Is the Vancouver Canucks’ forward lineup pretty much already set?
Photo credit:© Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
2 months ago
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Vancouver Canucks Training Camp 2023 is already underway, and there’s exhibition hockey coming in just a couple of sleeps. The 2023/24 preseason is off and running, but for some components of the Canucks’ roster, it feels as though the process is already functionally complete, and that’s especially true when it comes to the forward corps.
Practices and preseason games are still going to happen. Competition is still going to be spoken to. Additional cuts can and will occur if they absolutely have to.
But it’s getting kind of tough to look at the camp roster and not feel as though the Canucks’ forward lineup is pretty much already set heading into the regular season. It’s not that we think the Canucks are rigid in their thinking, or not willing to give everyone in the organization an honest shot. It’s just that the forward side of the roster has been constructed in such a way as to not allow for much wiggle room or all that many genuine choices to make.
Let’s start at the top.
Let’s start at the top.
Elias Pettersson will be this team’s number one center, and that’s not even slightly in doubt. JT Miller will back him up as the number two center. There’s just no one else in the whole of the franchise capable of taking on either job, and so those two are as locked into place as it gets.
There’s uncertainty when it comes to the top-six, but only in terms of how it is arranged, not in who makes the team.
As it stands, there are about eight wingers gunning for four spots. Andrei Kuzmenko almost automatically gets one of them, and it’s almost definitely the spot right next to Pettersson. Ilya Mikheyev, if fully recovered from surgery by the time of opening night, is the leading candidate to slide onto Pettersson’s other side, but even if he doesn’t, he’s probably labeled for a top-six gig of some kind.
Brock Boeser and Anthony Beauvillier are probably next most likely to crack the top-six, but they’ll receive some competition from Conor Garland, Nils Höglander, and Vasily Podkolzin. Again, though, we’re just talking about those top-six wing jobs. None of these players are in much danger of losing their spot in the lineup.
Whichever of them doesn’t partner up with Pettersson and Miller in the top-six are certainly labelled for bottom-six duty.
Speaking of the bottom-six, it’s hard to believe that Pius Suter and Teddy Blueger won’t staff it. Both were signed as UFAs this summer, sharpy decreasing their odds of being cut on just the impropriety alone, and both are expected to be vital cogs in the penalty kill. Given his greater offensive prowess, it seems likely that Suter will feature on the third line, within what promises to be more of a “top-nine,” and that he’ll receive two of the wingers not successful in their bid for a top-six spot.
That leaves Blueger as the centrepiece of the fourth line. And that still also leaves at least one winger who had a shot at the top line, the second line, and the third line, but was unsuccessful in each attempt. Said player then almost automatically goes to the fourth line, and suddenly we’ve got 11 of 12 forward slots all present and accounted for.
And the inked-in players don’t stop there. We have yet to mention Dakota Joshua, a player that we know coach Rick Tocchet is very fond of, but who we just can’t imagine genuinely displacing one of the aforementioned wingers for very long. Still, the Canucks sort of need someone of Joshua’s ilk in the lineup most nights, and so although this is the first time his name has come up in our discussion, he’s just as much of a guarantee as the rest.
And there you have it. There are 12 forward spots in the lineup, and 12 forwards who it is excessively difficult to imagine not making the Canucks this year.
On top of that, now that Tanner Pearson has been moved, the Canucks should have enough cap space to roster an extra forward from the get-go.
Even that job is getting close to set-in-stone territory, by which we mean it’s probably going to have to be pried from Phil di Giuseppe’s cold, living hands. He’s a player who earned enough of Tocchet’s trust last season to feature in the top-six down the stretch, and he’s arguably earned (but not received) a spot out of Training Camp for the last two years running. Even if he’s ostensibly beaten out by someone else this year, are they really going to cut Di Giuseppe as a result?
Probably not, and especially not for someone younger than Di Giuseppe if what this job calls for is plenty of time in the pressbox.
So, if that’s the forward lineup, ready to be written onto a scoresheet in permanent marker, where’s the room for something unexpected to happen?
There is the uncertain return date of Mikheyev, as previously mentioned. The team and his agent report that he’ll be ready for opening night, but if he isn’t, there’s obviously the chance that he goes on retroactive LTIR and opens up roster and cap space for a short-term replacement. At which point, several other candidates enter the running for an opening night spot, including Sheldon Dries, Nils Åman, Jack Studnicka, Aidan McDonough, Arshdeep Bains, and Aatu Raty. Even then, however, said player goes right back down to Abbotsford as soon as Mikheyev is ready.
Other forward injuries could definitely occur throughout the course of Training Camp and preseason, and that, too, could result in someone receiving an extended audition before being demoted.
There’s also an interesting question to answer when it comes to Podkolzin. Höglander requires waivers to be sent down, which means he’s making the team one way or another. Not so for Podkolzin, who retains one more year of waiver exemption. There’s definitely a world in which Podkolzin doesn’t make the first, second, or third line, and looks to be slotted for fourth line minutes. In fact, some might call that the likeliest outcome to his battle with Kuzmenko, Mikheyev, Boeser, Beauvillier, Garland, and Höglander.
In that scenario, it’s entirely possible that the team decides that Podkolzin is better off starting the year as a first line winger in Abbotsford than as a fourth line winger in Vancouver. Thus, we can imagine Podkolzin being demoted from the get-go and having to earn his promotion in-season. If that comes to pass, someone like Åman, Dries, or Studnicka seems most likely to “steal” his spot and his limited minutes, but it will realistically be Di Giuseppe who enters the nightly lineup in his stead.
Beyond that, the options for creativity are truly limited.
Maybe Raty continues to impress, and knocks one of Suter or Blueger over to the wing. But that seems unlikely when Raty can continue to receive top-six training in Abbotsford with little consequence, and especially not when it means one more unnecessary winger to deal with. Maybe McDonough gets a longer-than-expected look as a shooting option on the power play, and the team carves out enough room for him to continue there.
In all likelihood, however, and to borrow a classic Canucks phrase, “it is what it is,” and what we see is what we’ll get with the Canucks’ forward lineup.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it just makes us all that much eager for the preseason to be over and done with and the real fun to begin.
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