Vancouver Canucks gave their head coach Travis Green another two years to work with the team back in May. He got something much better a month later, though. For the first time in his tenure, Travis Green has options – and lots of them. We’re going to focus on the top forwards here and the rest of the team makeup later.
It’s Christmas in July for the Vancouver Canucks!
The Canucks had a lot of work to do and did it. Between moving out salaries, replacing veteran defender Alexander Edler, adding scoring, and improving depth up front, the team has had their most active off-season in years. The literal biggest of those categories is the last. The team signed 16 contracts on July 28th alone.
Many of those are destined to stock the new AHL affiliate in Abbotsford. They spent 2020-21 sharing Utica with the St. Louis Blues, so the new team was short of players. Some are still in the system, but with responsibility moving from being split between a local affiliate and Vancouver to the Canucks alone, the team has skates to fill.
We’ll be reviewing the borderline players later, but in a nutshell? A whole lot of these guys can appear in both leagues this season without the team missing a beat. The parent club obviously wants its affiliate to succeed in Year One and is willing to pay for it. There are a LOT of players on that team worth looking closely at, but for now, we’re staying with Vancouver.
We Bought You A Frying Pan But It Melted
When Travis Green has options, he uses them. Indeed, he’ll use them even when he doesn’t have options. It’s well known that captain Bo Horvat has taken the brunt of so-called “matchup minutes” over the years. Indeed, sheltering Horvat was the primary motivation for the team to get Brandon Sutter from Pittsburgh in 2015. That… didn’t quite work out as planned, as Sutter dealt with the first major injuries of his career, playing just 20 games.
After Horvat powered his way through that, his role was defined. He was there to let whatever the Canucks’ top line was, play against lesser opposition. That, likewise, hasn’t always worked out as planned. This year, however, there is help on the way in the form of Jason Dickinson lifted from the Dallas Stars in an expansion-dodging move. Dickinson has applied for arbitration – scheduled for August 20 – but a deal is likely to be reached well before then.
Dickinson himself has talked about wanting certainty in his role on a team. In Dallas, he was moved through the lineup and across whichever position was needed. Injuries and matchups dictated his use, and on the Canucks he should be given the lockdown job that has been Horvat’s. If he is, that will free up the captain to use his obvious scoring abilities more often.
Let’s Talk Top Lines
If you and your rival each have three horses who match up well, the way to increase your odds is not to run strength to strength. Placing your third-best against their best is hard to win, sure. But it frees your best and second-best to race their second and third best respectively. And winning two out of three get you the trophy. It’s a blunt metaphor, but the general idea of using lines comes across. Vancouver’s biggest problem of late has been having more than one and a half dangerous lines to work with.
That’s changed. Horvat works well with Tanner Pearson and has since Pearson’s arrival in 2018-19. Last year, they added the shocking Nils Hoglander to the right side and came up with a lot more scoring potential than expected. This year he may be moved down to the third line as Conor Garland takes his place, or Garland could bump Pearson down, making for a high-skill second line. It would be a very short scoring line, averaging around 5’10’ and 190 lbs. But that hasn’t deterred either Höglander or Garland from pulling the puck out of corners or going where they have to go to score.
Third to First or Anywhere Between
Add the fascinating Vasily Podkolzin to a third line consisting of Dickinson and Pearson for a truly unpleasant trio to play against, and suddenly that second line gets taller. All three players – should Podkolzin stick there – are physical puck retrievers. Again, Travis Green has options unlike any he’s had before, and that includes moving J.T. Miller to centre. Such a move would put him on a third line in name only, as whoever he is with will get scoring chances.
There have been vocal objections to Miller being anywhere but the extremely effective Brock Boeser – Miller – Elias Pettersson line, and that’s fair. Last season’s injuries to Pettersson forced the team’s hand, shifting Miller to the middle where he was fine. Not great, but fine. The problem wasn’t Miller in the middle but Pettersson’s absence.
Thing is, Green has always moved his players around, depending on the situation they face. He has no qualms tossing numbers in a blender, so there will be some mixing and matching as the year goes on. It’s just that now he has more talent – and more versatile talent – to draw from. Garland and Höglander can play either wing, while Dickinson, Miller, and Sutter have all split time at wing and centre. Expect some of that mixing to have an effect on special teams, where Vancouver was solidly bottom-ten last season.
Who Will Be Where
Whatever predictions get made now are going to be thoroughly destroyed soon after the season starts. Not to continue the beatings, but when Travis Green has options he uses them. We could easily find Podkolzin starting the year at the bottom of the lineup and moved up to the second by November. Pearson could stick with his centre, or bring his physicality – and scoring – to a checking line. Miller will likely start on Pettersson’s wing, but opposing coaches ignore a point-per-game player at their own risk, even when that player is on the third line.
It’s reasonable to look over the lineup and make some projections over who is in the top-nine, at least for the start of the year. Pettersson, Miller, Boeser, Horvat, Garland, Höglander, Pearson, Dickinson, and either Sutter or Podkolzin. Other guys could break in – and Green’s history says they’ll get the chance to – but they seem safe. Some are going to grab power-play time while others *cough*Höglander*cough* can lose it.
Where it gets a lot trickier is who makes up the rest of the team. We’ll take a closer at the horse race to fill the bottom of Vancouver’s forward group later this week, with the defence and goaltender coming soon.