Things to watch for in the Canucks’ September skates and at training camp
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
11 days ago
There’s a growing buzz in the air surrounding the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.
It must be hockey season.
The Vancouver Canucks have gotten an early start to 2023-24 with some pre-training camp skates over at UBC’s arena, determined to avoid the kind of ice-cold start that torpedoed their last two seasons. That recent history is why just about everyone on the projected 20-man roster – and then some – arrived early for these optional practices.
But balancing those expectations is going to be crucial for the Canucks. The more desperately you play just to avoid an early season collapse, the more likely you are to hit the panic button at the first sign of trouble and end up in the same place.
That’s why before the puck drops on the regular season, the Canucks have to rediscover what makes coming to the rink fun and exciting; the kind of energized, creative hockey that makes skaters play a little more fearlessly and with less weight in their skates.
And with as many new people joining the locker room as you’d meet on the first episode of Survivor, that mission should be a lot easier to accomplish. Carson Soucy and Teddy Blueger have already gotten a head start with their new teammates, while Pius Suter and Ian Cole arrived on campus yesterday.
Even some familiar faces could bring a big boost to the Canucks’ bench. Tanner Pearson’s return to the ice after a hand injury took him out of commission in November sure proved that this week, and Ilya Mikheyev might too whenever he returns from his ACL injury.
Here are some of the most crucial pieces to watch for in the next month of Canucks’ practices and scrimmages.
Boest Foot Forward
The amount of noise that’s surrounded Brock Boeser over the last two seasons has been unavoidable, be it trade rumours or critiques about his potential ceiling. But Boeser’s coming into this season motivated to re-earn his longtime spot on Elias Pettersson’s wing.
With Ilya Mikheyev’s injury status still a bit of a mystery, the battle for the first line’s right wing essentially comes down to Boeser and Anthony Beauvillier. Beauvillier looked right at home with Pettersson and Kuzmenko when he joined the team mid-season last year, but that came in a limited sample size of late-season games, and wasn’t a pace he was able to keep up to April.
It’s Boeser who has the long-standing connection with Pettersson that could make the top line from a one-two punch into a juggernaut. Even through the toughest stretches of his NHL career, Boeser has never finished with less than 45 points in a full season and if he stays healthy, it sure feels like he has another gear left to discover.
Quinn needs a partner
Like a rogue detective in an 80s cop show, Quinn Hughes needs a partner. He hasn’t had one since the archnemesis the Calgary Flames killed – sorry, signed – his last one, Chris Tanev.
Hughes has seen a revolving door of linemates in the last three seasons since Tanev moved to sunny Alberta. Now it’s time for a longer-term partner to step up and solidify their place next to him.
Currently, the top candidate is Filip Hronek. Hronek hasn’t had much time to get acquainted with his new team since injuries limited him to four games with the Canucks, but his scoring talent makes him a strong initial fit. His restricted free agency complicates matters beyond this season, but as far as the next 82 games go he could easily end up next to Hughes.
Ian Cole might get some reps alongside Hughes in the early going as well, having experience in the top 4 across his career including with the Lightning last year. But his veteran presence might make the coaching staff want to put him in a shutdown role with Carson Soucy or Matt Irwin instead.
We’ll get a better idea of where Rick Tocchet is leaning when training camp kicks off in a couple of weeks.
The battle for 3C
For the first time in ages, the Canucks have an honest-to-goodness position battle on their hands. Patrik Alvin’s biggest free agent splash was landing bottom six centres Teddy Blueger and Pius Suter, but only one of them can open the season as the team’s third-line centre.
Whichever one doesn’t end up as Rick Tocchet’s 3C will likely start the year filling in on the left wing for Ilya Mikheyev, though they could very easily step in and regularly take faceoffs regardless. As far as recent faceoff success goes, the upper hand belongs to Blueger, who won more of his 500 faceoffs last season than he lost.
But Suter also took over half a thousand draws in 2022-23, and he’s also been a more consistent offensive contributor over the last three seasons than Blueger has. Perhaps the likeliest early scenario is to put Blueger in the middle first, with Suter on his wing as a scoring threat.
But regardless of who gets the 3C nod from Tocchet, either way you slice it, depth at centre is a problem the Canucks have wished for ages. Now, they might finally have it.
Recent articles from Lachlan Irvine