It’s a happy surprise for fans when the Vancouver Canucks depth can find more than scrapings at the bottom of their player barrel. It can be argued that there is only one forward spot left to fight for in 2021-22. But this time, it won’t be because “it’s too expensive to send Player X down” and fans should be delighted.
Here a Canuck, There a Canuck
The signing of expensive veterans to fill roster spots nine through twelve is in the past, now. Expensive depth has been jettisoned in a very dramatic fashion. But that doesn’t tell us who will be filling out the fourth line for Vancouver once the puck drops in October. And there will be an actual fight for that spot, make no mistake. The Canucks mean it when they say a good performance at training camp can win you a job. It’s just that the players usually in the running were, well, not ideal.
The massive number of signatures on contracts at the end of July means that even the Abbotsford Canucks depth will be ready to compete. But more than that, if the parent club goes through their usual injury history it’s okay. Not great, of course, but the farm will have capable veterans looking to show off their chops. That’s not a bad thing at all. With the farm and the parent sharing a city it will be easier than ever to put prospects where the team thinks is best.*
Obviously getting your prospects all the ice time they can eat is great – if they can handle it. No one wants to be on a losing squad, after all, and it’s worse when the losing is your fault. So veterans are a big part of the Abbotsford team, but that makes for a crowded “tweener” brigade. The AHL squad not playing for a while? Call one of the kids up to practice in the NHL, maybe watch a game as a spare. NHL team on their break? Drop a younger player for a couple games to keep them playing. Easy-peasy! Kinda.
The Fight For Twelfth
There are two players we talked about in the top-nine column who could easily end up in the bottom three. Brandon Sutter and Vasily Podkolzin are lineup selections in ink and pencil respectively. Sutter’s a lock, and Podkolzin has shown he can handle playing under pressure with aplomb. Few 20-year olds play 16 KHL playoff games in a season, never mind scoring six goals and 11 points to lead the team during them. And certainly not with a storied club like SKA St. Petersburg. So let’s go ahead and pencil him in for now – and probably on the third line or higher.
The other player who is a lock to make the team is spitfire Tyler Motte. He is perfectly placed on the fourth line with loads of penalty-killing time. He has some scoring talent that he’s put aside to become a specialist. The downside of Motte is his enthusiastic play has led to an extensive injury history over just five seasons. Assuming he won’t change his playing style (spoiler: he won’t) there could be one-and-a-half spots available.
And really, we’re talking about the 12th and 13th spots here. The 13th forward is a unique position as it’s not someone who should expect to play but still be ready to. So there are three possible options here for these players, but all of them are aiming for the regular NHL shift. So picture the Canucks depth with a fourth line of Sutter, Motte, and…?
In a deadline deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canucks brought in Matthew Highmore straight-up for Adam Gaudette. The more cynical fans looked at the difference in salary – about $250,000 – and assumed that was the motivation. They aren’t entirely wrong, as Gaudette has far more offensive ability than Highmore has yet shown. Gaudette’s 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games in the 2019-20 season seem like it would be more important to a team than Highmore’s peak of three goals and five points in 18 Canucks games.
But some of the decision is about use, too. Gaudette’s game wasn’t working well as a defensive player, and he wasn’t going to crack the top-two lines. Highmore will work anywhere he’s put, including being ready for 8-9 minutes a game. Or, for that matter, being scratched entirely. For a hint of his future with Vancouver, Travis Green played him shorthanded and his starts were overwhelmingly in the defensive zone. If Highmore is willing to focus on his defence, he may have the lead on a fourth-line spot.
Our Guess: On the ice. He can play any forward spot, increasing his chances of dressing regularly.
Phillip Di Giuseppe
New arrival Phillip Di Giuseppe was drafted in 2012, and last year was the first season he spent no time in the AHL. When he does get to the top level, he’s a regular on the fourth line getting between ten and twelve minutes a night. At 27 years old, he knows his money is to be made on defence. He absolutely puts in the work, and will probably have a borderline-NHL career as long as he wants it. But he also has a big salary ($450,000) at the AHL level, which should help him get through waivers.
Di Giusseppe may be the perfect icon for the new Vancouver Canucks depth – and how much they want it to spill over to Abbotsford. He is a decent player, been around a long time, relatively speaking. He has plenty of experience being ready to jump in when necessary. But they might value him more on the farm, hoping he’ll be a contributor and veteran presence there.
Our Guess: AHL leader, early call-up.
There is one thing Zack MacEwen has that the previous two players here don’t – size. MacEwen has come up through the Canucks system, breaking through with Utica and eventually displacing Jake Virtanen going into the 2020 Playoff Bubble in Edmonton. He signed a two-season deal after that, and he’s paid as much in the AHL as the NHL this year. He has no fear of physical play, dropping the gloves when needed, but also collected 37 goals and 96 points in 155 AHL games.
That physicality can get him into games, and if he plays with confidence he can stay. He has competition with this exact description coming up in Jonah Gadjovich, but for now, MacEwen’s 55 Canucks games make him a low-risk option. He can also play both centre and wing – but more likely wing, given where the Canucks depth is in the 2021-22 season.
Our Guess: The 13th Warrior. Black Ace. Healthy scratch. Cabbie. Whatever you want to call the extra man.
*Quick sidebar, here – Vancouver is undoubtedly looking to move Micheal Ferland‘s contract. If they want to take full advantage of *ahem* “moving” players to the AHL to reduce the cap hit on off days, they can’t be in LTIR.
TORONTO, ON – FEBRUARY 04: Vancouver Canucks Left Wing Tyler Motte (64) skates with the puck during the NHL regular season game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 4, 2021, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)