Any time you give up a 3-0 lead to lose a hockey game, there are bound to be some changes to the lineup for the next game.
Sure enough, Wednesday’s practice featured some different looks for the Vancouver Canucks after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, both at forward and on defence. On defence, it’s partly circumstantial, as Travis Hamonic is ready to return from injury, but the changes at forward look far more significant.
Canucks head coach Travis Green has made a habit of trying out lines in practice that never actually see game action, but with limited practice time this season and the team in free fall, it’s hard to avoid reading into these new line combinations.
“Quite frankly, we had some individuals that didn’t play good enough tonight,” said Green on Tuesday. While he didn’t name names at the time, it’s hard not to look at these new lines and think J.T. Miller was one of them. He has been bumped off the first line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser all the way to the third line with Brandon Sutter and Adam Gaudette.
"I love having him on our team."
Miller is just short of a point per game this season, with 19 points in 20 games, but has had some defensive issues, as well as some fairly obvious moments on the ice where he’s let his emotions get the best of him and given up on plays.
After practice with the media, however, Green was steadfast in his defence of Miller.
“J.T.'s an emotional guy. He's a high-energy guy, highly competitive guy, wears his heart on his sleeve,” said Green. “We talk about things internally a lot that we don't necessarily talk out in the public. I will say that he's a big part of our group. He kills penalties now, he plays against the top lines, plays the power play, plays physical.
“This is a guy you love to have on your team and I love having him on our team.”
Defending a player while simultaneously demoting him down the lineup may seem oxymoronic, but Green suggested that one of the issues with Miller’s game this season is that he’s getting too much ice time.
“Last year we couldn't say enough good things about him. And yeah, maybe it hasn't gone perfect for him this year but I've got to do a better job in managing his ice time,” said Green. “I think I'm giving him too many minutes and it's hard not to when you’ve got a player that plays the way he does...I think when people get tired they tend to be prone to a few too many mistakes.”
Miller’s ice time has regularly crept over 22 minutes per game this season, particularly now that he plays both sides of special teams. He leads all Canucks forwards with 20:24 per game in ice time, which is 21st in the NHL this season.
"I want to win and we're not winning."
It’s not just the mistakes that have Canucks fans concerned — it’s the body language and emotional outbursts that show up when things don’t go his way.
There have been numerous examples this season, with the latest coming in the third period of Tuesday’s game. On a breakout, Miller was looking for a pass from Nate Schmidt. The pass didn’t connect and Miller had his stick knocked out of his hands. Instead of hustling off the ice, Miller slumped his shoulders and coasted to the bench.
If it looked bad on the television broadcast, it looked worse in person, particularly in a one-goal game where the Canucks still had an opportunity to score and force overtime.
“I want to win and we’re not winning,” said Miller about looking visibly frustrated on the ice. “I try not to, but when you keep doing the same things and making the same mistakes and giving up leads and chasing the game, it's exhausting. It's emotionally draining, it's frustrating. I try to find a balance between breaking a stick, dropping f-bombs, or looking like whatever you guys see that I don't.”
The best players in the NHL have the same mentality where they hate losing. When the team’s not winning, some players internalize those frustrations, but Miller never has.
“You're talking about body language or getting frustrated or breaking sticks — I mean, obviously you don't want to do that, but I play on the edge and always have,” said Miller. “I think it makes me the best version of myself as a player. I'm trying not to do that but when you play a lot of minutes and you’re not winning, it's emotionally exhausting.”
“I'm not gonna apologize for being a frustrated hockey player,” he added.
"Managing his emotions is something that I think he's still learning."
There’s something to be said for a player like Miller setting a better example for his younger teammates on the ice, but it’s hard to say what impact he actually has. Perhaps internally his teammate see how much losing tears him up and respond well to that. Fans and the media only see what happens on the ice.
“He's also relatively young in a leadership role and managing his emotions is something that I think he's still learning,” said Green. “I've seen it a lot over the years — highly competitive guys, man, they hate losing and it gets to them and sometimes they react in a way that isn't perfect. As coaches we need to continue to work with players like that and improve them and make them better in those areas.”
In his place on the top line is Nils Höglander, who has been consistent in his effort and ability to create chances all season, but hasn’t scored a goal in nearly a month. Höglander has both the playmaking chops and the ability to win puck battles that would allow him to play with Pettersson and Boeser if he does get the opportunity during a game.
“You look at a guy like Höglander, I think he's very confident,” said Green. “He's got a lot of excitement in his game and he wants the puck, he wants to do well, he's hungry, he works extremely hard. He's still learning certain parts of the game, I can think of probably three plays last night with him that is probably just immaturity and we've been trying to work with him, trying to give him a longer leash.”
A stint on the top line would certainly be a longer leash.
Other lineup changes for the Canucks
With Höglander going from right wing to left wing, that opened up a spot on the right wing with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson. It looks like Jake Virtanen will get another opportunity in the Canucks’ top-six in that spot.
Virtanen has largely been invisible this season, even when he got a chance to start the season on the first line. He has just one goal in 18 games and no other points. Away from the puck, he just hasn’t done enough, whether it’s throwing hits, winning puck battles, or playing sound positional defence.
At the same time, the Canucks need goalscoring from their top-six and Virtanen has provided that in the past. Perhaps he’ll do more with this opportunity. Or perhaps the Canucks are simply showcasing him for a potential trade.
Antoine Roussel was bumped down to the fourth line and took turns with Jayce Hawryluk, who has yet to get into a game after a training camp injury. Roussel took an undisciplined penalty on Tuesday — could he find himself bumped out of the lineup entirely?
Finally, on defence, Hamonic’s return means reuniting with Quinn Hughes. The two struggled together earlier in the season, but that could have been a result of Hamonic’s lack of practice time after missing much of training camp.
That moves Jordie Benn back to the left side on the third pairing with Tyler Myers. Benn has struggled on his left side with the Canucks and seems to play significantly better on his off-side on the right. With Schmidt, Hamonic, and Myers already on the right, however, it’s either the left side or out of the lineup for Benn.
That leaves Olli Juolevi out of the lineup altogether. The rookie defenceman has looked fine this season, particularly after returning from a healthy scratch, but he has played sheltered minutes. With the Canucks’ season falling apart at the seams, it appears that Green is turning to his veterans on defence to hold it all together.
The Canucks’ defence pairings seemed to be the least of their concerns, however. It remains to be seen if Hamonic’s return will make things better or worse.