It’s not always a good idea to read too much into forward lines and defence partners on the first day of training camp but head coach Bruce Boudreau practically asked us to do exactly that.
The Vancouver Canucks opened training camp at Whistler today in three groups but they didn’t just announce the rosters of each group — they also announced the lines and defence pairings for each group.
On Wednesday, Boudreau made it clear that he wasn’t going to put lines together at camp that he didn’t intend to use in the regular season.
“At the start of tomorrow’s practice, we’ll have at least four lines that we’re hoping look like opening night,” said Boudreau. “But the next day they may all be changed, so who knows?”
“In the preseason, at least the first couple of games, the lines that we have out there, we’re going to try to keep them together as a unit,” he added. “I’m trying to keep the lines together to keep some familiarity with them.”
In other words, you absolutely should read into these lines because this could very well be what the lines look like when the Canucks open up the regular season. Boudreau certainly allowed himself room to switch them up if something isn’t working but these day-one lines should give us a good idea of what to expect.
Quinn Hughes is on the right side
Presumably, Quinn Hughes is on the right side of the law, but he’s also on the right side of his defence pairing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
This is something we saw coming, as the Canucks talked about this possibility in the offseason and Hughes was skating on the right side in the team’s informal scrimmages in Burnaby. But it’s been a possibility for a lot longer than that.
Right from when Hughes was drafted, he said he couple play on either side and Travis Green even experimented with him on the right side when he first came into the NHL.
Finding a top-pairing right-side defenceman is hard, so it’s admittedly a lot easier to just take the top-pairing defenceman the Canucks already have and bump him over. Hughes has the talent to adapt to playing on his off-side, but is it worth it if it even slightly dulls his effectiveness?
We’ll have to wait and see.
Tanner Pearson is still on the top line
Despite the addition of a couple of new wingers to the roster, it looks like J.T. Miller will start the season with two familiar faces on his wing: Tanner Pearson and Brock Boeser.
Pearson was seventh on the team in scoring last season, so some might question why he’s getting such a prime spot in the lineup. But Pearson is a complementary winger who has worked very well with Miller. In fact, Pearson, Miller, and Boeser was one of the Canucks’ most effective lines at 5-on-5 last season.
It’s understandable that the Canucks might want to start with some consistency considering the new faces at camp. Also, Miller had 99 points last season — maybe messing too much with his line isn’t the best idea.
As for Boeser, getting the opportunity to start on what is ostensibly the top line should be a nice boost for his confidence. He looks primed for a bounceback season.
Elias Pettersson gets Russian wingers
One of the Canucks’ most effective lines last season featured Elias Pettersson between two young wingers, Nils Höglander and Vasily Podkolzin, but they didn’t spend all that much time together. In fact, Pettersson didn’t really have consistent linemates last season, as he had a rotating cast of wingers and even spent time on lines with his fellow centres, J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat.
It looks like Boudreau is hoping the two newest Canucks will find some chemistry with his star centre and create a dynamic scoring line, as Pettersson is flanked by Andrei Kuzmenko and Ilya Mikheyev on the first day of training camp.
Mikheyev brings a ton of speed and two-way acumen — he’ll be beneficial when it comes to puck retrievals and attacking in transition. Kuzmenko is more of an east-west type of player and he and Pettersson might be able to create offence off the cycle in the offensive zone.
If this line works out, it could be a game-changer for the Canucks.
Danny DeKeyser is getting a real look
The Canucks signed Danny DeKeyser to a professional tryout (PTO) agreement earlier this month, bringing the veteran defenceman to training camp without a full-fledged contract.
Most PTOs are brought in primarily to fill out rosters and fulfill veteran requirements for preseason games, with few earning actual contracts in the process. But it’s clear that the Canucks are giving DeKeyser a real shot at making the roster, as he’s lining up alongside Tyler Myers on the first day of camp.
The 32-year-old defenceman has struggled in recent years — by some measures, he was one of the worst defenceman in the NHL last season — but perhaps the Canucks are hoping a change of scenery from the bottom-of-the-standings Detroit Red Wings is all he needs.
Garland, Horvat, and Podkolzin could be a match-up line
It’s been years since Bo Horvat had consistent linemates but one of the strongest combinations last season saw Conor Garland and Vasily Podkolzin on his wings. That line was the Canucks’ second-highest scoring line behind Höglander, Pettersson, and Podkolzin, and was also stellar defensively and in puck possession.
Evidently, Boudreau likes that combination too. Podkolzin has the potential to be a dominant two-way player and Garland is a puck possession wizard. Combined with Horvat’s faceoff ability, transition offence, and improving two-way play, that could be a line that would face tough competition and come out on top.
Garland might not be the player that comes to mind for a match-up line because of his size, but his ability to keep the puck out of the hands of his opponents is a very effective shutdown tactic. This is an intriguing line to watch.
Nils Höglander is skating on an AHL line
The presumed fourth line skating together at camp features four centres: Dakota Joshua, Jason Dickinson, and Curtis Lazar. That leaves out Nils Höglander, who is skating on a line with presumed AHLers and fellow Swedes Nils Åman and Linus Karlsson.
Höglander has looked like a bonafide top-six forward at times in his brief, two-year NHL career, with 27 points in 56 games as a rookie and stellar underlying puck possession numbers. But Boudreau questioned his defensive game last season and there have been some concerns with his approach in the defensive zone.
What really hurts Höglander’s chances is that he’s ineligible for waivers, so he can be sent down to the AHL without getting claimed by another team. With the suddenly crowded wings, Höglander might end up starting in the AHL until injuries strike.
It seems like a mistake. Jason Dickinson was, quite frankly, terrible last season. Expecting a bounceback season from Dickinson but not from Höglander doesn’t make a lot of sense. With two other centres in Joshua and Lazar, it seems like Höglander could at least play on the fourth line, but perhaps the Canucks feel he needs to be on a scoring line or are worried about him defensively.
One thing’s for sure: Höglander is too talented to stay in the AHL for very long.
Jack Rathbone has a veteran mentor
When Quinn Hughes first entered the NHL, he was paired with Luke Schenn to give him some big, stay-at-home support on his right side. With Jack Rathbone aiming to make the NHL out of camp, the Canucks are giving him the same treatment, pairing him with Schenn right from day one.
That’s a potential third pairing for the start of the season, with Schenn’s physical, stay-at-home game hopefully complementing Rathbone’s more free-wheeling offensive game.
Meanwhile, Travis Dermott and Tucker Poolman have been paired together on another potential third pairing. Which one will we see on opening night?
It all depends on two things: whether Hughes can be effective on the right side and whether DeKeyser has the legs to earn an NHL contract. If Ekman-Larsson and Hughes are the top pairing and DeKeyser gets signed to take a top-four role with Tyler Myers, that leaves four defencemen to battle for the third pairing.
In that case, Dermott seems the safer bet to play ahead of Rathbone. If DeKeyser doesn’t work out, however, Dermott could bump up into the top-four, leaving the left side on the third pairing wide open for Rathbone.
If the Canucks decide they’d rather have Hughes on the left side, that might mean Schenn playing with him again, leaving an opening for Poolman on the right side. Would the Canucks rather have Dermott or Rathbone with Poolman?
Off-side wingers all around
Boudreau talked about wanting to try wingers on their off-side — left-handed wingers on the right wing and right-handed wingers on the left wing. There are benefits to doing so — easier one-timers, for instance — but some players aren’t as comfortable switching wings.
The right-handed Kuzmenko is on Pettersson’s left wing, while the left-handed Mikheyev is on the right. The same is true for Horvat’s wingers: the right-handed Garland is on the left wing and left-handed Podkolzin on the right.
Pearson and Boeser are on their strong sides, however, on the top line and the same is true for Joshua and Lazar on the fourth line.
Does it mean anything? Probably not. We’ve seen Garland switch sides to play on the left wing lots of times, Podkolzin and Mikheyev usually play right wing, and Kuzmenko has spent most of his KHL career on left wing. It’s just an interesting note.