The Vancouver Canucks enter training camp with plenty of intrigue surrounding their lineup. As much as the Canucks made some significant additions in the offseason to address key holes in their lineup, there are still opportunities for battles in camp to decide the opening night roster.
“There’s some spots there that they’re up for grabs,” said head coach Rick Tocchet on Wednesday. “If there’s an opportunity there, you want to see younger players take advantage of that.”
“I’m excited,” he added. “Hopefully, a couple of these young guys do make the lineup because it just adds enthusiasm, it really does. It’s a long year, sometimes practices drag and you need a little lift — those young guys really lift those things — so that’s why I’m excited that hopefully some of these guys grab that spot.”
While some might simply look to opportunities to make the fringes of the lineup — the fourth line or the third defence pairing — Tocchet said that there may be even better opportunities available.
“There’s some spots, there might be some spots higher up in the lineup where a couple of these young guys can — the way they skate or the way they forecheck or the way they can release the puck, those are the attributes that you want from those type of spots up there,” he said.
Where might some of those key training camp battles take place? Let’s take a look.
1 | Quinn Hughes’ partner
This will be a significant battle at training camp. Whoever plays with Quinn Hughes will get a lot of minutes and an opportunity to partner with one of the best defencemen in the NHL. And the Canucks have a lot of candidates for the job.
The two most obvious candidates to play with Hughes are two of the team’s free agent signings from the summer: Ian Cole and Carson Soucy. Both are left-shot defencemen but have experience playing on the right side. The Canucks would likely prefer that the younger, bigger Soucy would win the spot but he doesn’t have a lot of experience in a top-four role.
Another option is Filip Hronek, a natural right-side defenceman with some top-pairing experience already in his career. But the Canucks would prefer that Hronek anchors his own pairing, giving the Canucks a high-end puck-mover on both their first and second pairing.
Dark Horse: Noah Juulsen
Juulsen found a fit with Hughes late last season and performed very well together. Juulsen isn’t the best skater, but he’s big, physical, and can play a simple, stay-at-home style that might be the best fit for Hughes.
If training camp and preseason prove that Cole and Soucy are better on their natural left sides, then Juulsen might be the Canucks’ best bet.
2 | Right wing with Pettersson and Kuzmenko
When he was healthy, Ilya Mikheyev played the bulk of last season on a line with Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko. Presumably, he’s the most likely winger to play with them again this season.
The big question mark is Mikheyev’s health. If he’s not ready to play on opening night, his spot is up for grabs. And if a player performs well enough on their wing in training camp and preseason, it might not matter if Mikheyev is healthy.
Nils Höglander was partnered with Kuzmenko and Pettersson for the first drills of camp, so he’s a candidate to win that role. Höglander has had some success with Pettersson in the past and the Canucks would love for him to land in the top-six.
Another option is Vasily Podkolzin, who would provide a different look to the line with his physical game and playmaking. Podkolzin and Pettersson have been a good fit together before.
Other candidates include Anthony Beauvillier, Conor Garland, and Brock Boeser but the Canucks would love it if one of their younger players like Höglander or Podkolzin could take that spot.
Dark Horse: Aidan McDonough
McDonough has an NHL-caliber release but needs a little help finding the space on the ice to use it. Pairing him with a couple of elite playmakers in Pettersson and Kuzmenko might be exactly what he needs.
3 | Left wing with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser
Like many NHL head coaches, Rick Tocchet likes to find forward pairings he likes and then rotate potential third members of a line. One pairing he seems to like is J.T. Miller with Brock Boeser. As much as a player like Conor Garland might challenge for a spot on the right wing with Miller, the spot looks like Boeser’s to lose.
So, what about the left wing on that line?
Vasily Podkolzin will get a look on that line in training camp and it could be a good fit given his solid two-way game and the difficult match-ups that line will likely face this season. That might be Podkolzin’s best chance of earning a top-six role to start the season.
Another option is Anthony Beauvillier, who the Canucks are hoping can replace some of Bo Horvat’s lost offence and will likely need a top-six spot to do so.
And don’t count out the possibility of Garland playing on his off-side on left wing.
Dark Horse: Phil Di Giuseppe
Rick Tocchet likes Di Giuseppe quite a bit and he played well with Miller and Boeser last season. His north-south game fits with the way Tocchet likes to play and he could find himself in a top-six role, pushing the more expensive wingers down the lineup.
4 | Third-pairing left defence
Assuming the Canucks’ top four on defence consists of Hughes, Hronek, Cole, and Soucy, that leaves Tyler Myers to play on the right side of the third pairing. But who will be on the left side?
Several defencemen will be vying for the role, including Christian Wolanin, who won the Eddie Shore Award as the best defenceman in the AHL last season. Wolanin led all AHL defencemen in scoring with 55 points in 49 games and played some solid minutes for the Canucks in the NHL as well. But the 28 year old might not be the safe, defensive figure the Canucks are looking for on a third pairing.
Akito Hirose could earn the job, as he’s coming into camp on a high from the Young Stars Classic, where he was one of the Canucks’ best players. He showed a lot of poise in his brief audition with the Canucks last season and there’s a calmness to his game that might complement Myers’ more chaotic game.
Then there’s Matt Irwin, a free agent signing from the summer who is a likely candidate to be the seventh defenceman and spend a lot of time in the press box. That said, Irwin played 61 games for the Washington Capitals last season and plays a safe, reliable game. He could be in the lineup on opening night.
Dark Horses: Jack Rathbone and Guillaume Brisebois
At 24 years old, Rathbone is approaching not-a-prospect status and has yet to be able to crack the Canucks lineup on a regular basis. But maybe this is his year.
Meanwhile, Brisebois has been a reliable soldier in the Canucks system for eight years now and the Canucks really like him, so don’t count him out. In the initial skates on day one of training camp, Brisebois was partnered with Myers.
5 | Bottom-six wingers
There are a lot of wingers on the Canucks roster and only so many spots available.
If Höglander and Podkolzin can’t land in the top-six alongside Miller and Pettersson, they’ll be angling for spots in the bottom-six. Likewise, Conor Garland and Anthony Beauvillier are likely candidates to land in the bottom-six on the third or even fourth line if they don’t earn a top-six spot.
Other wingers battling for a spot in the bottom-six include Dakota Joshua and Phil Di Giuseppe, who both won the respect of Tocchet last season. There’s also Jack Studnicka, who was one of the worst Canucks last season, so is coming into camp with something to prove.
Dark Horse: Arshdeep Bains
The Canucks absolutely love Arshdeep Bains, who embraced their development plan in the AHL like no other player in their system. Bains gets in on the forecheck, backchecks hard, and has the desire and skill to get to the front of the net for scoring chances.
Bains will get a look at a bottom-six role at training camp and could surprise some of the more established wingers.
6 | Third-line centre
The Canucks went out and signed two bottom-six centres this offseason and either one could make a case for the third-line centre role.
Pius Suter likely has the inside lane for the job with his excellent defensive metrics but he’s on the smaller side and isn’t the best in the faceoff circle.
That opens the door for Teddy Blueger, who’s a bit bigger, more reliable in the faceoff circle, and plays a credible shutdown game. Who’s going to win the job?
Dark Horse: Nils Åman
Maybe it’ll be neither Suter nor Blueger. Nils Åman played 68 games for the Canucks last season and they liked his defensively-responsible, low-event game. Depending on how much he improved in the offseason, maybe he can surprise the Canucks and push Suter to the wing, where he spent some time last season.
7 | Third-string goaltender
Up until this week, the battle to be the backup goaltender in Vancouver was shaping up to be one of the most interesting battles at camp. Then the Canucks went and traded for a veteran backup goaltender in Casey DeSmith.
That leaves Spencer Martin and Arturs Silovs battling instead to be the third-string goaltender, ie. the starting goaltender for the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL.
Silovs is the up-and-coming prospect with a lot of potential but Martin has more experience and has performed better in the AHL. Martin isn’t going to simply give away the job; Silovs will have to earn it.
Dark Horse: Nikita Tolopilo
The 6’6” Tolopilo was one of the best goaltenders in Sweden’s HockeyAllsvenskan last season and he looked very good at the Young Stars tournament. Tolopilo is a real wild card at this year’s camp and he has the potential to surprise everyone in the preseason. Keep an eye on him.