Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Scenes from Canucks practice: Phil Di Giuseppe back in top six as Höglander skates as extra forward
2 months ago
The Vancouver Canucks returned to the scene of the crime on Friday. Hours after their sluggish performance in a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia, the hockey club was back on the ice at Rogers Arena for a spirited practice session during the noon hour. The tone of the workout was firm, but if anyone was expecting a bag skate with four days between games, they were well off the mark. Sure, there was some hard skating at the end of practice, but nothing that resembled any kind of training camp skating or fitness test.
The practice included plenty of five-on-five work and an intense small areas game with the nets moved to the same end of the ice.
What we saw
The most noticeable change to the Canucks line-up at practice was the return of Phil Di Giuseppe to left wing with JT Miller and Brock Boeser. That, of course, is where Di Giuseppe opened the season after a strong training camp and exhibition schedule. But the veteran winger’s play has tailed off over the first 36 games of the Canucks season to the point he’s been a healthy scratch five times including the past two games on either side of the team’s holiday break. In his last game in Dallas on December 21st, Di Giuseppe played just 7:34 and had one six second shift over the final 9:22 of the third period.
All of this is to say the Phil Di Giuseppe of today isn’t the same player that drew praise from the coaching staff for how hard he played in the early going this season. In his last 24 games, Di Giuseppe has one goal (an empty netter in Montreal on November 12th) and three assists. He last beat an NHL goaltender on October 27th against the St. Louis Blues.
If he’s going to make the most of this new opportunity to support Miller and Boeser higher in the Canucks line-up than he’s been in weeks, Di Giuseppe knows he has to rediscover the parts of his game that allowed him to succeed earlier in the season.
“Probably go back and look at tape of what was working earlier in the year,” Di Giuseppe said after Friday’s practice. “I know what it was. I have to hold on to pucks, get on the forecheck for them, open up space for them, get to the dirty areas and win battles. It’s an easy game play, I’ve just got to execute.”
In 31 games so far this season, the Toronto native has three goals and eight points. With Di Giuseppe, it’s not all about point production, but if he’s going to hold down a top six role with one of the league’s leading point producers and one of the top goal scorers, he has to hold his own. And if he does the things that earned him the spot back in September and October then it stands to reason at least a few points should follow.
Rick Tocchet isn’t committing to Di Giuseppe over the long haul on that line with Miller and Boeser, but after watching Nils Höglander’s production drop – one goal in his last nine games – the head coach is ready to give Di Giuseppe another shot. For now.
“We have four or five guys that are probably going to be rotating in and out of different positions – that’s the type of team we have,” Tocchet said. “So whoever can sustain that level of play where they’re winning battles, getting on the forecheck, being good defensively, that’s why you’ll probably see more of a rotation of certain guys, that’s the world we live in. Hopefully some guys grab a hold of these positions. I need more guys to be first on the puck and coming up with pucks. That’s not just for Di Giuseepe or whoever, that’s for our team. We need to get forechecking from certain guys and more puck possession from some guys.”
Di Giuseppe doesn’t shy away from the fact his play has dropped off over the past few weeks. He’s lost some of his penalty killing utility with the return of Pius Suter from injury and with Nils Aman now in the fold. That’s forced him to re-examine the things that have allowed him to have success at other times this season and throughout his career.
One of those things is perspective and even if he’s not playing or playing as much as he’d like, Di Giuseppe is appreciative of the chance to be in the National Hockey League.
“The past years I wasn’t here, so that’s a positive,” he says of spending time in the minors. “But I want to make an impact. I thought at the beginning of the year I was making a bigger impact so whenever I get a chance, I have to make an impact and put my footprint on the game. The last two weeks I’ve been working with a lot of the coaches on the staples of my game and kind of getting those back. Every day I feel more confident in my abilities and I’ll go back at it tomorrow.”
While Di Giuseppe hasn’t been as effective recently as he was earlier in the season when he was winning races to loose pucks and separating defenders from the puck, the coach believes he still gets an honest effort from the guy known as PDG every time out.
“He’s one of my favourites in the sense that he’s a guy that works his butt off,” Tocchet said. “Now, the next level is can he hold on to pucks? Can he be in the right positions? Can he make a play under pressure? He’s going to have to constantly work on his game every day. But the one good thing is he’ll always give you an effort. That’s what I really respect about Phil.”
Di Giuseppe will likely get another look on the Miller-Boeser line when the Canucks host Ottawa in their next game on January 2nd. It’s up to him now to make the most of it. He’s already seen that the Canucks won’t wait long for him to find his game. If he can’t hold on to that role, someone else will be waiting for that opportunity.
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