Tyler Graovac played 14 games for the Vancouver Canucks in 2021. Eleven of those games came in the month of May when the Canucks were slogging through a spring schedule that was as backloaded as it was meaningless. Graovac was deployed like a third-line centre, averaging just a shade over 10 minutes a night, with brief power play cameos here and there.
Graovac scored three goals in that time, one of which beat Oilers’ goaltender Mike Smith bar down and led to tongue-in-cheek comparisons of Graovac to Connor McDavid.
In the game before that snipe, Graovac had — from a seemingly impossible angle below the goal line –- left Smith shaking his head with another laser that found the top shelf.
Graovac, who added an assist for four points in his 14 games (or .28 points per game) was one of the players’ for whom the hockey stakes were still high, in spite of the dwindling playoff odds and lingering respiratory illness that curtained the Canucks’ season down the stretch.
At 28, Graovac needs to demonstrate that he can be a full-time NHLer soon. Graovac played 52 games in 2016-17 for the Minnesota Wild, but other than that stint in St. Paul, the Bramptonian had not appeared in more than 8 games prior to this season.
When asked about getting that regular spot in an NHL lineup, Graovac said he’ll stick to the basics of his game. He added that “finding the opportunity and running with it when I have the chance,” is another important part of getting more than a cup of coffee in the pros. And while one hockey truism holds that “if you’re good enough, they’ll find room for you,” the reality is the margin between tweener and full-time NHLer is so slim, that getting an opportunity and rising to the occasion can have a profound impact on a player’s career.
The month of May was that opportunity for Graovac, with seven Canuck forwards unavailable to play. The qualified success he had is what head coach Travis Green wants to see from players who get their chance. “You like to see guys do well when they come in like that,” Green said.
Graovac is a UFA again this offseason. The Canucks re-signed him to another one-year $700k deal a month before the start of the 2021 season. That sort of deal may be on the table again as Canucks management will need to flesh out the organization’s forward depth. However, with contracts needed for Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and a number of other RFA’s, Graovac will need to wait.
Graovac impressed media, the Canucks’ coaching staff, and fans alike in his 14-game audition but that optimism is certainly qualified by his age and foot speed. While he is not likely to crack the lineup of a healthy Canucks squad, Graovac could be a key contributor for the new Abbotsford AHL franchise and a serviceable Highway 1 call-up. If another team doesn’t take a flyer on the big centre before the Canucks get around to him, that is.