This weekend’s back-to-back losses to the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights may have been a wake up call for the Canucks.
Jim Benning, at least, is starting to sound worried. As reported by Ben Kuzma, Benning had some harsh words for his team after their losses.
“They were harder on the puck and won more battles than us,” said the Canucks GM. “We need to be ready right off the hop and play hard.”
In the midst of their recent struggles, however, one line has continued to look good, even if the goals haven’t always followed: the Lotto Line of Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and J.T. Miller. While head coach Travis Green has occasionally split that line apart, he frequently brings them back together as games progress, simply because that is the one line that has controlled possession with the most consistency this season.
Meanwhile, the Canucks second line has been relatively stable as well, with the same set of wingers rotating on a line with Bo Horvat, primarily Tanner Pearson and Josh Leivo. The third line, thrown into chaos by injuries, recently settled on a trio of Antoine Roussel, Adam Gaudette, and Jake Virtanen.
Judging by the lines from Tuesday morning’s game day skate, however, those three lines have been thrown almost entirely out the window in favour of a new-look top-nine. With a crucial homestand heading into Christmas, the team needed a change.
#Canucks with a top-9 shake up at morning skate ahead of Tuesday night’s game vs. Montréal. Line rushes:— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) December 17, 2019
What’s surprising about this shakeup is that Green has traditionally liked keeping pairs of players together among his forwards, typically switching the third forward when he changes his lines. This shakeup breaks up those pairs.
Last season, one of those pairs was Pettersson and Boeser, but that has shifted this season to Pettersson and Miller. That new pair sticks together with these new lines, with Jake Virtanen, who has spent a bit of time with them over the last few games, getting the start on the first line.
Meanwhile, Horvat’s linemates are completely different. Horvat has been paired with Pearson this season, but he’s also spent more than 100 5-on-5 minutes with Leivo, Virtanen, and Miller. He hasn’t even played 50 minutes this season with his two new linemates, Boeser and Roussel, though that’s primarily because Roussel was recovering from knee surgery to start the season.
With Horvat struggling to score at 5-on-5, and struggling to score at all at home, adding Boeser and Roussel to his wings is a welcome development. Boeser and Horvat had a lot of success together in Boeser’s rookie season before Pettersson arrived, while Roussel was Horvat’s most effective linemate last season before his knee injury cut his season short.
Roussel has a surprising playmaking element to his game to go with his grit and rabble-rousing, while Boeser has added physicality and a strong two-way game to his elite shot. That’s a trio that should be able to provide secondary scoring behind the Pettersson line.
That bumps Pearson and Leivo to the Gaudette line, which should improve scoring depth as well. Pearson and Leivo have produced at or near second-line rates at 5-on-5 this season, as has Gaudette in more limited minutes. In addition, Pearson and Leivo add some two-way heft, which is key, as Gaudette has still had some struggles defensively.
To go with the changes up front, the Canucks practiced with switched-up defence pairs. Since Alex Edler got injured, the Canucks have rolled fairly consistent pairs: Quinn Hughes with Tyler Myers, Chris Tanev with Jordie Benn, and Troy Stecher with Oscar Fantenberg. All three pairings were different on Tuesday morning.
While Hughes and Myers have controlled play well together, they have perhaps been too similar in how they focus on offence and have given up some dangerous chances against. Meanwhile, the other two pairings have been badly out-shot since Edler’s injury; something had to change.
Hughes is now back with Tanev and Stecher back with Benn, returning to their lines from before Edler’s injury. Myers, meanwhile, is now playing with Fantenberg, who has looked steady so far this season and could help calm down the errors that have plagued Myers’ game of late.
The question is how will these pairings be used? Edler and Myers were the primary match-up pair for most of the season, with those responsibilities shifting more to Tanev and Benn in recent games.
Will the Canucks roll out Fantenberg and Myers in a shutdown role? That might be asking too much of Fantenberg. Will Hughes and Tanev match up against top lines? That will likely lead to soaring ice times for both of them. Benn and Stecher, meanwhile, have played in a sheltered role this season, so the responsibility is unlikely to fall to that pairing.
It will be intriguing to see how these new lines and pairings look against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night, as well as how long they will last.