And now… the Thrilling Adventure Continues!
Big Losses, Small Gains Among Vancouver Canucks Forwards
First, the elephant in the room. Tyler Toffoli came in as an emergency replacement for the injured Brock Boeser and fit in perfectly. With six goals and 10 points in just 10 regular-season games, it was assumed he would stay with the team. Spoiler: he didn’t. And getting him wasn’t cheap, costing the Canucks a second-round pick and a good prospect. That he was just a rental is dismaying, but the playoff run helps ease the pain.
Speaking of which, Micheal Ferland is still a question mark. Reports are that he wants to continue his career despite repeated concussions. His track record isn’t promising. It looks like the Canucks are relying on Ferland’s salary moving to long-term injured reserve to make the cap. Obviously no announcement will be made until at least the start of training camps, so that’s some nice suspense to bring into next season. Because who doesn’t need that this year?
Continuing the parade of pachyderms, with even Josh Leivo finding a home over the mountains* Vancouver’s right-side depth – isn’t. Boeser is an excellent start, but after that options are limited, at best. The incoming Jayce Hawryluk will likely get pushed to that side, despite his use at centre or left-wing over the last two years. Assuming he makes the team at all, that is. The Canucks have no fear of putting an established NHLer into the minors if they are outplayed, so he’ll get his chance. He was signed as a depth forward who could be better and has been a sound defensive player on the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators. Not exactly two shut-down teams, those. If Hawryluk shows any aptitude for scoring he could easily find himself in the top-six.
There’s Always Depth if You Look Low Enough
In fact, anyone on the right side could find themselves on the first line. Riding shotgun with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller is rarified air, though. Given the scoring talents of Boeser, how can it be an open question? Well, because of who those options are among the available Vancouver Canucks forwards.
There’s little doubt Jake Virtanen can handle the scoring part. For all the criticisms he’s rightly faced, his speed and his shot aren’t in doubt. His creativity, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. He has difficulty recognizing what the best play might be, which causes missed opportunities, which is never great. While that can be overcome on the attack, it’s inexcusable when defending. And even Pettersson has to defend some times – something he does quite well, as it happens. So, could the occasional Virtanen brain-freeze be overlooked with improved production? Coach Travis Green will hate it, but might. “Might” isn’t “will” though. And can that combination produce better than the 6-40-9 Line?
The problem is that if Boeser stays on the top line, it bumps Virtanen back into the bottom-six. Because the second line is the domain of Bo Horvat, who is the Canucks’ designated MIB. The captain lines up against the worst the universe has to offer, fighting opponents’ best to a draw as often as not. That’s not exactly dealing to Vitranen’s strengths, which is why Loui Eriksson continues to haunt the club. Or his contract does, anyway. Horvat is a five-tool player and fantasy category monster, but his use partially dictates his linemates. Tanner Pearson has rejuvenated his career there, but the other wing remains a mystery.
Fewer Games, More Problems
Whenever this coming season starts, the only certainty is that it won’t be 82 games long. Teams that want to make the playoffs but aren’t good enough to have it guaranteed won’t want to experiment much. This includes the Canucks, considered a “bubble” team in any of the proposed formats. Which doesn’t help, because one thing Vancouver does have is depth at centre. Pushing a promising centre like Adam Gaudette up to the wing to see how he fares might be tried in a full season, but it’s unlikely in this NHL Concentrate(tm). Gaudette’s scoring was a pleasant surprise, which is causing problems lower in the lineup, ironically enough.
This is because the team needs to give Horvat – and his line – the opportunity to score. The defensive understudies are what’s typically called the third line, but Green has a habit of mixing and matching during games. Jay Beagle, Tyler Motte, and Brandon Sutter take up the penalty-killing mantle with Eriksson, but can also form a line of their own. That so-called third line is often the Other Guys of defensive forwards. In buying Horvat’s line time, they free him up to face easier opponents. The same happens for the theoretical fourth line, which can then play sheltered minutes. The downside is they get caved in when they play. Whoever they are protecting has to make that risk worth taking.
How that fourth line gets used is the big question. As mentioned, the short season heightens the importance of each game. Teams on the edge of the playoffs, like the Canucks, might want to go with veterans. But if the season is compressed – if seven games in 14 days is the standard – then young legs can make a difference. The Canucks have options, whether the fans want to hear it or not. The players in the lead for that role are Gaudette, Antoine Roussel, and Zack MacEwen.
Loui Eriksson is the ghost haunting the team, but he’s not a miserable pick for this spot, either. He’s a perfectly good fourth line player, but having him in place blocks the younger, bigger, and far cheaper MacEwen. Or Justin Bailey, who certainly has the chance to make a big club desperate for some size – and affordability. At the very least, Bailey can hold down a taxi squad spot to positive effect. The team may want him to play with the kids in Utica, assuming there is a Utica this season. But, he wants to get back into the NHL, and this season might get him there. If Virtanen can hold his spot at the top of the lineup, Eriksson may end up a $6 million scratch as often as not. It’s happened before, after all.
Months before the season begins, here’s our guess at the Canucks forwards on opening day. Again, the third and fourth lines are only called that for expedience, not actual use.
Miller – Pettersson – Virtanen
Pearson – Horvat – Boeser
Motte – Beagle – Sutter
Roussel – Gaudette – MacEwen
Spares: Eriksson, Bailey, Hawrlyuk
To be clear fans, hope this WON’T be the Vancouver Canucks forwards lineup for opening day. Hawrlyluk was signed for a reason, and he can show up anywhere on the bottom three lines. We know they want to make moves; we’re not sure they can.
*Insert your own “Hannibal across the Alps” joke here.