When Vancouver was first introduced to Micheal Ferland, it was as a hard-forechecking pest in the 2015 playoffs. The rookie got under the skin and into the heads of the Canucks in their first-round matchup against the Calgary Flames. He caused Kevin Bieksa to lose his cool and capped off the series with two goals and an assist in the deciding game six.
Since then, however, Ferland has evolved into more than just an agitator. For the last two seasons, Ferland has been a first-line forward for two different teams.
Two years ago in Calgary, he was a complementary winger to Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and put up 21 goals and 41 points. Last season in Carolina, he skated with Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho on the top line, tallying 17 goals and 40 points.
Now the Canucks are hoping he complement yet another pair of first-line forwards in Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. It seems certain that either Ferland or J.T. Miller will get first crack at playing on the top line to start the season and Ferland may have the inside track, including a spot with Pettersson in the first practice groups at training camp.
“I look at our lineup,” said Ferland. “I think all four lines have got guys that can play. Obviously, you’ve got Pettersson and Boeser that are similar to Johnny [Gaudreau and Monny [Sean Monahan] and [Sebastian] Aho and [Teuvo] Teravainen. I think we’ve got a good mix of guys.”
Ferland has a unique set of skills that allow him to complement skilled forwards. He’s strong down low and plays a gritty game that involves forechecking hard to win the puck and then getting to the net for screens, deflections, and rebounds. At the same time, he has the hands, finish, and vision to do good things with the puck when he gets it, whether that means scoring on a rebound or distributing the puck to his linemates.
It’s the same type of package that Alex Burrows brought to the Sedins. Last season, Ferland was 14th in the NHL in high-danger scoring chances and he consistently gets shots from closer to the net than any other Canucks forward. That should provide a new element for Pettersson and Boeser, who tend to score their goals from further out.
“That’s just my game, just to come and make room for my linemates,” he said. “I think I just add some physicalness...I think they wanted to get bigger, I think they wanted to get a little tougher, and I thought it was a good fit for myself.”
Ferland did suggest that he wasn’t going to be able to play the same way he did in the 2015 playoffs for a full season. That kind of relentless approach, heedless of causing himself bodily harm, just wouldn’t work.
“That was my first shot getting an opportunity to play in the NHL,” he said. “I didn’t have a contract or anything for the year after, so I wanted to come in and I thought I’d play physical and just find a way to stay in the lineup.
“It’s hard to play that game 82 games a year. I got hurt. I think it was game four, I got hurt and tore my oblique.”
Injuries could be a concern with Ferland’s style of play, but he’s managed to play at least 70 games in each of the last four seasons. There are, however, some other small concerns.
Last season, Ferland came firing out of the gate, scoring seven goals in his first 12 games. His production became inconsistent after that hot start, but he still continued to put up points for most of the season. Once March hit, however, Ferland fell off a cliff.
Over the final 17 games of the season, Ferland didn’t score a single goal and had just five assists. He followed that up with no goals and just one assist in seven playoff games. You can expand it even further: Ferland had just four goals in his final 34 games. His goal-scoring flat-out disappeared.
There are three key elements that played a significant factor: injuries, linemates, and special teams.
Ferland missed a bit of time in early December with a concussion and it seemed to knock him off his game when he returned. He had no goals in December and just two assists seven games, but seemed to find his stride again in early January before dropping off again.
There were suggestions, however, that Ferland was playing through injury late in the year and he missed a smattering of games and had limited ice time in others. He even missed eight games during the playoffs with an upper body injury.
A more significant reason for his drop off in scoring, however, was the arrival of Nino Niederreiter in mid-January. Niederreiter, who boasts a highly-skilled, possession-driving game to go with some size and snarl, was quickly moved to the top line at Ferland’s expense. Niederreiter immediately clicked with Aho and ended up with 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games with the Hurricanes.
Prior to Niederreiter’s arrival, Ferland was second on the Hurricanes in goals and fourth in points. After Niederreiter arrived, Ferland was 13th in goals and 10th in points.
Ferland had 10 goals at 5-on-5 with the Hurricanes. Nine of them came while on the ice with Aho, which means he managed just one 5-on-5 goal all season without the Hurricanes’ star centre. It’s not like Ferland was playing with schmucks when he wasn’t centred by Aho. He spent significant time with Jordan Staal and rookie Lucas Wallmark, a talented playmaker that spent time on the second line while Staal was injured.
Ferland’s ice time on the power play also dropped off after Niederreiter’s arrival. Through the first half of the season, Ferland was a staple on the top power play unit, averaging 2:34 per game with the man advantage. In the second half of the season, that average power play time dropped by over a minute to 1:23. After the trade deadline, it dropped to less than a minute per game and he only scored one more power play in the back half of the season.
Will Ferland get first-unit power play time in Vancouver? It remains to be seen, but Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller seem more likely to play with Pettersson, Boeser, and whichever defenceman plays the point.
Let’s be clear: none of this is too concerning. It’s good to know there were some solid reasons behind Ferland’s scoring slump, and Ferland should bring a different dimension to the Canucks’ top line that makes them more effective as a unit.
The question is if Ferland doesn’t click with the first line or another winger, like Miller, earns that spot alongside Pettersson and Boeser, will Ferland still be able to produce in a lesser role?
If all goes well, that question will never need to be answered.