The Vancouver Canucks will open up training camp on January 3rd and there are still many questions surrounding the team.
Without preseason games, the Canucks coaching staff and management will have some tough decisions to make about which players make the team, who might report to another league, and what their taxi squad will look like.
Let’s explore three of the biggest camp battles set to kick off this January.
Top Six Right Wing Spot
With the loss of Tyler Toffoli, the Canucks now have a wide-open winger spot in their top six. The five players who look to be locks are J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat. After those five players, it’s a wide-open race for a player to come through and earn top-six minutes.
Jake Virtanen is one of the candidates and he looks to have been dedicated to getting in shape this offseason. After signing a two-year, $5.1 million contract this offseason, he should get the first stab at impressing at camp.
Last season he had two horrible training camps. This year he and many Canucks fans will hope for something different from Big Tuna. The writing is on the wall for him to step into a top-six role and bring some much-needed offence. Virtanen was second on the Canucks last season when it came to generating shots per minute. That being said, he definitely has some work to do in the defensive zone in order to earn his coach’s trust.
Going into camp, it’s his spot to lose and that means it’s an uphill battle for the other potential top six candidates.
Speaking of other candidates, let’s look at a few other options.
Loui Eriksson playing alongside Horvat and Pearson will be an option whether you like it or not. Green trusts Eriksson in the defensive zone and if the Horvat line is going to be used in a matchup role against the McDavid and Matthews lines, Eriksson could end up being Green’s guy for the job.
Obviously, this isn’t ideal for fans who have seen enough of Eriksson in the top six. Another option with similar traits as Eriksson is Tyler Motte. Motte had a good showing in the playoffs as he scored four goals in 17 games while averaging over 15 minutes of ice time a game.
Motte brings energy to a line that could need it if they hope to keep up with the top lines that all the Canadian teams have to offer.
Then there’s Nils Höglander, the Swedish wonderkid who has warranted quite the hype train after scoring some ridiculous goals over the past few years. Hoglander could be a fit with the Pettersson-Miller duo if the Canucks decide to use Boeser alongside Horvat.
I’d also say that a dark horse to play with Horvat is Zack MacEwen. The Big Fella led the Canucks in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes last year and could bring some size and grit to a top six that could need it when playing against tougher teams like Calgary and Edmonton.
The 3D Battle
Once again we are talking about a part of the lineup that will be forced to see changes due to a loss of a player to free agency. In fact, this time we are talking about a position that was affected by two players leaving in free agency. Troy Stecher and Chris Tanev have moved on to other NHL teams and thus created quite the battle for a third-pairing spot.
There are three candidates who are head and shoulders above the rest, and no matter what Jim Benning tells you about Jalen Chatfield, he is not one of the three.
Olli Juolevi, Brogan Rafferty and Jack Rathbone will battle to see who can make the team out of camp.
Out of the three, it seems like Juolevi is the front runner. He got into a playoff game this past summer and as such a high pick, he will be given the chance to earn the spot.
Rafferty is coming off of a tremendous AHL season that should put him right into the battle for that third pairing spot. There’s even an outside shot that both Rafferty and Juolevi make the team on the third pairing but I wouldn’t bet much on that happening. Jordie Benn can play both sides on defence and also kill penalties. Head coach Travis Green likely won’t sit out Benn on opening night.
Then there’s Rathbone, the man of mystery. It’s clear that Rathbone has a ton of potential and should get NHL games at some point this season. He will have to really impress in camp to surpass Juolevi and Rafferty to earn a spot on the starting lineup. It is very possible though, as Rathbone is an excellent puck mover and skates very well. A good showing in camp could propel him above the other two candidates if they were to stumble out of the gates at camp, something each of them did last year (Juolevi in September and Rafferty in July).
Höglander vs The NHL
The final battle will be between one player and his ability to make necessary adjustments to make the leap to the best league in the world.
There’s no hiding Höglander’s skill. He is elite with the puck on his stick and showed pretty well in 23 SHL games this season as he totalled up 14 points in those 23 games. He will take no time to shake the offseason rust off as he has already been actively playing in one of the top hockey leagues in the world.
The question will be if Travis Green trusts him enough to play him for 12+ minutes a night. The good news is that Hoglander will instantly make an impact on a power play unit and will bring energy and grit to any line that Green places him on.
Being a shorter player, there are always going to be questions about if he can deal with the physicality of the NHL. The way the league is moving, Höglander will fit right in, but will he be ready for that as soon as January 13th?
What are some camp battles that you are expecting to hear about?
Thatcher Demko vs Braden Holtby? Loui Eriksson vs the press box? Taxi Squad vs AHL?
Let us know in the comments!