As a former high-stakes poker player, Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green likes to play his cards close to his chest. He rarely gives hints at potential lineup changes or starting goaltenders too far in advance of a game.
Wednesday’s practice, however, may have been a tell. The players involved and the lines they skated in looked an awful lot like a potential opening night lineup, with a few tweaks.
With Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes finally signed and on the ice with the team — and with just two preseason games remaining — it’s not a surprise that the Canucks are getting down to a smaller group.
Here are the lines from Thursday’s practice:
Conor Garland - Elias Pettersson - Alex Chiasson
Tanner Pearson - Bo Horvat - Nils Höglander
Nic Petan - J.T. Miller - Vasily Podkolzin
Phil Di Giuseppe - Jason Dickinson - Justin Dowling
Extras: Justin Bailey - Zack MacEwen
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Tyler Myers
Quinn Hughes - Tucker Poolman
Jack Rathbone - Luke Schenn
Extras: Brad Hunt - Kyle Burroughs
There are a few things that immediately jump out from this group. One is the absence of Olli Juolevi from the defence, suggesting that Rathbone has earned his spot in the lineup and the veteran Hunt will be the seventh defenceman.
Forwards missing from this group include Will Lockwood and Matthew Highmore, which again strongly suggests that some decisions have been made when it comes to the battle for the fourth line.
Will J.T. Miller stay at centre?
Also immediately evident is that J.T. Miller is still lining up at centre even with Pettersson back.
This shouldn’t be a big surprise, as Miller has been at centre throughout training camp, frequently with Podkolzin on his wing. With Sutter still absent while dealing with what Benning called “fatigue,” it’s understandable that Miller would stay at centre but Green also likes him in that role.
“It’s been an easy decision so far,” said Green of his choice to use Miller at centre. “We’ll see how it goes, I haven’t commmitted to it one way or the other.”
Previously, Green has said he likes Miller at centre, though it will be interesting to see how much ice time Miller actually receives and whether it will be practical to keep one of the team’s best forwards on the third line.
It should be noted, of course, that Miller was on the first power play unit with Hughes, Pettersson, and Horvat, with Chiasson filling in for Brock Boeser in front of the net.
Looking at the fourth line at Wednesday’s practice, the Canucks do have options when it comes to centre. Justin Dowling, slotted in on the wing with Di Giuseppe and and Dickinson, is versatile enough to play all three forward positions. If Green wants Miller back on the wing, Dickinson can bump up to centre the third line and Dowling slide over to centre the fourth.
Chiasson, Petan, and MacEwen still with the main group
The other forward lines shouldn’t come as a surprise. Chiasson isn’t just holding Boeser’s spot on the power play but also his spot on the first line alongside Pettersson and Garland. Boeser has been out with an injury but is likely to return prior to opening night.
The second line is the same as last season: Pearson, Horvat, and Höglander. While Höglander was skating with Boeser at the start of camp, suggesting he might play on the first line, he immediately reignited his chemistry with Pearson and Horvat when they lined up together in the preseason.
The third line of Petan, Miller, and Podkolzin looks like an attempt to create three scoring lines. Petan has been a prolific scorer in the AHL but has yet to find the same success in the NHL, where he’s frequently been used on the fourth line in limited minutes. Playing with Miller and Podkolzin could be his best chance to prove himself.
Petan was also on the second power play unit with Garland, Höglander, and Pearson, with Ekman-Larsson at the point.
There’s also the possibility that Chiasson, who is currently on a professional tryout (PTO) contract, could get signed and take Petan’s spot on the third line and second power play unit when Boeser returns.
Di Giuseppe and Dickinson have been attached at the hip throughout training camp and preseason, both at 5-on-5 and the penalty kill. Green typically likes to put together forward duos, then rotate wingers when he wants to shake up the lines — Di Giuseppe and Dickinson appear to be one of those duos.
“We're always putting lines together for a reason,” said Green. “When you talk about Dickinson, he’s going to be a guy that's a bit of a match-up guy, penalty kill, hard to play against. We hope that Di Giuseppe, we see him as a player that can be a bit of a checking line kind of guy that can skate and make a play and hopefully kill penalties and that's why he's been put in that role.”
Then there are the extra forwards: Bailey and MacEwen. If the lines at practice are indeed reflective of the Canucks’ opening night lineup, then Bailey and MacEwen will be battling with Chiasson to be the team’s 13th forward.
There are superficial similarities between the three forwards — all three have size and strength and have typically been used more in offensive roles than defensive ones. After that, however, the similarities break down.
Bailey has blinding speed, which he uses to good effect on the forecheck, and also has experience killing penalties at the AHL level. MacEwen is more of a grinder with surprisingly good hands when he gets the space to use them and has been rotating in on the penalty kill in practice. Chiasson is more of a power play specialist, with experience scoring goals at the NHL level as a net-front presence.
The next two preseason games could determine which of those three players makes the team. For Bailey, he’s trying to play catch-up after missing training camp and the preseason after testing positive for COVID-19 when he attempted to fly back to Vancouver.
“Obviously, it's not ideal to miss the first 10 days of camp,” said Bailey. “The next two games are important for me to show that I haven't missed a beat. I made sure, conditioning-wise, I was up to speed.”
After a quarantine period, Bailey skated with the Everett Silvertips until he was allowed to enter Canada and join the Caanucks.
“I got a rental car, I got a hotel in Bellingham and kind of hit the panic button calling my agents the whole way and made sure they found some ice,” said Bailey after he was turned away at the border because his 10-day quarantine didn’t meet their 14-day requirement. “I want to thank the entire Everett Silvertips organization for helping me stay ready for camp.”
Poolman joins Hughes on defence
On defence, Poolman lined up with the returning Hughes. With Travis Hamonic still absent, it appears that Poolman will take his place instead of partnering with Ekman-Larsson, as he has since the start of training camp.
That leaves Myers to play with Ekman-Larsson, which could be a high-risk pairing if they’re used in a shutdown role. On the third pairing, Rathbone is still partnered with Schenn, who has an opportunity to be an everyday NHLer for the first time since 2018.
If the Canucks go with eight defencemen, as they have in the past, it appears that Kyle Burroughs has won the battle over Madison Bowey to be the extra defenceman on the right side.
There are still a lot more players on the Canucks roster, but Green confirmed that one of the reasons they haven’t made more cuts is because they had three games in five nights and wanted to have more players available so they could rest their veterans.
Of course, all of this could change in an instant. The Canucks may face further injuries or could completely switch up their lineup after Thursday’s and/or Saturday’s preseason games. But it’s hard to ignore how much Wednesday’s practice looked like an NHL lineup.