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Canucks camp battles: Highmore, MacEwen, Lockwood, and a plethora of other fourth-line options

The Canucks have nine forwards with a shot of earning the last spot in the lineup at training camp.
matthew highmore matt murray - darryl dyck, cp
The Vancouver Canucks' Matthew Highmore is stopped by Matt Murray of the Ottawa Senators.

As the Vancouver Canucks head into training camp this week, their forward group is pretty much set in stone.

Assuming that Elias Pettersson signs his new contract in time for the start of the season, there are 11 forwards who are basically guaranteed a spot in the opening night lineup. Certainly, there will be some internal battles for who ends up on what line, but there’s little to no debate over which players will be there.

Here’s one possible way those 11 forwards will line up:

J.T. Miller - Elias Pettersson - Brock Boeser
Conor Garland - Bo Horvat - Nils Höglander
Tanner Pearson - Jason Dickinson - Vasily Podkolzin
Tyler Motte - Brandon Sutter - ???

That leaves just one spot up for grabs at training camp: fourth-line winger. Well, that and the 13th forward spot, but they’re functionally the same. Two forwards will be added to this group, one to play in the lineup and one to sit in the press box.

The Canucks have plenty of candidates for these final two spots and it could be the most contentious battle at camp. It could be open to any type of player: Tyler Motte can play either wing and Brandon Sutter can shift to the wing as well, meaning any left wing, centre, or right wing could challenge to make the team.

In fact, there may be another spot open, albeit temporarily. Tyler Motte might not be ready to play and could start the season on injured reserve.

As we look at who might nab those final spots, let’s consider the criteria the Canucks are likely to use when making their decision. Obviously, there’s performance to take into account — how they play at camp and in the preseasaon — but there are other factors that will weigh into the decision.

There’s each player’s cap hit, as the team won’t have a lot of room to maneuver. Waiver eligibility could play a role, as a player exempt from waivers can be sent down to the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL without risk of being claimed by another team. 

The Canucks will also have to consider the player’s role: anyone playing with Sutter and Motte will have to face a steady diet of defensive zone starts and occasional use in a matchup role. Given the players the team lost in the offseason, an ability to kill penalties would also go a long way towards securing a roster spot.

Let’s take a look at the nine candidates up for the job.

Matthew Highmore
Cap Hit: $725,000
Waiver Exempt: No

Highmore has a few things going for him. One is familiarity — he spent 18 games with the Canucks last season. Another is the price they paid to acquire him, trading Adam Gaudette to the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ll likely want to prove that price was worth it.

Another point in his favour is that he has the lowest cap hit on the Canucks — his $725,000 cap hit comes in below the NHL’s minimum salary for the 2021-22 season.

Highmore has speed, a wicked release on his shot, and is an effective penalty killer. That said, he also got eaten alive in puck possession at 5-on-5 last season, though that could be a reflection of occasionally being asked to play above his station in the top-six because of injuries. 

With everything else in his favour, however, it’s safe to say that Highmore is the man to beat for everyone else on this list. He doesn’t have a spot sewn up but he has the inside track, to mix a metaphor.

Zack MacEwen
Cap Hit: $825,000
Waiver Exempt: No

Zack MacEwen has been working his way up the Canucks’ system for four years, gradually earning longer and longer looks in the NHL. The issue is that he struggled last season and now there’s a lot more competition.

The offence dried up for MacEwen, who managed just 2 points in 34 games. He did take some steps defensively but he wasn’t trusted enough to play on the penalty kill. It seemed like a step backwards for MacEwen after making so much forward progress in the 2019-20 season.

MacEwen does have size and the willingness to use it, which is a dimension sometimes missing from the Canucks’ lineup. He also has some subtle skill to his game that can catch opponents unaware. The odds are stacked against him but, given how he’s bucked the odds before, it seems like a bad idea to bet against him heading into camp

Justin Bailey
Cap Hit: $750,000
Waiver Exempt: No

For two games last season, it seemed like Justin Bailey had finally found his feet at the NHL level. Then, in his third game, the 25-year-old winger got hit from behind by Milan Lucic, suffering a shoulder injury that ended his season.  

It was a brutal blow for Bailey, who had thrived with the Utica Comets in the AHL the previous season, scoring 28 goals and 47 points in 53 games. While he had played NHL games before with the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers, it seemed like he had figured out how to best use his size and speed at the NHL level this past season before a dirty hit cut his season short.

Bailey is 6’4” and blazingly fast, a tantalizing combination that could get him a long look at training camp and his league-minimum cap hit doesn’t hurt either. The primary issue for Bailey is that he’s more of an offensively-oriented player and isn’t known for his defensive game. He’s done a bit of penalty killing in the AHL but hasn’t been used in that role in the NHL.

Unless he can prove that his defensive game is sold enough to play a defence-first role on the fourth line, Bailey might be more likely to start the season in the AHL. Still, there aren’t many 6’4” guys who can skate like Bailey. He’ll be one to watch.

Will Lockwood
Cap Hit: $842,500
Waiver Exempt: Yes

Will Lockwood is heading into his rookie season after a two-game audition last season, eager to make his mark in the NHL. Lockwood has all kinds of speed — he can flat-out fly — and he gets in on the forecheck with aplomb. The Canucks are high on his two-way game and physical style of play, though it has gotten him injured in the past.

The big issue for Lockwood is a lack of experience. He played 24 games in the AHL last season, tallying 11 points, but that’s it for professional hockey. Judging from his lacklustre two games in the NHL last season, he could use a little more seasoning with the Abbotsford Canucks.

It doesn’t help that Lockwood is a little more expensive than many of the other players against whom he’s competing. He’s also the only one who doesn’t need to pass through waivers to get sent down to the AHL.

That means it will take an exceptional effort by Lockwood to earn his way onto the roster to start the season. He has the type of game that catches eyes, however, as he regularly wins races to loose pucks and isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder into an opponent and send them flying.

Lockwood can also play on the penalty kill — his first professional goal came shorthanded — so he has a chance. Even if he starts the season in the AHL, it’s a good bet that we’ll see him in Vancouver sometime this season.

Phil Di Giuseppe
Cap Hit: $750,000
Waiver Exempt: No

If the Canucks want their fourth line to be a true checking line, Phil Di Giuseppe might be the best option to play alongside Sutter and Motte. Di Giuseppe might not be a name that rings any bells for Canucks fans, but he has over 200 games of NHL experience under his belt for the Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, and New York Rangers and has made his mark as a solid defensive winger.

Di Giuseppe has some grit to his game and he’s good along the boards, consistently winning puck battles. Offensively, there’s not much there — he’s a fourth-line defensive forward.

Oddly enough, despite his excellent defensive play at even strength, Di Giuseppe hasn’t been used much at all on the penalty kill. Don’t be surprised to see Di Giuseppe get some penalty kill reps at camp and in the preseason — it could be the difference between him making the team or heading down to Abbotsford.

Instead of a spot on the fourth line, Di Giuseppe could be in line to be the team’s 13th forward, though the Canucks might prefer a more versatile forward in that role. 

Justin Dowling
Cap Hit: $750,000
Waiver Exempt: No

It’s likely that Justin Dowling will play for the Canucks sometime this season. He’s a versatile forward who can play at both centre and on the wing and, with the lack of centre depth on the Canucks, Dowling is a good bet to fill in at fourth-line centre if they get into injury trouble.

Is he likely to make the team out of camp? Maybe. The 30-year-old Dowling is a reliable, two-way player but he’s not a penalty killer, lacks size, and has limited offensive upside. 

His reliability and versatility, however, make him a handy option as a 13th forward. He can play on either wing or at centre if they need him to and having a 30-year-old in the press box is preferable to a younger player, who could instead be getting big minutes and experience in the AHL.

Dowling also has a dash of skill and has filled in with the Dallas Stars in a top-six role in the past, though he only has 14 career points. He’s very much a late bloomer and didn’t make his NHL debut until he was 26. 

Jonah Gadjovich
Cap Hit: $783,333
Waiver Exempt: No

Jonah Gadjovich lit up the AHL last season, racking up 15 goals in just 19 games, easily the best goals-per-game in the league. That rocketed Gadjovich back up the ranks of the Canucks’ prospect pool after some early struggles in the AHL.

Where Gadjovich excelled in the AHL, his NHL debut was a disaster. He had a giveaway for a goal against and ended up playing less than five minutes after getting tagged with an instigator penalty for a fight. 

The issue for Gadjovich is the same one that has dogged him since he was drafted: a lack of footspeed and versatility that limits his upward mobility. At the AHL level, Gadjovich can leverage his size and touch in front of the net to score goals; at the NHL level, Gadjovich will need to do more and he knows it.

That makes Gadjovich one to watch at training camp. He’ll be looking to prove that his skating has taken a step and that he has a more well-rounded game to go with his net-front goalscoring. 

Sheldon Dries
Cap Hit: $750,000
Waiver Exempt: No

Sheldon Dries is the darkest of darkhorse candidates to make the Canucks out of training camp. A speedy and hardworking forward who can play both wing and centre, Dries has the versatility and two-way game to carve out a spot on the roster.

While Dries struggled to crack the lineup of the deep and talented Colorado Avalanche over the last couple of seasons, he played 40 games for the Avalanche in 2018-19, where he averaged nearly a minute-per-game on the penalty kill.

The knock against Dries is his lack of size — he’s just 5’9” — and he hasn’t been able to translate his decent offence in the AHL to the NHL. As someone eager to prove himself to a new team, Dries is one to watch in the preseason: his high-energy game could make some waves.

Nic Petan
Cap Hit: $750,000
Waiver Exempt: No

Nic Petan ought to be an NHL player. In his last three stints in the AHL, Petan has scored at a point-per-game pace or better. Last year, he had 7 goals and 15 points in just 14 AHL games.

In the NHL, Petan has held his own, with decent underlying analytics that paint a picture of a player who is above-average defensively. He has a knack for finding his teammates with passes and transitioning the puck up ice.

The issue is that none of his AHL offence shows up in the NHL. Over the last three seasons, Petan has just 6 points in 36 games. As a 5’9” forward, Petan has been pigeonholed as an offensive player who needs to put up points to stay in the lineup.

It’s understandable: Petan isn’t a gritty player and he tends to lose board battles. No one’s going to put him on the penalty kill. It’s hard to find a spot on the fourth line for a player like that, even if the numbers suggest they’re better defensively than they appear to be at first glance. Call it Kyle Wellwood syndrome.  

Odds are good that Petan starts the season in the AHL and leads the Abbotsford Canucks in scoring. But maybe he makes that a difficult decision in training camp and the preseason. Maybe a change of scenery helps him find his offensive game in Vancouver or maybe the coaching staff recognizes his positive contributions to puck possession even when he doesn’t pick up points. 

At the very least, the idea of someone with skill and creativity like Petan on the fourth line is intriguing. He could also be a candidate to fill in further up the lineup in case of injury.