On Wednesday, Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet warned against reading too much into the forward lines and defence pairs at training camp.
“To me, it’s a fluid thing,” said Tocchet. “There’s nothing set in stone right now. That’s what training camp is for. You want to give everybody an opportunity but you also want your main guys ready too, so you’ve got to find that sweet spot.”
In other words, things could change significantly in the coming weeks ahead of the Canucks’ first game of the 2023-24 season on October 11. He’s looking to develop some chemistry in his lines but also wants to mix things up to give players a chance to prove themselves.
At the same time, it’s hard not to read into things. The lines at the Canucks’ first two days of training camp seem to pretty clearly show some of the combinations we’re likely to see during the season.
Pairs of forwards
It’s become standard around the NHL for forward lines to feature a set duo with a rotating third member of the line depending on who’s hot at any given time.
“Scotty Bowman was a big ‘pair’ guy,” said Tocchet. “I like putting pairs together and then you can put people with them. We’ll see how that shakes out.”
The Canucks initial forward lines at training camp seem to feature some distinct forward pairs. The following four lines remained unchanged from day one to day two of camp:
Andrei Kuzmenko - Elias Pettersson - Nils Höglander
Vasily Podkolzon - J.T. Miller - Brock Boeser
Anthony Beauvillier - Teddy Blueger - Phil Di Giuseppe
Arshdeep Bains - Pius Suter - Conor Garland
The pairings seem clear: Pettersson and Kuzmenko, Miller and Boeser, Blueger and Beauvillier, and Suter and Garland.
If those pairings stay the same while the other wingers rotate, then it looks like the Canucks’ intention this year is to roll four lines, rather than having a distinct top-six/bottom-six or even top-nine/fourth-line approach. At least, that’s the impression given when two top-six wingers in Garland and Beauvillier are matched with two bottom-six centres in Blueger and Suter.
Another possibility is that the bottom-six pairings are actually Blueger and Di Giuseppe and Suter and Bains, which would definitely be more of a bottom-six look. That would also allow the top-six wingers in Beauvillier and Garland to rotate onto lines with Pettersson and Miller. That seems less likely, but I don’t want to discount the possibility, because Beauvillier and Garland are certainly players likely to play higher up in the lineup at some point.
A major opportunity for Höglander and Podkolzin
Tocchet talked about giving young players a real opportunity to play higher up the lineup than just the third and fourth-line roles that might typically be available. His lines on the first two days of training camp show that wasn’t just talk.
Höglander and Podkolzin spent a big chunk of last season in the AHL after seemingly already establishing themselves as NHLers previously. It was an opportunity to press the reset button on their development and get them back on track to becoming impactful players in the NHL.
Now, at this year’s training camp, they’re getting a major chance to take hold of top-six spots in the lineup. Höglander has lined up with Pettersson and Kuzmenko on the top line, while Podkolzin has skated with Miller and Boeser on the second line.
While the return of the injury-rehabbing Ilya Mikheyev will likely take one of those spots away, this is still a great opportunity for Höglander and Podkolzin to prove that they belong in a top-six role.
A real chance for Arshdeep Bains
I cannot emphasize enough how much the Canucks’ management group loves Arshdeep Bains and that shows in how he immediately was put on an NHL line at training camp while other wingers battling for a spot were with lesser linemates.
Bains backchecks as hard as he forechecks, playing the type of north-south game that Tocchet loves, while also possessing the skill and determination to get to the dangerous areas of the ice in the offensive zone. He’s getting a chance with Suter and Garland to start training camp, potentially leapfrogging the likes of Dakota Joshua and Jack Studnicka for a bottom-six roster spot.
Will it last? That’s up to Bains, though Joshua will surely also have something to say about it.
Holding pattern for Dakota Joshua
Dakota Joshua made a real impression on Tocchet last season, as well as the fans, who voted him the team’s unsung hero. It seemed certain that he has established himself as a regular NHL forward, with the potential to move up the lineup, perhaps even into the top-six.
“I think he sees a spot, whether it's this year or next year," said Tocchet during last season. "Is there more ice time for him, is there more responsibility? Is he a guy that you can put him on the second unit of the power play? These are certain things that they're up for grabs. Now it's his job to bang the door down and go grab it.”
For now, Joshua is waiting for that opportunity to bang down the door. The first two days of camp, Joshua has been put on a line with other players on the fringe:
Dakota Joshua - Nils Åman - Linus Karlsson
That’s where a forward might land if he was working towards a spot on the roster as the 13th forward rather than a major, everyday role. But that opportunity is likely still to come for Joshua, who will surely get his chance to rotate into one of the other lines later in camp.
A top line for the Abbotsford Canucks
One line has stayed the same through the Young Stars Classic and the first two days of training camp and it seems like a safe bet it will remain intact for the start of the Abbotsford Canucks’ season in the AHL:
Aidan McDonough - Max Sasson - Danila Klimovich
While McDonough may get a chance to prove he belongs in the NHL to start the season, a stint in the AHL might be the best bet to get him the top-line minutes he needs for his development and to properly transition to pro hockey.
Sasson has a strong two-way game but he flashed some playmaking chops at Young Stars. Putting him with a sniper like McDonough and a burgeoning power forward in Klimovich could be the best thing for all three players.
That line ought to be the first line in Abbotsford, though players like Sheldon Dries, Linus Karlsson, and Aatu Räty will also make an argument for top-line minutes.
Defence pairing shuffle
The forward lines have largely stayed the same through the first two days of camp, aside from some shuffling of prospects like Vilmer Alriksson and Aatu Räty onto different lines. The defence pairings, however, have seen a lot more movement.
Just three pairings remained the same from day one to day two and they’re some interesting pairings:
Ian Cole - Filip Hronek
Guillaume Brisebois - Tyler Myers
Christian Wolanin - Jett Woo
While Cole might have been some fans’ pick to play with Quinn Hughes, it seems like the Canucks instead want to create a shutdown second pairing of Cole and Hronek. That’s a solid bet to make, as both Cole and Hronek had very strong results against tough competition last season.
Brisebois with Myers is an interesting combination, as it makes it appear that they’re giving Brisebois a real chance to earn a spot on the left side of the third defence pairing. Brisebois is definitely a dark horse to win that job with so many other defencemen vying for the role.
One of those defencemen is Wolanin, who has instead been put on a potential top-pairing in the AHL with Jett Woo on the first two days of camp. At the very least, it doesn’t seem like Wolanin has the inside track on an NHL job like some might have thought after his excellent AHL season and strong performance in the NHL late in the season.
Who gets to be Quinn Hughes’ partner?
Through two days at camp, the Canucks’ new captain has already seen two different defence partners, as the Canucks look to answer one of the biggest questions heading into the season: who will play with Quinn Hughes?
"We have some ideas," said Tocchet. "It seems like whoever Hughesy plays with, the guy plays pretty well. When you have a player of that caliber, that's what great players do — they make other players better."
Here are the two pairings we've seen so far:
Quinn Hughes - Noah Juulsen
Quinn Hughes - Carson Soucy
Surprisingly, Hughes started camp paired with Noah Juulsen, with whom he had excellent results last season. The 26-year-old Juulsen has become a journeyman since he was drafted in the first round in 2015 but maybe there’s still a top-four defenceman there just waiting to be unlocked by an elite partner like Hughes.
On day two, however, Hughes was paired with Carson Soucy, which was what most people expected to happen after the Canucks signed the 6’5” defenceman to a three-year deal in free agency. The big question for Soucy is how he’s going to handle top-pairing matchups after spending pretty much his entire career in a third-pairing role.
Soucy spent the first day of camp paired with Cole McWard, who has an outside shot of making the Canucks as the seventh or eighth defenceman but is more likely to start the season in the AHL.
When will Hirose and Rathbone get their shot?
While Brisebois is apparently getting first crack at the open left side on the third pairing, two other candidates are waiting their turn: Akito Hirose and Jack Rathbone.
Akito Hirose - Filip Johansson
Akito Hirose - Noah Juulsen
Jack Rathbone - Matt Irwin
Jack Rathbone - Cole McWard
Hirose and Rathbone each had two different partners through the first two days of camp. Hirose spent time with Filip Johansson on day one, then got Noah Juulsen on day two. Unless Juulsen lands on Hughes’ right side, those are both defencemen destined for the AHL.
Rathbone, meanwhile, got Matt Irwin on day one and Cole McWard on day two. Irwin, at least, is likely to be on the Canucks’ roster to start the season, but Rathbone has an uphill battle ahead of him with so much competition to play on the third pairing.
Surely, Hirose and Rathbone will each get their shot at playing with Myers at some point, but not yet.
Meanwhile, when Irwin and Johansson weren’t with Hirose and Rathbone on day two, they were paired with each other. Johansson is about to play his first season in North America and will likely start in the AHL, but maybe there’s a world where he’s the eighth defenceman, giving the Canucks left and right-shot defencemen in the pressbox and allowing the likes of Hirose and McWard to play more minutes in the AHL.