While on-ice sessions won’t start until Thursday, the Vancouver Canucks opened their training camp on Wednesday with media availability at Rogers Arena. It was an unusual reunion: the availability was held in person.
Sure, all of the gathered media had provided proof of vaccination and were all masked, but for the first time in over a year, the media saw Travis Green, Jim Benning, and the Canucks players face-to-face.
Well, some of them. There were a few notable absences. Two of those absences were expected: Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes still don’t have new contracts for next season and are currently training together in Michigan.
Ideally, the Canucks want to have both of them in training camp to properly prepare for what is, to this point, the most important season of their careers. The two sides have yet to come to an agreement, however.
“I don’t think we’re that far apart,” said Benning. “These are complex and unique deals. These are two good young players and an important part of our group. We’re going to continue to work with Pat [Brisson] until we get something figured out.”
For Pettersson and Hughes, absence is their most potent leverage. They know how much the Canucks need them and the Canucks know it too. As training camp kicks off in earnest and the team prepares for preseason games, the pressure will be on to get a deal done.
Brock Boeser can relate. He went through a similar experience with his second contract.
“Before camp started, I didn't think it was going to be that urgent,” recalled Boeser, “But when I started to see videos of the guys skating together and they're going to play preseason games, I didn't like that feeling of sitting out and not being there with the guys... It got a little more urgent and then obviously a deal can come fast when both sides start to agree on some terms.”
"Our organization will be 100% vaccinated."
Pettersson and Hughes weren’t the only members of the Canucks young core not on hand. Bo Horvat, the captain of the Canucks, was a noticeable absence at the press conference. Typically, Horvat is the first to speak to the media and set the tone.
Fortunately, Horvat’s absence was an innocent one. He was feeling a little under the weather, so was kept away for precautionary reasons. He’s not expected to miss training camp.
Other absent players are a little bit more concerning. Veteran Brandon Sutter wasn’t on hand while dealing with a mystery ailment.
“Sutts has been dealing with some fatigue,” said Benning, who confirmed that he tested negative for COVID-19. “He’s been doing some tests and so we’re not really sure what that is yet. He might not be available to start camp.”
Justin Bailey, on the other hand, has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the start of training camp.
“Bailey tested positive as he was crossing the border, so he had to stay back in Buffalo for 10 days and then he’ll do another test, so he’ll be late coming into camp,” said Benning.
Benning was quick to say that the entire team will be vaccinated for COVID-19.
“Our organization will be 100% vaccinated by the first game of the season. We have a strict policy in place,” said Benning. “By the time the season starts, we’ll be 100%. Players, everybody on the staff — everybody in the front office has been vaccinated.”
Benning’s assertion that everyone will be vaccinated by the first game strongly implies that the entire team is not currently vaccinated. Reports prior to the media availability indicated that defenceman Travis Hamonic was not in Vancouver and that it could be related to the COVID-19 protocol.
“Hamonic will be here,” said Benning, his only comment on the defenceman.
But later in the media availability, new goaltender Jaroslav Halak noted that Hamonic wasn’t in town.
“The only guy that I know is Travis Hamonic,” said Halak about his familiarity with the Canucks. “He’s not here now, but hopefully he’s going to join us.”
There’s a little bit more certainty regarding the absence of Tyler Motte.
“Tyler had an upper-body injury,” said Benning. “He had surgery this summer and he’s still rehabbing it so he won’t be skating with the main group at training camp. We’ll just see where his rehab goes. I don’t know if he’ll be available to start the season or not, it will depend on how the rehab goes in the next two or three weeks.”
Ekman-Larsson and Garland want to win
Despite all the absences, there was an overall vibe of positivity to the availability, particularly from several of the newest members of the Canucks. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland, in particular, seemed eager to join a Canucks team that they believe can go a long way this season.
“I really like the team,” said Ekman-Larsson. “I think all the young guys are going to be in their prime and we're gonna have a chance to win and that's what it's all about. I want to win. I've been in the league a long time now and haven't really got a chance to go far into the playoffs and stuff, so that's what I'm really looking forward to.”
That eagerness is understandable for Ekman-Larsson. In his 11 seasons in the NHL, he’s seen the playoffs just twice. Garland’s career is younger but he’s had just one taste of the playoffs in three NHL seasons. He believes the Canucks have a team that can not only make the playoffs but go on a long run.
“They're a team that was in game seven of the second round just a year ago before the shortened season,” said Garland. “Made some good additions, obviously with O and me coming here, we feel like we can help them a bunch and get over that hump and get into the playoffs.”
“In the years prior,” he added, “we really didn't have a legitimate shot to really get in and make a run at it, so the excitement going into training this summer and the thought of the reality of being able to play for a Stanley Cup this year is something that gets you excited.”
How the two new arrivals from the Arizona Coyotes play could go a long way towards determining how far the Canucks go this season and the two radiated positivity about each other.
“He's an unbelievable player, I don't think he gets enough credit,” said Ekman-Larsson about Garland. “In Arizona, I mean, he was our best forward by far, so I was super excited when I saw that we got traded together.”
Considering Ekman-Larsson had the likes of Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel on the Coyotes, that’s extremely high praise for Garland, who was quick to respond with equally effervescent praise for the defenceman.
“When I came into camp my first year in 2015, he was the guy I went home and told everybody in junior about how good he was and how dominant he was as a player,” said Garland about Ekman-Larsson. “I really think it's a steal for Vancouver to be able to get him at this time of his career.”
“The locker room is going to get a great guy that is a great leader, with already a good leadership group in place, and on the ice, he's going to be a great defenseman that is reliable in the D-zone and someone who's easy to get the puck to in the O-zone,” he added. “He’s a great player and hopefully we can produce for this team.”
The optimism of the players is exciting to hear. Hopefully, the absent players won’t be absent for long and that optimism can pay off with real results.