In recent years, when attention has been paid to the bottom-six forwards of the Vancouver Canucks, it’s almost always been for their perceived lack of quality and assumed role in the Canucks’ on-ice struggles. But no longer!
Eyes have been on the bottom-six throughout Training Camp 2021 because that’s where the competition has been most intense, and as a result the whole unit is shaping up to be dynamic, fluid, and high-spirited throughout 2021/22.
A week out from the regular season and with just three exhibition games left on the schedule, here’s who we project have played themselves into, and out of, the mix for the Canucks’ opening night bottom-six — so far, anyway. With at least the final exhibition game, and perhaps the final two, expected to feature the opening night roster, players are really running out of time to change minds.
IN (Pre-established locks)
There’s been some flirtation with the idea of using Dickinson as a scoring line winger and letting JT Miller continue as 3C, but that’s not really what Dickinson was acquired for, and Brandon Sutter’s ongoing health issues only make that more apparent. The Canucks need someone to match up against opposing top lines, and that’s what Dickinson is best at. Look for him to anchor the bottom-six more often than not.
Right now, Pearson is competing with Nils Höglander for a spot in the top-six, and his established chemistry with Bo Horvat ensures that he’ll spend at least a little time there throughout the season. But Höglander’s own strong showing in training camp all but ensures that Pearson will be shuffled down the lineup on an increasingly permanent basis, and he looks like the best candidate available to flank Dickinson on a shutdown line.
OUT(Due to injury/illness)
Sutter should be pencilled in as the de facto 4C, but his mysterious and alarming battle with fatigue have kept him off the ice thus far. With no timetable available for his return, it’s safest to count Sutter out for now, and see where he fits into the lineup upon regaining his health.
Motte’s own mysterious ailment has also prevented him from participating fully in the preseason, though he has been skating. It’s a fair bet that Motte will miss opening night and perhaps the first week or two of the season, but he’ll be back after that, at which point he’ll almost certainly boot someone else out of the bottom-six. That’s unfortunate for whoever that someone is, but it also means that the competition for spots will continue even after the opening night roster has been locked in.
Bailey has had a rough run of luck. After a shoulder injury ended his 2021 season early, Bailey spent much of the summer rehabbing, only to test positive for COVID-19 en route to Vancouver. He’s since been cleared and arrived in town for the tail-end of training camp, but one has to imagine that he’s already missed too much to put himself seriously in the mix for a spot. He’ll remain an option for a call-up.
IN (Due to preseason performance)
What more can Gadjovich do to show he’s ready? The AHL’s most efficient goal-scorer in 2021 has continued his torrid pace into the NHL preseason. If the puck gets anywhere near the crease with Gadjovich planted in place, it seems all but guaranteed that it’s going in the net. Gadjovich’s skating has noticeably improved after a summer of training with Barb Underhill, and that’s allowed Gadjovich to increase his physicality. He’s earned the promotion.
Phil Di Giuseppe
Aside from the roster locks, Di Giuseppe came into the preseason with the most NHL tenure out of all the bottom-six contenders, and now it’s pretty apparent why that is. For someone who’s never played a scoring role, Di Giuseppe has a surprisingly high skill level, and he’s able to deploy it no matter what line he’s skating on. A strong forechecker with good instincts who is now proving himself as an able penalty killer, Di Giuseppe is the utility guy that every team needs in their lineup.
Petan was one of those Lower Mainland locals signed with Abbotsford in mind, but it’s looking more and more like he will begin the season in Vancouver. Petan is scoring in the preseason, but he’s also showing off his versatility and finding chemistry with just about everyone he’s shared the ice with so far.
If he cracks the opening night roster, Petan is still the most probable player to be sent down when either Motte or Sutter returns to the lineup, but even that short stint would have to be considered a huge success for him.
Well, well, well. If it isn’t Podkolzin, the 20-year-old rookie who may or may not have forced this author to edit this article in the middle of the night. Before Tuesday’s exhibition match against the Seattle Kraken, Podkolzin wasn’t on track to earn a job out of training camp — even if the nuances of his performance bonuses and their relation to the salary cap might have kept him there anyway. But then Podkolzin went out and straight-up forced the issue with a dominant performance.
The holy trinity of Green, Jim Benning, and the fanbase want to see Podkolzin make it, and that one game is really all the excuse they needed. He may not have hit the scoresheet — no Canuck did — but he was physical, drew penalties, dished plays, very very nearly scored, and looked like a possession monster. And, after all, it’s not like we haven’t seen Podkolzin do this stuff before in the KHL and on the international stage. All the brass were waiting for was a statement game to mark his official arrival, and that was it. Bust out the ink. Next stop: the top-six.
OUT (Due to preseason performance)
You really do hate to see it. Long-time CanucksArmy favourite MacEwen has had a middling camp at about the worst time imaginable, and it’s almost certainly cost him his already-tentative spot on the team. There just isn’t any conceivable reason to keep him on the roster ahead of Gadjovich, someone who does everything that MacEwen does, and then some.
MacEwen’s preseason effort against Calgary, in which he took a bad penalty, contributed to a goal against, and then got jumped by Erik Gudbranson probably sealed the deal. If it didn’t, another night sans impact against Seattle certainly did. It’s tough, but that’s hockey.
ON THE BUBBLE
For someone on a PTO, Chiasson sure has received a better-than-expected shot at the Canucks lineup in preseason, including some choice top-six minutes and power play time. It’s obvious that the coaching staff enjoys his versatility, and that may be the deciding factor in keeping him around as an extra, at least until Motte and Sutter are healthy.
Some might not see the point in giving Chiasson a contract only to cut another already-signed fringe forward, but none of those other fringe forwards have anything approaching Chiasson’s scoring history. There’s a very good chance that he signs, although it would be better if he were better at playing center.
When Highmore was first acquired in exchange for Adam Gaudette, it left many in the Vancouver fanbase asking “Who?” and some, including this author, saying a lot more than that.
Then came a solid 18-game run to close out the season, and suddenly Highmore was being included in nearly every projection of the 2021/22 Canucks roster.
A so-so training camp and preaseason, however, have Highmore back on the fringe. In reality, he’s been surpassed by several other forwards, but he does have the ability to play center in his back pocket, and that might just be what keeps his spot for now. Other than Petan and perhaps Justin Dowling, who else can cover for Sutter?
Lockwood is a tough call for Travis Green and Co. On the one hand, he’s easily been the most physical player in camp and in preseason, and looks like he could add a unique element of danger to the Canucks’ checking game. There’s always value in making sure your opponents keep their heads up. Lockwood’s hustle and forechecking are also major pluses.
On the other hand, Lockwood is still young and raw, and his play with the puck definitely needs polish. More time in the AHL, particularly in a scoring role, would help, and he doesn’t need waivers to be sent down. That final factor could very well end up being the deciding one.
At best, Lockwood is up for a brief look until Motte returns, and then he heads down to Abbotsford for a top line gig until more injuries inevitably occur. The more likely outcome is that he starts in the AHL and continues to work his way up from there.
With all that said and done, here’s our projected bottom-six for opening night. It’s almost certain to be slightly inaccurate, and virtually guaranteed to have changed by the time we hit November, but take it for what it’s worth.
Tanner Pearson-Jason Dickinson-Vasily Podkolzin
Jonah Gadjovich-Nic Petan-Phil Di Giuseppe
Alex Chiasson/Matthew Highmore
Who would you like to see in the bottom-six come opening night? Sound off in the comments.