VANCOUVER — It says much that with one week to go until the regular season, the forward who led the Vancouver Canucks in ice time Tuesday against the Seattle Kraken was depth candidate Justin Dowling.
It’s go-time for the “bubble” players trying to make the Canucks and Dowling, a 31-year-old who has logged 76 games in his NHL career and filled a utility role for the Dallas Stars the last three seasons, had his most impressive day in Vancouver.
Russian rookie Vasily Podkolzin also had easily his best day of the pre-season, and Jason Dickinson, the higher-profile acquisition from the Stars, played the powerful two-way game the Canucks have been waiting for since training camp opened.
All of this individual urgency didn’t exactly translate into victory, as the Kraken dressed nearly all of what will be its NHL lineup and won 4-0. But Vancouver did outshoot Seattle 38-25, and the elevated play from guys trying to make or move up the lineup was encouraging.
Dowling, who appears close to securing the fourth-line centre spot with two pre-season games remaining, logged 19:35 of ice time, played more than four minutes each on the power play and penalty kill, took 15 faceoffs and looked exactly like the versatile, competent forward the Canucks were hoping for.
“I can’t remember last time I played close to 20 minutes but, obviously, it’s nice getting the opportunity and getting to play in all situations and show what I can do,” Dowling said. “I think it just goes to show that they trust you. I’m new to the team. . . new to the organization, so it’s nice to be able to go out there and show that I can do it.”
Dowling was part of an army of players the Canucks signed in free agency to push for an NHL job while guaranteeing organizational depth and a solid talent base for Vancouver’s new farm team in nearby Abbotsford, B.C. He signed a two-year, one-way contract for $750,000 per season, which could also make the centre from Cochrane, Alta., a salary-cap bargain if he makes the NHL roster.
“The last few years, I’ve kind of been known as a guy who can kind of come in and fill any role that’s needed, and I take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “I think it’s good to have that, bring a lot of tools to the game.”
GO POD GO
After his NHL readiness was the main media topic at the morning skate, Podkolzin had an excellent game after a quiet start to camp that had seen coach Travis Green push the 20-year-old down the lineup.
Playing with Dowling, Podkolzin had three shots and four hits and displayed directness and confidence in his offensive game. On one memorable foray to the Seattle net in the second period, Podkolzin dangled around former Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano to put himself one on one with goalie Philipp Grubauer, the game’s first star.
“I thought that was his best game,” Green said. “His pace was higher. You could see he got his feet moving tonight. He was physical. It’s funny when you skate, when you get your feet moving, a lot of things open up in your game, not just with the puck but way from the puck, allowing you to be physical and use your strength.”
GREEN GOES DEEP
After Green spent several days of the pre-season — especially before the weekend return of young stars Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes eased tension throughout the organization — seemingly saying as little as possible, the coach gave an expansive and revealing answer before Tuesday’s game when asked about expectations in the market for young players like Podkolzin and fellow rookie Jack Rathbone.
Expected by many to establish himself among the top-nine forwards as a 20-year-old straight out of Russia — and starting camp on a line with J.T. Miller — Podkolzin has had an underwhelming pre-season.
“Both these young guys, I think they’re both excellent young players, and we’re lucky to have them,” Green told reporters after the morning skate. “At the end of the day, we’re going to see where they end up. I really don’t know right now.
“I always tend to pump the brakes a little bit just because I know that … putting more pressure on a player isn’t necessary. Let them come in and play. Let them just play and become the player they’re going to be instead of us deciding what the player is going to be before he is.
“Us developing them the right way is important, and it might not always meet everyone’s standards or wishes. Maybe in the past people haven’t liked the way we’ve developed certain players or questioned it, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job at developing some of these young guys. I tend to think about it from their (perspective) too, and make sure that they’re protected. We want the best for them.”
On Podkolzin specifically, Green said: “Does he have stuff to work on? Yeah, but I like him a lot. Now when you say you like a player, that doesn’t mean that he’s going to get given everything all at once. But he’s a hard worker, he pays attention to detail, he wants to learn, he’s strong on the puck. We’re going to try to push his pace a little bit. . . get his feet moving. These are all things, that in young players … there’s a lot to learn. It’s not an easy league just to step in and play. I like him a lot as a player, and we’re going to have to make a decision on him at the end of camp.”
Podkolzin gave Green more to think about Tuesday night. And in a positive way.