After an adventurous off-season, the Vancouver Canucks training camp kicks off with the kids on Thursday. They want to get their new farm team off to a good start, so Abbotsford is hosting this season. Nothing like showing prospective fans the prospects they’ll be seeing! Especially when those prospects really don’t want to start there…
— Jeff Paterson (@patersonjeff) September 13, 2021
There are some really interesting stories here, including Ethan Keppen’s release by the Canucks and signing by Abbotsford. But for now, we’re going to focus on the veterans who will be working to avoid opening the season in Abbotsford. And unlike some other years, the reason they might not make the big club won’t be through their faults, but the skill of those ahead of them.
Canucks Training Camp Battle the First: Defence
We’ve already discussed the Canucks’ losses and gains on the defence this year here. We’re going to narrow the focus a bit more and talk about the one open spot at the blue line. Right now, here’s how it likely stacks up:
We say “likely” because one thing coach Travis Green likes to do is mix his lines/pairs. But even outside that, it’s tough to picture Myers and Ekman-Larsson working well as a unit. Still, if salary dictates then for now we’ll have Myers in the second pair. But this is where it gets interesting, because who that last spot goes to depends to a large extent on what will be expected of the pairing. There are two front-runners and one dark horse in this particular Canucks training camp race.
Last season was finally Olli Juolevi‘s breakthrough to the NHL. Discounting his six minutes in the bubble (hush, you!) from 2019-20, his debut season was… fine. He scored twice and got an assist in 23 games, had a middling – for a rookie defenceman on this team – 45% Corsi rating. In over 200 minutes with Myers, they had 49.5% expected goals. Not numbers you want from the top pair, certainly, but acceptable in limited use. And he was clever enough to negotiate a bargain-basement contract – invaluable to a cap-crunched team.
Unfortunately for him, more is always expected of the 5th overall pick in any year. That three of the next four picks were Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, and Mikhail Sergachev doesn’t make the criticism go any easier. Repeated lower-body injuries have hampered his mobility, and while his best attribute is his mind, his mind isn’t the part that skates. He has been able to compensate to some degree, but hopes of his being a replacement for Alexander Edler are far in the past now.
All that being said, his peak isn’t on the third pair. He still thinks the game well, and if the objective for the Canucks third pair is to shut opponents down, that suits Juolevi fine. His outlet pass is solid, and with all the weapons the Canucks have added upfront they can really take advantage. But the rest of his game is about being smart, being careful, and making the safe play. And, like Edler before him, taking the occasional forward by surprise with a solid check.
At the other end of the Draft Disappointment Spectrum sits Jack Rathbone. A fourth-round pick in 2017, Rathbone is all about the scoring. He played the bulk of 2016-17 in high school prep, so where he would go professionally was a bit of a question mark. Ends up he went straight to the net, getting nine points in eight AHL games last season. That was enough to get him a call-up to Vancouver, where he scored a goal and three points in another eight games. He played reasonably protected minutes – also with Tyler Myers – and managed a 49.5% Corsi rating in his eight games.
The best part of his game is his offence. As mentioned, the new depth the Canucks have among the forwards means they can look to catch opponents by surprise. Or at least keep them aware that all three of Vancouver’s pairings have a player who can suddenly go on the attack with aplomb. Besides, the other team can’t score if the puck never stays in the Canucks’ end, right?
On the other hand, Rathbone does have a big weakness: waivers. He ducks the waiver wire completely, meaning he can be called up or down as needed through the season. Given the proximity of the Canucks AHL team, having him on hand and still getting ice time is a nice thought. He has still only played 16 professional games, so it’s not like a season in Abbotsford will hurt his development.
The most obvious use for Brad Hunt is with a letter in the AHL. A new team could do far worse than the talented – and local – veteran defenseman. If he is starting in the minors, it will be his first AHL game in five years. That Hunt is good enough to make the team is certain. Whether that should be at the expense of either rookie is more debatable. He’s spent much of his career as the seventh man and is capable of that role again, but Abbotsford isn’t far. His salary is small – just $800K – but he makes that in either league. He seems mostly destined for the minors unless something goes very wrong for the NHL Canucks.
But Hunt can win the Canucks training camp battle with a more complete game than either of the younger players have. The team is under a lot of pressure to make the playoffs. If the decision is to go with as few mistakes as possible, then it could be a high bar to reach. Hunt’s experience could prove a panacea in the third pair. And with a one-year deal, he won’t be in the way of either Rathbone or Juolevi for long.
Yes, it will probably go to one of the youngsters rather than the veteran. But they’d ignore the Maple Ridge-born Hunt at their peril.