Stecher’s play about the only positive during Canucks’ slump

AP
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After four straight wins to start the season, things have turned decidedly sour for the Vancouver Canucks.

The Canucks dropped their fifth straight on Saturday, falling 5-2 to Washington. They’ve only scored four goals in their last four games, all regulation losses, and now they’re facing a six-game road trip that starts Wednesday in Montreal, where the Habs have yet to lose.

In fact, about the only thing that’s made Canucks fan happy the past few games has been the play of rookie Troy Stecher. The 22-year-old defenseman was called up last week to replace injured Chris Tanev. He made his NHL debut Tuesday against Ottawa, logging 21:42 on Vancouver’s top pairing with Alex Edler. Against the Caps, he played 22:35 and ended up leading all skaters with five shots.

An offensive defenseman, Stecher has already learned that simply getting the puck on net can be a challenge in today’s NHL, where shooting lanes are only open for an instant.

“The first night I think I had four blocked shots, so I watched some tape and realized how committed guys are to blocking shots,” Stecher told PHT. “Previously, I was able to walk the line and stickhandle. Here, it’s one fake and you have to get it off pretty quick.”

Stecher was not drafted. He was signed as a college free agent out of the University of North Dakota, where he won a national championship last season on a team that included Canucks first-rounder Brock Boeser. An undersized defenseman, he says he models his game after Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon.

Suffice to say, it’s a big jump from college hockey to the NHL, let alone college hockey to skating against the likes of Connor McDavid, which Stecher did Friday, and Alex Ovechkin, which came Saturday.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “It’s better this than babying it in. I’ll find my way. I’m going to make mistakes, and I know that. Ultimately, it’s going to make me a better player in the long run.”

The Canucks have a long road to travel before they’re contenders again. They don’t have a replacement for first-line center Henrik Sedin, and that’s going to be a major challenge for management going forward. But with Stecher, 22, Ben Hutton, 23, Erik Gudbranson, 24, as well as the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft, 18-year-old Olli Juolevi, the future of the defense looks considerably brighter now than it did a year ago.

It remains to be seen if Stecher will remain with the Canucks when Tanev is able to return to the lineup. Vancouver will have nine defensemen then, so unless Nikita Tryamkin is willing to accept an AHL assignment, or unless Philip Larsen, Alex Biega or Luca Sbisa are placed on waivers, it’s possible Stecher could be sent back to Utica.

Related: ‘It’s going to be a grind’ for the Canucks, who can’t play like they used to