There was almost a Vancouver Canucks hockey game on Wednesday night.
There were Canucks players on the Rogers Arena ice. NHL officials were there with them, calling offsides, icings, and penalties. The Vancouver media were in the makeshift socially-distanced pressbox. Brendan Batchelor even had the play-by-play on Sportsnet 650.
Alas, it wasn’t a real game, merely a scrimmage, and the Canucks were only facing themselves: Team Blue and Team White, made up of the two groups the players have skated in to start training camp.
It’s hard to know exactly what to take from a scrimmage. The result — a 6-4 win for Team White after going down 3-0 early — clearly doesn’t matter. At the same time, with no exhibition games before the start of the regular season in a week, these scrimmages are the only game action the coaches and management will be able to use to evaluate their team and make lineup and roster decisions.
So the scrimmage clearly matters to players battling for a spot in the lineup, but it also matters for those who have spots locked up: they have to get up to game speed in a hurry. Head coach Travis Green emphasized the importance of making the most of every moment at training camp, from morning skates to scrimmages.
“We need to focus: every drill matters, every little detail matters right now, we're not going to have time to go into games and work on things,” said Green before the scrimmage. “Even tonight, it’s an important game.”
Who made the most of their opportunity? We have to start with Nils Höglander, who has the potential to snag a spot on the second line right out of camp.
Högging the spotlight
As he has all camp, Höglander skated on a line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson for Team White for most of Wednesday’s scrimmage. He was noticeable all night for all the right reasons.
Offensively, Höglander’s hands are top-notch and he bamboozled a few different opponents on Team Blue throughout the game. Early on, he slipped the puck between Jake Virtanen’s legs along the boards, then fed the puck down low for Horvat, who tried to set up Pearson in front.
Later on, he showed off his edgework, spinning off a check in the offensive zone, then dropping the puck for Quinn Hughes, who followed up with a spin move of his own. It led to a long shift in the offensive zone for Team White, culminating in a scoring chance for Höglander off a pass from Hughes. Seeing the two working together was a delight.
Beyond the hands, Höglander also showed a solid work rate away from the puck and a lot of determination, such as when he hounded Elias Pettersson in the offensive zone, stealing the puck and immediately trying to drive to the slot with it. It’s not easy to get the better of Pettersson like that.
Of course, what fans really want to see is that Höglander’s skill and determination produces tangible results. Not to worry, he provided points as well.
All three members of the line got in on a goal early in the second period. Pearson pressured on the forecheck and got his stick on a breakout pass. Höglander jumped on the puck and immediately whipped it across to Horvat for a one-timer that beat Braden Holtby blocker side.
Note how quickly Höglander moves the puck. Holtby has to be wary of the shot from a wide-open player so comes out to challenge. Höglander immediately identifies this and puts the puck perfectly in Horvat’s wheelhouse for a better scoring chance.
Höglander got a goal of his own in the third period and it wound up being the gamewinner. It was a magic little passing play between himself and Antoine Roussel.
The initial pass to Roussel by Höglander is more difficult than it looks. He opens up his skates as if to shoot, drawing the attempted shot block, then flips the puck into open space, perfectly weighted for Roussel to skate onto it. Then Roussel gets fancy, spotting Höglander jumping up to the backdoor and sliding a blind, backhand pass through Guillaume Brisebois.
The key here is that Höglander didn’t rest on his laurels, expecting Roussel to finish off his pass, but immediately jumped to a more dangerous part of the ice. That off-puck movement makes Höglander far more dangerous than any set of puckhandling moves ever could.
It’s easy to get hyped up about Höglander a few days into training camp, but it is worth tempering expectations a little. Keep in mind, unlike his Canucks teammates, Höglander is in midseason form after coming over from the SHL. He’s not working his way up to game speed — he’s already there.
The test for him will be how he copes when everyone else is up to game speed as well. The early indications are, however, that he can handle himself just fine.
Lockwood looks good
It was another young prospect looking to make his NHL debut that opened the scoring: Will Lockwood. The 22-year-old winger signed with the Canucks this offseason after four years at the University of Michigan and he served notice that his skill shouldn’t be discounted.
Loui Eriksson made a nifty tip pass to Jay Beagle to send the veteran centre in 2-on-1 with Lockwood. Beagle got the saucer pass across to Lockwood, who sent Thatcher Demko’s water bottle flying with a fantastic shot into the top corner.
Not long after, Lockwood got his second of the game, tipping in an Alex Edler point shot. Along with a goal by Tyler Graovac, that gave Team Blue an early 3-0 lead.
Beyond the two goals, Lockwood lived up to his scouting report: he got in hard on the forecheck with his speed. At one point he harried Tyler Myers into giving up the puck and Myers resorted to hooking Lockwood to prevent him from getting to it. Evidently, the referee was looking the other way at the time.
It was a good showing for Lockwood, who isn’t likely to make the Canucks out of camp, but could position himself for a spot on the taxi squad to start the year.
Juolevi’s steady and ready
Olli Juolevi has just one NHL game under his belt, but it looks like he’s already part of the team. That’s not just because the Canucks lack veteran depth and will need a rookie to step up, but also because Juolevi looks like he belongs.
During Wednesday’s scrimmage, he played with a lot of confidence, moving the puck well from the back end and jumping up in the rush to support his forwards. There was no hesitation or second-guessing: he just moved the puck and himself to the right places on the ice all night.
Defensively he had a couple of hiccups — he still needs to work on his pivots to prevent being beaten by speed — but he acquitted himself quite well. If he’s going to play regularly on the third pairing, this was a promising showing.
It’s also telling that he’s spent so much time alongside Tyler Myers. More on that in the future, but there’s a strong possibility that the two play together to start the season.
The best of the rest
The Lotto Line of J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Brock Boeser looked ready to start the season. In fact, they almost looked bored at times.
Boeser had a great chance in the second period after stealing the puck from Josh Teves and working a give-and-go with Pettersson, but shot just high. He also showed off his new-and-improved slap shot a couple of times.
Miller got the line’s only goal, drilling a one-timer into the top of the net from a bad angle off a pass by Pettersson.
Hughes got a goal as well, finishing off a penalty shot with a slick deke to the forehand on Holtby.
As for other players on the bubble, Marc Michaelis stood out with both his forechecking and his playmaking, which is a nice combination to have in a depth centre. He had one particularly nice pass to Sven Baertschi to send him in alone on a breakaway, but Baertschi sent the puck over the net.
Speaking of Baertschi, he got himself into good scoring positions all game, but couldn’t get the finish. Both Michaelis and Baertschi are good bets to be on the Canucks’ taxi squad.
Among other young players, Kole Lind had a few noticeable moments. He set up Bo Horvat for his second goal of the game after Jayce Hawryluk picked up a turnover by Justin Bailey.
Hawryluk is another young player on the bubble and he didn’t stand out quite as much in the scrimmage. He did some decent work along the boards in puck battles and had a big hit on Jack Rathbone while forechecking, but didn’t create too much offensively besides his second assist on the Horvat goal.
Still, there’s room for what Hawryluk brings to the table in a depth role and he showed last season with the Ottawa Senators that he can move up the lineup if needed. He could be a candidate to start the season on the taxi squad or perhaps as a 13th forward.
Then there are the goaltenders. It’s tough to evaluate in a scrimmage, particularly the first one of training camp when defensive systems are still pretty loose. Demko made a stunning save early in the game on Nate Schmidt and Holtby had a couple of nice saves himself.
Still, you could tell this was the first game situation for both goaltenders in a while. Holtby kicked out some ugly rebounds and his angles seemed off a few times, while Demko gave up a goal to Tyler Graovac that he probably should have stopped. Hopefully, both goaltenders can get settled in with one week to go until puck drop on the 2020-21 season.