A pivotal season for the Vancouver Canucks kicks off with training camp today.
The Canucks are aiming to rebound and make it back to the playoffs after one of the worst seasons in franchise history. They’ll do so with 26 (!!!) new faces who weren’t with the club last season.
There’s a lot to get into as the Canucks get set to kickstart their 51st NHL campaign. Here are nine storylines to follow as training camp gets underway.
1. When will Pettersson and Hughes arrive?
It’s not time to push the panic button...yet.
Yes, the Canucks should have had Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes signed by now. The fact that they prioritized the likes of Tanner Pearson, Travis Hamonic and Tucker Poolman before locking up their franchise cornerstones is questionable, although they’re not the only team that foregoes signing their star RFA’s until the last minute.
The real issue is the Canucks’ lack of cap space. They currently have a rough maximum cap allocation of $16 million to sign Hughes and Pettersson. Even then, the club will likely have to paper players like Jack Rathbone, Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander to the minors just to stay under the cap.
Pettersson and Hughes are good enough that they don’t need preseason games, although you’d ideally like to have them signed before the end of the preseason, especially considering the number of new players on this team.
2. How much concern should there be with training camp absences?
Aside from Pettersson and Hughes, there were five other notable players absent from media day yesterday.
- Bo Horvat (illness)
- Travis Hamonic (undisclosed)
- Brandon Sutter (fatigue)
- Tyler Motte (rehabbing from undisclosed surgery)
- Justin Bailey (tested positive for COVID-19)
It sounds like Horvat and Hamonic will be at training camp, but there should be some minor concern with Brandon Sutter and Tyler Motte. Is Sutter suffering from long-haul COVID? No one is privy to that publicly, but the veteran pivot’s durability is always a concern. That’s especially true with a lack of organizational depth at centre ice.
Benning was “hopeful” that Motte will be ready by the regular season, but he’s another player who’s endured durability issues. If neither Motte nor Sutter is ready for the regular season grind, then the Canucks fourth line is completely in flux.
3. Who will snag the depth roles at forward?
Originally, the battle was for the 12th and final forward spot in the starting lineup alongside Motte and Sutter on the fourth line.
Now, there could be two...or even three roles up for grabs.
Justin Bailey is assuredly destined for Abbotsford now that he will miss all of training camp, leaving seven other forwards vying for spots.
Matthew Highmore has a leg up on the competition after showing the speed that the Canucks want on the fourth line, along with an ability to kill penalties.
Phillip Di Guiseppe is arguably next on the pecking order for a roster spot. The veteran of 201 NHL games scored at a third-line rate at even-strength with the Rangers last year.
Justin Dowling could have an advantage if Sutter is out for an extended period of time. The 30-year-old has played 56 games for Dallas over the last two seasons, although he’s never killed penalties at the NHL level.
Sheldon Dries is a sneaky candidate to make the roster. He possesses Motte-like energy and did kill penalties for the Colorado Avalanche back in 2018-19.
Nic Petan could also have an advantage if Sutter is out long-term, although he’s your typical tweener who’s not really suited for fourth-line duty in the NHL...unless you can find him some power play time or build an offensively-inclined fourth-line.
Zack MacEwen is at a disadvantage after an underwhelming 2020-21 campaign, although the fact that he’s overcome adversity throughout his career makes him hard to count out.
Finally, Will Lockwood is an interesting candidate to crack the roster. He drastically improved after the Comets emerged from their COVID delay last season. Lockwood was also one of Utica’s top penalty killers, and he possesses the tenacity necessary for a fourth-line role.
This writer’s half-baked prediction? Assuming Sutter is back relatively soon, I’ll guess that Highmore snags one spot, while Lockwood blows the doors off in camp and earns a spot in the opening night line-up. If and when Motte returns, Lockwood could be sent down with relative ease since he’s not waiver-eligible.
4. What will Vasily Podkolzin’s impact be?
Expectations for Podkolzin are probably too high, many expecting him to be the Canucks fifth straight rookie to exceed expectations at the NHL level.
That being said, Podkolzin has the physicality, work ethic and defensive discipline necessary to succeed in the NHL.
It will be interesting to see where Travis Green slots him out of the gate, but it’s safe to assume he’ll start on a third line with Tanner Pearson and Jason Dickinson. Podkolzin has typically played right wing, and the first two spots on the depth chart are being occupied by Brock Boeser and Conor Garland.
5. Is Nils Hoglander a sneaky top-line candidate?
While most assume “The Lotto Line” will be reunited, there’s some logic in putting Nils Hoglander up on the top line.
He’ll likely begin training camp there as long as Pettersson is absent, but the tenacious youngster is a viable candidate to stick on the top line once the regular season began.
Last season, Hoglander and Boeser had a plus-seven goal differential together on the ice. The two players also led the Canucks in even-strength scoring during the second half of the season.
Having Hoglander, Pettersson and Boeser on the top line would allow Miller to slide onto the second line with Horvat and Garland. This would arguably give the Canucks two first lines.
6. Who will partner with Oliver-Ekman Larsson out of the gate?
Hughes and Hamonic are likely to pair together once the regular season begins, leaving Tyler Myers and Tucker Poolman to battle for a spot on the second pair alongside OEL.
Whether Myers ends up beside OEL or not, you know he’ll be one of the Canucks leaders in ice time. Neither is a great option, with both struggling defensively in elevated roles last season. This is an Achilles heel for the Canucks, no matter who ends up playing alongside Ekman-Larsson.
7. Who’s going to kill penalties?
Speaking of shoddy defence, the state of the penalty kill is currently in flux...especially if Sutter and Motte miss time.
Jason Dickinson, Matthew Highmore, Tanner Pearson and JT Miller are fourth other forwards who could kill penalties for the Canucks. Sheldon Dries and Will Lockwood are also options for the club during training camp.
On defence, the situation is even murkier. Ekman-Larsson had decent underlying numbers on the Coyotes’ 11th-overall ranked penalty kill last season, although he was on the second PK unit behind Niklas Hjalmarsson and Alex Goligoski. He’ll now be relied upon to be the team’s top penalty killer alongside one of Myers, Hamonic and Poolman.
With Hughes unlikely to kill penalties, that means one of Jack Rathbone, Brad Hunt or Olli Juolevi could be asked to step up into that role.
8. The three-way battle on defence and Juolevi’s future
Arguably, the most interesting training camp battle to watch is the third pair, left defence spot.
Rathbone should have a leg up on the competition after looking NHL-ready in his audition last year. However, he’s not a shoo-in.
Hunt hasn’t played an AHL game in five seasons. Juolevi also could have a leg up for a couple of reasons. For starters, he’s waiver-eligible. Does Benning really want to risk losing the fifth overall pick from 2016 on the waiver wire?
The 23-year-old Fin also has the smallest cap hit among these combatants ($750K), and he’s also the most likely candidate to kill penalties.
Travis Green has shown time and time again that spots will be given to the players who earn it in camp. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an internal desire with the Canucks for Juolevi to earn a spot on a sheltered third-pair, penalty-killing role. That would allow Hunt to hang around the roster as a spare defenceman, while Rathbone could go tear up the AHL to begin the 2021-22 campaign.
9. What kind of an impact will Brad Shaw have on the defence?
This is more a long-term question, but figuring out the answer starts during training camp.
One of the Canucks newest assistant coaches will play a big hand in leading the defence this season. He has a tall task ahead of him, considering that the Canucks were the worst defensive team in the NHL last season. They also lost their top shutdown pair from a year ago in Alex Edler and Nate Schmidt.
Can Hughes rebound defensively? How about Myers? Can Poolman match-up against top competition better than he did in Winnipeg? Is OEL better than the underlying numbers suggest?
We know the Canucks are strong up front, and that they have one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. The one thing holding them back on paper is the state of their defence. If Brad Shaw can get this team to be even mediocre defensively, it should be considered a massive accomplishment.