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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

3 key battles to keep an eye on at Vancouver Canucks training camp this year

Much to the delight of hockey fans throughout the Fraser Valley and surrounding areas, the Vancouver Canucks plan to allow spectators in the building to watch training camp at the Abbotsford Centre this year.

With day one of camp set to kick off on September 23rd, the buzz is building among players and fans alike as the calendar inches closer and closer toward the big day.

This buzz — again, for fans and players alike — is largely due to the club’s offseason additions of Conor Garland, Jason Dickinson, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

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“To see management go out and do that, I think it just gives everyone a little bit more confidence, a little bit more excitement going into camp,” defenceman Jack Rathbone told CanucksArmy. “Knowing that, just without playing a game yet, that we’re definitely a little bit of a better team. Adding guys like that, a top four dman and a top six forward, not a lot of teams make those kinds of acquisitions often. It’s exciting to see management go out and do that. The guys I know are definitely excited to start camp and get the season going.”

Training camp will be the first opportunity for fans to get a look at these new acquisitions in Canucks colours, and the excitement feels like it’s growing to a fever pitch that will reach its highest point come opening night when fans will be back at Rogers Arena for the first time since March 10th, 2020.

There is going to be a healthy amount of internal competition at training camp this year.

Jobs are going to be on the line and this is undoubtedly going to lead to some intense battles.

Here are the key ones to keep your eye on as we head into training camp.

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Top six supremacy

It almost goes without saying that to begin the year, the Canucks will reunite the Lotto Line and hope they can rekindle the fire that made them one of the most dominant lines in the league in 2019-20.

After that, it’s safe to assume that newly acquired winger Conor Garland will line up alongside Bo Horvat.

But who gets the final spot in the top six?

Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat have been almost joined at the hip since Pearson was acquired for the much-maligned Erik Gudrbanson at the trade deadline a few years back, but Nils Höglander has shown he has what it takes to produce offence and play with offensively gifted players.

In fact, with the Horvat line likely not being burdened with facing the toughest matchups night in and night out, there’s a good chance Höglander will explode offensively, as he was already one of the Canucks’ most effective scorers at five-on-five last season.

And then there’s Vasily Podkolzin, who remains a bit of an enigma. The Russian forward recently arrived in Vancouver and is going to come in and compete. What remains to be seen is if Podkolzin can produce enough offensively to play in the top six — or if he’s better suited for a third-line role.

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After talking to multiple scouts and our very own Podkolzin beat reporter Chris Faber, there’s a good chance Podkolzin can hang with Horvat and Garland just fine.

Very much so, this is a job that will be won at camp and in the preseason, and it will be interesting to see which of these forwards rises above the others and takes a stranglehold on the final top six spot.

Juolevi vs. Rathbone

Olli Juolevi has had a rough go up to this point in his career.

He was drafted too high, and quite literally can not catch a break when it comes to remaining healthy.

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Last season made it clear that his skating and lack of pivoting ability was simply not NHL ready, and after a full offseason where he was able to train on his own, it will be interesting to see if his skating has improved enough to warrant him being given the third pairing left defence spot.

Because now, there’s pressure.

Jack Rathbone burst onto the scene last year, and seemingly out of nowhere for most fans, showed well in the eight games he appeared in.

After seeing Rathbone defend a two-on-one against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl in his debut, the bomb of a slap shot that he posses, and a Hughesian ability to walk the line with poise, fans are excited to see what Rathbone can become.

Some fans feel that he’s ready to take that step and become a third pairing defenceman, and you’d be hard-pressed to prove them wrong.

Last season, he did just about everything Juolevi could but better, except for kill penalties.

He was trusted with tougher matchups and given a more prominent role than Juolevi, and that was just through eight games.

Head coach Travis Green compared it to the “throw him in the deep end and see if he can swim” method the club used when Quinn Hughes was getting started out.

This all suggests that Rathbone is ahead of Juolevi on the Canucks’ internal depth chart — and rightfully so — but if Juolevi is fully healthy and put in the work this offseason, things could change fast at training camp.

Fourth line wing spot

This offseason, Brandon Sutter was re-signed to a contract that should result in fans saying nicer things about him online.

The Canucks also bolstered their depth by signing Phil Di Giuseppe, Justin Dowling, Nic Petan, and a few other forwards who are likely going to start the season in Abbotsford.

They also have Matthew Highmore, who they acquired in exchange for Adam Gaudette at last year’s trade deadline, and Zack MacEwen, who was in and out of the press box last season.

Tyler Motte and Brandon Sutter are essentially locks for the fourth line, but that final spot on the wing is wide open and there for the taking.

When it comes to battles — in their truest form — it doesn’t get much more intense than watching fourth-line players try to simply outwork each other to win the final and often elusive spot in the lineup.

Fans will remember seeing Motte — who many had written off at that point — come into training camp and outwork everyone, which earned him a spot on the team. Motte hasn’t looked back since.

The question now is, who will be this year’s Tyler Motte?

Given the hot finish to the season he had, Highmore is perhaps the betting favourite, but don’t sleep on Di Giuseppe or MacEwen, either.

The latter two have something to prove and are going to be looking to impress the coaching staff with a strong training camp.

Which battle are you most intrigued by heading into training camp? Let us know in the comments section below!