SEATTLE, WASH. — The Vancouver Canucks are halfway through their preseason slate and are still looking for their first win.
Not that the results count, or particularly matter. At this point, veteran players are still finding their feet and their hands, while the stakes are far higher for those players on the roster bubble. The best players on any given team — the Canucks included — will begin to look, compete and perform more like themselves as the preseason winds down next week.
On the heels of the club’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday and their 3-1 loss at the Climate Pledge Arena to the Seattle Kraken on Thursday, let’s update our forecast of precisely where Canucks players stand as the opening day 23-man roster begins to take shape.
Outside of a first period rush chance, Miller was quiet on Thursday, but he’s probably the guy you should be least worried about. You expect a player of Miller’s stature and experience to still be easing into preseason at this point.
Watching the Canucks struggle to break the puck out without Quinn Hughes in the lineup on Thursday was a reminder of just how important the first-year captain is to this team.
Elias Pettersson dominated the Oilers in the face-off circle in his preseason debut. That hasn’t typically been a strength of his game, but he’s been working diligently to improve over the past few years. It’s not unheard of for a great player to add a new trick to their bag at this stage of their career, and face-off percentage is one skill that tends to improve with age. If he’s a 50 percent guy (or better) this upcoming season, that could significantly enhance his Selke trophy odds.
Brock Boeser had a quiet game in his preseason debut Thursday but looked leaner and even a bit quicker. That’s an exciting prospect.
Much maligned and frequently bandied about in trade speculation, Tyler Myers is still one of this team’s four best defensemen.
Looks quick, looks fit, but needs to shorten his shift length and focus on a few minor details — like getting the puck out along the defensive zone half wall — if he’s going to remain Pettersson’s unquestioned running mate at 5-on-5 all season.
As he frequently is, Thatcher Demko was the best player on the ice for either team in his preseason debut on Thursday. Had absolutely no chance on any of the Kraken’s three goals, and stopped everything else.
Conor Garland played both sets of the club’s back-to-back set of games this week and looked good doing it. There’s lots of trust and affection between Garland and Tocchet. Don’t be surprised if Garland serves up a reminder that he’s actually a really good top-six calibre player capable of driving a middle-six line this season.
Outside of Demko’s form, the fact that Filip Hronek’s pair with Ian Cole looked ready and capable of solidifying Vancouver’s second pair was the biggest positive to take out of Vancouver’s 3-1 loss in Seattle on Thursday night.
It’s a bit surprising — and perhaps a bit troubling too — that Anthony Beauvillier has yet to really get a look on a top-six line during training camp or in the preseason. Got an assist on Vancouver’s only goal in the second period in his preseason debut, but was still bumped down the lineup and onto the third line in the third period.
Carson Soucy hasn’t really hit his stride just yet in preseason. It will be interesting to see if he gets another chance to play the right side on Hughes’ pair in the preseason. If he doesn’t, he’ll likely open the season on the third pair.
Cole was a beast on the penalty kill in Seattle on Thursday and was probably Vancouver’s best all-around defender. Has found immediate chemistry with Hronek.
On Thursday, Tocchet name-checked Blueger’s effort in Edmonton — and the performance of his line with Nils Åman and Jack Studnicka — the previous evening when spotlighting standout performances in the preseason so far. Can Blueger succeed as a depth defensive centre in a way that Jason Dickinson and Curtis Lazar couldn’t the past two seasons?
Acquired to be a sturdy, reliable NHL-level backup, Casey DeSmith looked the part against a fully loaded Oilers top-six forward group in his preseason Canucks debut on Wednesday.
Looks set to open the season centring Vancouver’s third line with Garland, although the identity of their third linemate seems to be in flux. Garland and Suter have evident chemistry, but given that both forwards are undersized, one wonders if the club needs a big body on their left wing.
Seems telling that where most of Nils Höglander’s peers who received big training camp auditions — Arshdeep Bains and Vasili Podkolzin — have dropped down the lineup, Höglander has maintained his perch on Pettersson and Kuzmenko’s wing to this point. Still has some work to do in the final week to cement a top-six spot, but the clear front-runner to be the third member of Vancouver’s first line until Ilya Mikheyev’s return.
Phillip Di Giuseppe
It’s time to stop pretending that Phil Di Giuseppe is at risk of being cut from this roster. It’s abundantly clear that Tocchet trusts him and has a lot of regard for his work rate, penalty killing ability and “North-South” game.
Challenged this week and publicly called out for his fitness level being “Only OK,” Dakota Joshua responded with a pair of heavy performances in back-to-back preseason games.
On Thursday in Seattle, Joshua opened the game on the club’s ostensible fourth line and finished it on the second line.
“I thought Dakota was trying to play a heavy game,” Tocchet said. “I thought he won some battles down low, so I bumped him up.”
That’s a telling indicator that Joshua’s stock has normalized, and he’s back on track to be on this team. So is this Tocchet quote on the club requiring what Joshua can bring to their lineup (emphasis mine).
“He didn’t come in the greatest shape, he was just OK,” Tocchet said, “So he’s got to get himself in shape because he can be a big part of our team. We need some big guys that can play!
“What I liked about (Joshua) is he’s talking to the trainers, the strength coach,” Tocchet continued. “He’s talking to them more. He knows where he’s got to get. He’s being more proactive with that… so that’s a step in the right direction.”
Tocchet seems to really like what he’s seen from Åman’s line with Studnicka and Blueger. Expect to see that trio play again on Saturday. If they perform well again, and then again on Friday against Calgary, that could be the club’s fourth line to open the season.
Lingering Injury Uncertainty
Mikheyev has skated with the full group in a full-contact sweater, which is a good sign. He wasn’t a full participant in drills, however, and didn’t take line rushes even as an extra.
Given the severity of undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL and the importance of managing workload in recovering from that procedure, it seems reasonable to suggest that Mikheyev will still be a week to 10 days from being ready to return after he’s had a full tilt practice with the club.
Trending the right way
Studnicka has just been awesome throughout training camp and the preseason. As a result, he seems to have the inside track on a possible fourth-line wing spot alongside Blueger and Åman going into the final week of the season.
Even if Joshua or Podkolzin are able to make a late charge and edge Studnicka out of a spot in the opening night lineup, Studnicka’s versatility — he can play wing or centre, and unlike Vancouver’s other centres and other 13th forward options, is a right-handed shooter — should give him the leg up on making the club’s opening day 23-man roster.
What was supposed to be a fierce competition for the club’s sixth, seventh and (perhaps) eighth blue-line spot has instead turned into a coronation for Cole McWard, a 21-year-old first-year professional defender.
McWard looked the part of an NHL player on Wednesday alongside Hughes, although the club did parcel out one of that pairs two defensive zone starts to Myers. Even if McWard opens the season as Hughes’ go-to caddy, he’s likely to play third-pair minutes, with the club mixing and matching defense partners with Hughes situationally.
Trending the wrong way
Thursday felt like a very big opportunity for Vasili Podkolzin, but the highly touted 22-year-old forward took an early tripping penalty in the first period, was culpable for the first goal the Kraken scored and couldn’t bury a late chance over Joey Daccord to make it a one-goal game in a 6-on-5 situation.
Tocchet has gone to great lengths to praise Podkolzin’s work ethic, but at some point, if effort is all an NHL coach is praising a player for, it’s coachspeak for “not playing well enough”.
Asked #Canucks HC Rick Tocchet about whether Vasili Podkolzin was “running out of runway” to make the team after the club’s 3-1 preseason loss to the Kraken.
His response focused on Podkolzin’s work ethic, and the error he made on Seattle’s 1-0 goal: pic.twitter.com/lpGbIKS2HE
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) September 29, 2023
It’s been a bit of a struggle for Wolanin throughout camp and the preseason, which continued on Thursday. Like Podkolzin, Wolanin was similarly at fault on Seattle’s first goal. He also failed to clear the puck while spelling Cole (who was in the box) on Eeli Tolvanen’s game-winning goal on Thursday.
Given the fact that none of the club’s other depth defenders have seemed to take a stranglehold on the competition for the club’s seventh or eighth defender spot, it’s not too late for Wolanin to find his game. The runway is getting short though.
Work to do
Opened camp with Hughes, but struggled in the scrimmage and in his preseason debut against the Calgary Flames on Sunday. Didn’t do enough to give himself momentum on Thursday.
In the battle for the seventh defenseman role, Irwin has the most NHL experience by far. Just hasn’t separated himself from the club’s in-house options yet.
Club regards Brisebois very highly, but the crisp outlet passes that made him a training camp standout have disappeared over the past two games in Edmonton and Seattle.
Outside looking in
Dries was one of the few Canucks players who consistently directed the puck on net on Thursday, and had some solid sequences on the penalty kill too. Just hasn’t seemed to get a look with NHL calibre linemates, which seems telling as to his perch in the club’s pecking order going into the final week of preseason.
Excellent training camp, some solid play in preseason. In the mix to be the club’s first call-up, but would need to do something pretty special in the final week of preseason to challenge players like Studnicka and Joshua for a spot on the opening day roster, particularly given that those players require waivers to be re-assigned to the American League and Bains does not.
Love his stick-on-puck forechecking game. Smart, skilled and exceptionally strong on his stick. Should be expected to make his NHL debut this season, but most likely as a call-up.
Woo had a great camp, but followed it up with one very tough, momentum-sapping preseason game. Will be interesting to see if he gets another preseason look with an NHL-calibre defense partner, but the fact that he didn’t dress on Wednesday or Thursday strongly suggests that he’s off of the bubble for the moment.
Akito Hirose was a healthy scratch in Seattle. He hasn’t mixed in with an obvious NHL-level pair throughout training camp or in the preseason. Seems bound for the American League to open the year, which should serve him well given his lack of professional experience.
Jack Rathbone will require waivers if he’s cut from the Canucks roster and wasn’t given a look on Wednesday or Thursday.
On Thursday, Spencer Martin became the first Canucks player to be placed on waivers this preseason. The veteran goaltender struggled when thrust into an everyday starters role in the NHL last season, but stabilized his game in the AHL. On a one-way contract, it’s more likely that Martin will clear than be claimed off of waivers on Friday. If Martin clears waivers that could actually make him a more desirable trade target for some teams.
(Photo of Phillip Di Giuseppe: Zac BonDurant / Getty Images)