Before the season began, the Canucks defensive grouping seemed to be penciled in. Chris Tanev and Alex Edler would return as the first pairing, newly acquired Erik Gudbranson and sophomore Ben Hutton would occupy the second pair. Leaving Nikita Tryamkin Luca Sbisa, Philip Larsen, and Alex Biega battling it out for ice-time in the bottom pairing.
Very few people predicted that a NCAA free agent would be the one grabbing all the headlines in training camp and forcing himself into the conversation.
Troy Stecher was signed as a free agent from the University of North Dakota following the Fighting Hawks NCAA championship and was the buzz throughout September. He had previously won the BCHL Championship in 2012 with fellow Canucks prospect Michael Garteig.
Coming into Canucks Young Stars and training camp, there wasn't much expected from the Richmond, B.C. native. Which is why his play throughout the pre-season was so attention grabbing.
Ultimately, he had to begin the season in the AHL, but after four games, Stecher found his way back up to Vancouver. Where he has been making an impression with each passing game.
However, if you looked deeper into his numbers in the NCAA, it became clear that he was going to make an impression sooner rather than later with the Canucks.
Throughout his final season at North Dakota, he was amongst the elite NCAA defenceman in terms of quality of competition, shots per game, goals and points. Although he never led the league in scoring, he was always near the top. He also played a style that was transferrable to the next level.
As we've seen so far with the Canucks, Stecher has the ability to skate with the puck. Getting himself out of trouble, and forcing the other team to retreat. This opens up opportunities for himself, as well as his teammates. It's very apparent that Stecher isn't afraid to make a move to create a lane.
That skill of creating lanes when not present at first, was on display on his first NHL goal. He chipped the puck past Jamie Benn, retrieved it, then fired it home.
Looking at Stecher's stats at the NHL level a little more - he currently leads all rookie NHL defenceman with an average of 3.15 shots per game. He also leads all Canucks defenceman with 7.33 shots per 60 minutes of ice time. The old adage of 'get pucks to the net and good things can happen' rings very true for the young rear-guard.
If he continues to do this, he will remain part of some elite company in shots per game and his point totals will surely rise.
He has made a positive impression on the majority of his regular line-mates posting a +50% corsi for percentage with 7 of his 8 highest time on ice together teammates.
There are always concerns with smaller defenceman like Stecher, who measures in at 5'10" and 190 lbs, that they will struggle in the defensive zone. However, Stecher uses his keen hockey sense and skating abilities to avoid putting himself in a position where his smaller stature may be an issue. He directs opponents to the outside, limiting their options, and then pouncing when the opportunity presents itself to retrieve the puck.
It's just another glimpse into how Stecher thinks the game, and how he uses his skills help the team win.
As we saw with the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup last season, there is a lot of value in having defenceman who can move the puck quickly in transition. This helps teams on the defensive side of the game, because the puck is being taken out of the zone with possession. It also helps with the offensive side, because controlling the puck on transition fosters odd man situations.
With Alexander Edler expected to miss the next 4 to 6 weeks with a broken hand, a lot of pressure will be placed on Stecher to help create offence and also suppress the attack from opposing teams.
There is no telling what the limit is for the young Richmond native, but his play so far this season has been an extremely positive sign. He may have only played 13 NHL games, but at times, it looks like he has played 13 seasons. There will be some mistakes here and there as he gets used to bigger, faster, and smarter opposition but Stecher has the skill-set, hockey sense and confidence to make an impact for the Canucks for years to come.
Stats taken from stats.hockeyanalysis.com