Canucks: So, Cole McWard could be a thing

For the second time this week, the rookie from Ohio State found himself in a Big Ten defensive pairing with his captain.

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Let’s just cut to the chase: could Cole McWard really start the season as Quinn Hughes’ defence partner?

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The answer, four games into the Vancouver Canucks’ pre-season is clearly “quite possibly.”

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For the second time this week, the rookie from Ohio State found himself in a Big Ten defensive pairing with his captain.

And more and more, he’s looking like a surprisingly good fit.

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Vancouver Canucks defenseman Cole McWard and Arizona Coyotes right wing Jan Jenik race for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. AP Photo/Rick Scuteri Photo by Rick Scuteri /AP

He still has warts in his game, like getting caught flat footed when there’s a quick turnover — understandable, given he’s still adjusting to the NHL game — but he’s also got some intriguing strengths, like making some pretty clean exit passes and a crafty ability to use his reach to disrupt the other team’s zone exits.

Playing with Hughes is both hard — and simple. He plays the game at extraordinary pace, but if you can deliver him the puck consistently, it’s really not complicated.

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McWard knows this.

“I think I just got to read off him. Back him up and give him the puck as much as possible. He’s a great player and can do some pretty crazy things with it. So just trying to keep my head up and move the puck over to him,” the rookie told reporters earlier this week when asked how his game compliments Hughes’.

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Cole McWard #48 of the Vancouver Canucks holds the puck from his first NHL goal during their game against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena April 8, 2023 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /NHLI via Getty Images

When head coach Rick Tocchet was asked about putting the two together in practice on Tuesday, he said it was because he wanted to see how McWard handled the pace. And also admitted there was something of a “hey you never know” element to the idea as well.

“There’s a lot of good stories out there. I’m not saying it can happen for him. But you know, look at John Marino with Pittsburgh, he came from nowhere. And he had a great year (in 2019-20). So these things can happen,” he said.

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Tocchet also said it could very well turn out that Hughes plays with a rotation of partners during a game.

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Cole McWard #48 of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates after scoring his first NHL goal against the Calgary Flames during the first period of their NHL game at Rogers Arena on April 8, 2023 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Derek Cain /Getty Images

For instance on Saturday night, Hughes would play with Filip Hronek for the shift after a penalty kill.

Now, McWard did take a trio of penalties in the first two periods, two of them of the chasing-the-game kind, one a trip, the other a hold. (He also was whistled for cross-checking but what defenceman hasn’t?)

He’s a work in progress. Maybe this doesn’t amount to anything in the short term. Maybe this is a long term play. Maybe this is all just a holding pattern until Ethan Bear recovers from his shoulder surgery and does in fact re-sign in Vancouver.

Whatever it is…it appears to be something.

pjohnston@postmedia.com

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