The rest of this season will serve as an extended audition for several key forward positions in 2023/24
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
6 months ago
63 down, 19 to go.
The Vancouver Canucks are now more than three-quarters of the way through the 2022/23 regular season. More importantly, they’re now through all the big in-season events, like the All-Star Break and the Trade Deadline. If they were on the way to the playoffs, this is the point at which we’d say the Canucks are on the home stretch.
The Canucks, for what it’s worth, are not on their way to the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean they won’t still see this final portion of the season as different sort of stretch run. For a team in transition, these final games represent a great opportunity to get things sorted and get some structures into place before 2023/24 kicks off in October.
For several key forwards, and several key forward positions, the rest of the regular season could be seen as an extended audition for next year. Whether the players realize it or not, jobs are already on the line, and the fight for them begins now.
The Canucks head into the offseason with 11 of their current roster forwards under contract. They’ve also got Vitali Kravtsov as an unsigned RFA, Tanner Pearson and Ilya Mikheyev on LTIR, and Nils Höglander working away down in Abbotsford.
That’s 15 forwards competing for 13 spots right off the bat, and the competition gets more stringent the closer one gets to the top of the lineup.
In the top-six specifically, we can assume that Elias Pettersson, Andrei Kuzmenko, and JT Miller (if not traded) are firmly locked into position. Pettersson and Kuzmenko will probably remain a duo for the foreseeable future, and a healthy Mikheyev will almost certainly get a shot to rejoin their line.
That leaves Miller on the lookout for two wingers for next season. Look for a wide variety to be tried out at this position in the weeks to come.
Winger-wise, the top-nine is decidedly overstuffed. You’ve got the aforementioned Kuzmenko and Mikheyev. They’ll be joined by younger talent in Kravtsov, Höglander and Vasily Podkolzin. None of those three locked down a top-nine position in 2022/23, but all have to be at least heavily pencilled in for 2023/24. If there’s going to be any sort of youth movement up front, that currently falls to these three, and they’ll be given every chance to succeed from Training Camp onward.
Through Kuzmenko, Mikheyev, Podkolzin, Kravtsov, and Höglander, that’s five of six top-nine wing positions already more-or-less spoken for.
That leaves just one open spot to compete for between all of Brock Boeser, Conor Garland, and Anthony Beauvillier. That’s to say nothing of Pearson, signed through next year but of a questionable return to health, or anyone new added to the mix.
From where we’re sitting, it seems probable that at least two of this veteran trio is traded before the offseason is complete. Salary concerns aside, none of the three are a particularly good fit for the fourth line, and having more than one of them in the top-nine is going to prevent a younger, more important forward from taking their rightful place. Here, the Canucks need to engage in a little addition by subtraction.
That makes the stretch run a two-fold tryout for Boeser, Garland, and Beauvillier. On the one hand, they’re competing with one another to keep their role for next year. On the other hand, they’re showing off for all the potential trade suitors who might come calling in the summer.
One way or another, they’re playing for their 2023/24 jobs, and the competition should be fierce.
Perhaps not quite as fierce, however, as what will become an all-out, open-field battle for the 3C position.
The Canucks came into the year absolutely stacked down the middle and intent on running a 1-2-3 of Pettersson, Miller, and the departed Bo Horvat. Now, it’s just Pettersson and Miller, which leaves a gaping hole in the lineup at third line center and no obvious candidate available to fill it.
As the team’s top prospect, Aatu Räty probably has a leg up here. But he’s still only 20, and hasn’t exactly impressed in either his AHL or his NHL time post-trade. Also in the running are Nils Åman, who could be seen as the “default” option, along with Jack Studnicka and Sheldon Dries, both signed for an additional year.
Or perhaps the challenge could come from Abbotsford. Linus Karlsson is overdue for a call-up, and he’s a legitimate candidate for 3C in his own right.
Each of the above should get a shot at it sometime between now and the end of the season, before the competition officially kicks off in Training Camp.
It’s at this position, too, where we feel the Canucks are most likely to make an offseason add. That could be avoided, however, if one of the aforementioned centers seriously steps it up and secures the position now through some strong stretch run play.
Here, we definitely see why the Canucks were insistent that a center come back in any theoretical Miller trade. If Miller goes, not only is there a hole at 3C, but there’s one at 2C, too, and even fewer obvious candidates to fill it. Suddenly, the team finds itself short on quality centers.
From there, the fourth line should just sort of sort itself out. Dakota Joshua is pretty much locked in there. He’ll be joined by one of the 3C candidates and then somebody else; maybe a healthy Pearson or an Abbotsford call-up like Phil Di Giuseppe or a free agent.
Overall, the Canucks should be looking at a 2023/24 forward corps that looks something like this:
On the whole, it might at first look like a lesser lineup than the one the Canucks took into the 2022/23 season. Trading away a 40-goal-scoring center will do that. But it’s also a lineup with ample youth, serious upward potential, and a large amount of something to prove.
For many of those players, that proving game starts now in this final 19-game stretch run, and it continues all the way through Training Camp 2023.
It’s like head coach Rick Tocchet himself said shortly after taking over the Vancouver bench:
“We’re starting early.”
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