Canucks’ Brock Boeser making most of opportunity with ‘second team’

In their first ever NHL preseason game, The Vegas Golden Knights beat the Vancouver Canucks 9-4. Tyler Wong scored three goals and added an assist.

VANCOUVER — Of the nine shots he took Sunday, Brock Boeser’s most impressive was neither of his bullets that went in.

In the second period of the Vancouver Canucks’ ragged and wretched 9-4 pre-season loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at Rogers Arena, Boeser cut with the puck above the top of the faceoff circles, saw Dylan Ferguson tracking across his net, then with a lightning flick of his hands released a heavy wrist shot behind the goalie that just zipped wide of the post.

It didn’t go in but looked like it could have. From 40 feet. Almost nobody in the National Hockey League scores on 40-foot wrist shots anymore. Almost nobody takes them, unless they’re aiming for somebody’s rear-end or stick.

The last Canuck who had a release like Boeser’s and could score from 40 feet was Markus Naslund. Maybe Ryan Kesler for a couple of seasons.

Boeser looks like he could be special. With the Canucks’ veteran-laden “first team” in China for a couple of promotional exhibition games against the Los Angeles Kings this week in Shanghai and Beijing, Boeser was easily the best prospect left behind to play on the “second team.”

One day after manufacturing a brilliant overtime winner against the Kings in L.A., Boeser scored the Canucks’ first goal Sunday against the Knights by roofing a forehand on a partial breakaway, set up his team’s second goal and scored a cheeky one in garbage time with a no-look shot from a sharp angle that surprised Ferguson during one of the game’s 17 power plays.

We’re no math whiz, but that’s three goals in two pre-season games for a 20-year-old winger who scored four times in nine NHL games late last season after Boeser was beamed directly to the Canucks from the University of North Dakota.

He is good enough to be in China, but Boeser is glad to be playing this week on this side of the Pacific.

“I figured I was going to be staying back here with all the younger guys,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity for us younger guys. We’re taking on a bigger role. I’m trying to embrace the opportunity and kind of be a leader.

“They said it’s a great opportunity and I think it’s a great opportunity for us young guys to prove ourselves.”

Boeser underwent wrist surgery at college nine months ago. His release looks better now than it did for the Canucks last March.

“I think I’m getting a lot more shots through,” he said. “Last year, when I had an injured wrist, I think… it took me longer to get shots off. I was getting pucks blocked and it was frustrating. It feels a lot better now.

“Just the type of player I am, I expect myself to be a difference-maker every night I go out on the ice. That’s the role I’m trying to embrace: making a difference in the game and trying to help produce for the team.”

The China Games are a marketing showcase for the NHL, a scouting party exploring a market of 1.4 billion people. The games are also a chance for the Canucks to build their brand abroad while winning new fans in Metro Vancouver, which includes 400,000 ethnic Chinese.

But it’s the games back here this week that matter most to the hockey department, that could have the greater impact on the 23-man roster the Canucks name for their season-opener. General manager Jim Benning stayed home to watch the Canucks’ many kids.

“Going to be a lot of eyes on you,” Canucks coach Travis Green said before leaving for Shanghai. “A lot of management is staying behind to watch those games. Those are far from meaningless games. Those are huge games for deciding who’s going to play on our team.”

With games Wednesday in Calgary and Friday in Edmonton, Boeser has already separated himself from the field, although another young winger, 2014 first-rounder Jake Virtanen, also had a strong weekend.

Even with six free agents added by Benning in the summer, the organization hopes to have at least a couple of their best prospects make the NHL team this fall. It would be a victory for their player-development program, and proof to anxious fans that the Vancouver rebuild is progressing.

“These are big games for us,” Virtanen agreed. “All the young guys can show what we have to management. It gives us opportunity, so it’s good for us young guys to stay back.”

Virtanen scored on Saturday and had an assist Sunday.

But Nikolay Goldobin, the third first-tier prospect trying to make the Canucks at wing, failed to register a shot on net in 13:27 of ice time against the Knights and finished with a Corsi-for of 31 per cent (4-9). Virtanen was 60 per cent (6-4), Boeser 57 per cent (16-12).

Among defencemen trying to make the team, Swedish free agent Philip Holm had an erratic night, capping it with a ghastly giveaway in the slot that allowed Tyler Wong to complete his hat trick for Vegas. But Holm also scored and led Canucks skaters with a 70 per cent Corsi (16-7).

There was little redeeming about Olli Juolevi’s performance, as the fifth-overall draft pick from 2016 matched Holm’s costly giveaway but generated no offence and posted a 33-per-cent Corsi (6-12).

“It was pretty much up and down,” Holm, 25, said. “I had a couple of chances, but I’m not happy with the end result.”

Most Canucks would have said the same thing.