Canucks aim to practice as they'll play as training camp opens at Whistler
Canucks fans will start to get some clarity on how the club's forwards will be deployed as their 2022 training camp opens Thursday at the Meadow Park Sports Centre in Whistler.
The pre-camp media availability on Wednesday was a little different this year. Instead of rolling out most of the lineup, this year we got just four key players, and coach Bruce Boudreau.
Bo Horvat and Thatcher Demko went first, followed by J.T. Miller and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
I can see the logic here. We've heard from almost all the roster players over the last couple of weeks, during the informal skates at the Scotia Barn, and general manager Patrik Allvin made the media rounds during Young Stars in Penticton.
The big theme of the Q&A sessions, of course, was playoffs. Boudreau went so far as to say that the season will be a "failure" if the Canucks don't get to the postseason — and from his point of view, that makes perfect sense.
Since coming into the NHL in 2007, Boudreau has only ended three years without a postseason appearance:
• Anaheim in 2011-12, when he took over partway through the season and guided the Ducks to a record of 27-23-8 in 58 games. He then took Anaheim to the playoffs in each of the next four seasons.
• Minnesota in 2018-19, his third season with the team. The Wild finished with a record of 37-36-9, and he was fired during the following year, when his club was 27-23-7.
• Last year with the Canucks, when he went 32-15-10.
When asked about the fact that he only has one year on his current contract, Boudreau did not comment on his status. But given his history and the fact that Jim Rutherford was adamant last spring that Boudreau wouldn't be considered for an extension until he had coached a full season, all parties will probably require a playoff appearance in order to continue this marriage beyond this year.
The Canucks have released a revised camp schedule — as well as the three practice groups for Whistler. On-ice sessions for skaters will now start at 10:15 a.m., with scrimmages at 12:40 p.m.
Now, the line speculation can begin in earnest!
Boudreau did say on Wednesday that he's going to try to keep players together who he expects to skate together in scrimmages and preseason, but the example he gave was pretty innocuous: the combination of Chase Wouters with Danila Klimovich and Tristen Nielsen, which we saw at Young Stars.
He has said that he's planning to start J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson down the middle. And before you get too concerned about who's on the first, second and third lines — it sounds like a big part of the plan will be to roll out three scoring lines that can create potential matchup issues for other teams.
If all goes well, a Canucks third line could deliver a similar impact to the HBK line that Pittsburgh rolled out during its Stanley Cup years — under the observation of Rutherford and Allvin.
Skimming through the lineup groups:
Group A does include that Penticton line of Klimovich, Wouters and Nielsen.
It also includes both Quinn Hughes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who I expect will start together with Hughes playing the right side.
On Wednesday, Ekman-Larsson sounded pleased with the idea of playing with Hughes this year, suggesting that his Hughes' raw talent and puck smarts would help any teammate's game.
Jeff Paterson has the full breakdown of the six sets of defense pairs. PTO candidate Danny DeKeyser gets a meaningful spot to start, paired with Tyler Myers, while Luke Schenn's new protege is Jack Rathbone.
As far as the forwards, J.T. Miller is the established centre in Group A, so it looks like he'll be starting with Brock Boeser and Tanner Pearson.
Turning to Group B, we've got Elias Pettersson in the middle. My guess is that he'll be flanked by Andrei Kuzmenko and Ilya Mikheyev. And if Boudreau also keeps the Penticton trio of Nils Aman, Arshdeep Bains and Linus Karlsson together, that would slot Nils Hoglander even further down the lineup and would mean that he'll have to make his case to be on the opening-night NHL roster.
Scanning Group C, it looks like the key line there will be Bo Horvat between Conor Garland and Vasily Podkolzin. On Wednesday, Boudreau made a point of saying that he wants to give Garland another look on the left side to start this season, because he likes how things ended off there last year.
At this point, it looks like the checking line will start with three guys who can all play in the middle if required: Curtis Lazar, Jason Dickinson and Dakota Joshua.
Lazar is the valuable righty — and Bo Horvat talked about how that would be a valuable addition for the Canucks this year, and could help cut down on the number of draws that he has to take turning the season. Dickinson and Joshua are both lefties, so they'd give the coach some options if they're deployed together.
UPDATE: Thursday 10:37 A.M.
I've been away from the computer for a bit, and now I see that Brendan Batchelor tweeted out the full list of lines and pairings for all three groups a little earlier this morning.
Bearing in mind that I had not yet seen this when I wrote the above, let's see how close my forward projections were:
Group A: As expected
Group B: Hogs lives! Nils Hoglander slots in with Aman and Karlsson on what I'll quickly dub the Tre Kronor line. Arshdeep Bains drops down by one line.
Group C: Officially, Jason Dickinson starts in the middle on the checking line, with newcomer Dakota Joshua on the left and Curtis Lazar on the right.
One other thing I'll mention quickly before signing off today — I'm reluctant to even say it out loud, but this camp seems highly unusual because everyone is present and accounted for. Last year, of course, we had the contract issues with Pettersson and Hughes — but also Travis Hamonic's unexpected disappearance amidst the whispers about his vaccination status. And while I haven't gone back to check, it seems like the lines have carried more uncertainty at most camps in the past because there have been injuries or other issues.
For now, knock on wood, all is well. Let's see what stories emerge from Whistler over the next couple of days and how things start to shake out at the games against Calgary on Sunday.