The Vancouver Canucks newly-improved depth is already being tested.
Ilya Mikheyev left Sunday’s game against the Calgary Flames after a heavy hit and is now considered week-to-week with a lower-body injury. Tyler Myers was also missing from Tuesday’s practice with an illness, while Travis Dermott had to be helped to the locker room after “feeling a little woozy,” according to Bruce Boudreau.
While Mikheyev’s uncertain prognosis is worrying, the Canucks’ biggest concern is Brock Boeser, who had to undergo hand surgery after an injury suffered at training camp in Whistler.
Boeser is expected to miss three to four weeks, which isn’t ideal, but probably a best-case scenario when you hear the words “hand surgery” about a player. That means Boeser won’t be available for the start of the regular season and could miss up to seven games, assuming there are no setbacks along the way.
The one nice thing is that since it’s only his hand, Boeser is expected to still be able to skate with the team in the coming weeks, so shouldn’t lose anything in terms of fitness and conditioning.
"This is the year."
It’s a tough way for Boeser to start the season after he came into training camp with so much confidence and positivity.
“This is the year,” said Boeser when he was asked about breaking the 30-goal barrier. After he scored 29 goals in 62 games in his rookie year, scoring 30 goals seemed like an easy bar for Boeser to clear, but injuries and scoring slumps have kept him from doing so. With the injury to start the season, Boeser could once again have a tough time reaching 30 goals.
The Canucks could also have a tough time without Boeser, as his absence leaves a hole on the right wing. At training camp, he lined up with J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson on what would ostensibly be the Canucks’ first line. Pearson, Miller, and Boeser were one of the Canucks’ best and most consistent lines last season.
With Mikheyev, another right winger, potentially out for the start of the season as well, the Canucks have a dilemma — who plays with Miller and Pearson and how does that affect the rest of the lineup?
Shuffling the lineup without Boeser
At practice on Tuesday, Conor Garland was bumped up the lineup to the Miller line, which makes a lot of sense. Garland was a frequent linemate with Miller and Pearson and he was even more effective with them than Boeser.
Moving Garland from Bo Horvat’s line with Vasily Podkolzin, however, could cause some difficulties. That line looked poised to be a match-up line and Garland was the most effective Canucks forward at matching up against elite competition last season.
The Canucks’ response to that on Tuesday was to move Curtis Lazar from the fourth line to Horvat’s right wing and slide Podkolzin over to the left side.
It’s a move that makes some sense. Lazar is a very good defensive forward and has matched up well against elite competition, but he doesn’t bring anywhere near the same offensive ability as Garland. Playing Lazar with Horvat and Podkolzin means the Canucks can still deploy that line in a match-up role, but it puts the offensive burden of that line entirely on Horvat and Podkolzin.
At the very least, Lazar is a better option for that line than Jason Dickinson, who frequently played up with Horvat last season.
With Lazar bumped up the lineup, that opens up a spot on the fourth line. The favourites to battle for that spot are Phil Di Giuseppe, Linus Karlsson, and Nils Åman, and that would be true even if they weren’t the extra players at practice with the main group on Tuesday.
No Mikheyev means Höglander is back on the menu
Without Mikheyev on his wing, Elias Pettersson was reunited with Nils Höglander on Tuesday, with Andrei Kuzmenko still on the left wing. While concerns that Höglander might start the season in the AHL were likely overblown, it’s still gratifying to see him put on a line that should get prime offensive opportunities.
Höglander and Pettersson were dynamic together last season, particularly with Podkolzin on the right wing. It remains to be seen if Kuzmenko can be as complementary a player to them as Podkolzin was, but that line is likely to get plenty of offensive zone starts and softer matchups as the Horvat and Miller lines get deployed against tougher competition. Theoretically, that should lead to plenty of points for that line.
If Mikheyev is able to return before the start of the season, Höglander could still end up on Pettersson's wing. Mikheyev has a strong two-way game and could instead replace Lazar with Horvat and Podkolzin on a match-up line that could be exceptionally dangerous in transition.
The additional wrinkle with Boeser out is the power play, where Boeser typically played a down-low/net-front role on the first unit. Fortunately, the Canucks have a new winger whose specialty is playing with the man advantage: Andrei Kuzmenko.
The Russian winger played the down-low role effectively during Sunday’s preseason game, setting up Horvat for a great chance, so he’ll likely fill that role as long as Boeser is out. Depending on how the power play goes early in the season, he could play that role even when Boeser returns.
Höglander stepped in on the second power play unit at practice on Tuesday. When Boeser returns, Höglander is likely to lose that spot.
The lineup changes brought on by the injuries are logical ones. As always with the preseason, they may not last. There could always be more injuries — knock on wood — or the lines might not survive the test of actual gameplay. The pressure for the Canucks is to get these lines right for opening night, as they have repeatedly emphasized the importance of getting out to a strong start.
The Canucks can’t let injuries become an excuse this season.