reasonable concerns about the overall quality and construction of this roster, but the pitch to fans as the home opener approaches on October 11th is that this core group will be better supported at all levels of the organization, including on the ice. That this year there will be no excuses. And there’s reason to believe it.

Beyond the recent history of mediocrity that the club has toiled through, however, the timing and content of the club’s announcement on Monday is so fascinating in part because this is a core group that’s very much at a crossroads. They’re no longer, truly, an elite young core. These are veteran players now and the time for holding onto promise is sort of over for them. The time to deliver as fully formed NHL players has arrived.

Percolating beneath the surface, this is a core group that has some notable uncertainty hanging over them as we enter a high-stakes Canucks campaign.

That begins with Pettersson, who became extension-eligible this past summer, but has indicated his preference to wait and see this season before committing long-term to the organization. Pettersson’s current bridge deal expires on June 30, 2024, and the club will retain his restricted free-agent rights thereafter.

It would be overly dramatic to suggest that Pettersson’s Canucks future is murky, but it’s absolutely fair to note that his patient posture raises the stakes for this upcoming season, particularly when many of his star-level peers — like Sebastian Aho and Auston Matthews — extended with their current teams this summer.

With Demko, meanwhile, the club has an extraordinarily talented goaltender, perhaps even a franchise-level goaltender, who has yet to prove that he can be a durable workhorse starter at the NHL level.

Demko has an aura about him in net. We’ve seen him steal weeks’ worth of games and push a heavily favoured side to the absolute brink in the playoffs. We know he’s an exceptional puck-stopper with unrivalled intensity and work ethic.

What we haven’t seen from him yet is a season in which he appears in 55 games (or more), stops an above-average rate of shots faced and stays healthy for the full campaign.

Then there’s Miller, the enigmatic Canucks engine who turned 30 years old this past summer and is entering the first year of his seven-year extension. Miller’s performance last season was deeply uneven — he struggled enormously in the first half, and was sensational down the stretch — and as his name remained front and centre in trade rumours throughout the campaign, he was heavily scrutinized by local and national media alike for how he carried himself and his commitment to defense.

It’s not exactly a secret that the club is going to need more from Miller this season, especially at his new cap hit. The club’s fate and Miller’s ability to buck the cruel aging curve that NHL veterans contend with are inextricably linked.

In Hughes, Vancouver’s new captain, the club has selected their steadiest performer to be the new face of the franchise. There’s something in that too.

Hughes almost never misses games, he’s consistently improving and he doesn’t make waves. He’s simply one of the best defenders in hockey night in and night out.

Putting a “C” on his chest seems a sensible decision for the Canucks, but it’s also a decision that puts the onus on the club’s new captain — and the leadership group the club took pains to single out on Monday morning at Rogers Arena — to deliver this season.

(Photo of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes: Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

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