VANCOUVER – Some of the sharpest, funniest lines from the media do not make it into print or on to airwaves because they materialize in casual conversation, often in venues less formal than hockey arenas.
Last week, for instance, during a lively discussion about video gaming and the possibility Vancouver Canucks veterans might ban Fortnite on road trips, one media member suggested the team should find out what Loui Eriksson has been doing the last two seasons and ban that.
Boom. Mic drop.
Eriksson actually spent large chunks of the last two seasons in the gym and medical room, recovering from injuries. But in the 115 games the 33-year-old did play for the Canucks, the Swedish winger managed just 21 goals and 47 points.
Two seasons into a six-year, $36 million contract, Eriksson has spectacularly under-achieved in Vancouver. After all, he had 52 goals and 110 points during his final two seasons with the Boston Bruins.
But when he returned Tuesday to the lineup from a pre-season bone bruise, Eriksson went straight to the Canucks’ top forward line.
Considering the Canucks disintegrated in the third period and were shut out 6-0 by the Edmonton Oilers – and have just nine goals in a 1-5 pre-season in which Vancouver’s shooting percentage of 4.5 is the worst in the National Hockey League – “top line” is a bit of an oxymoron.
Still, Eriksson skated with Bo Horvat and is expected to start the regular season next Wednesday playing alongside rookie-of-the-year candidate Elias Pettersson.
This is because head coach Travis Green and the Canucks want a veteran presence, a player with defensive awareness, beside the wonderfully gifted 19-year-old.
But Eriksson’s likely deployment is also because none of the Canucks’ other skilled young prospects – think especially of Jonathan Dahlen and Adam Gaudette – have shown they’re ready to make the giant leap to the NHL from wherever they’ve been playing.
And Jake Virtanen and Markus Granlund haven’t done anything to warrant promotion from lower down the lineup. Either Nikolay Goldobin or Brendan Leipsic, each going into his fifth year of professional hockey, will probably get to play the other wing with Pettersson.
There is so much riding on Eriksson financially that the Canucks will do everything they can to salvage their highest-paid player.
“He has a lot more to offer,” general manager Jim Benning told Sportsnet this week. “Can he be a mentor to Pettersson? Can he play with him? We need Loui. He’s an important guy for us.
“He had a good start to camp but had a setback getting a bruised bone in his leg when he blocked a shot. If he can find good chemistry and help make a solid line with Pettersson, that’s big. We need him this year.”
Part of Eriksson’s understanding when he joined the Canucks as a free-agent was that he would be a bridge between Daniel and Henrik Sedin and whoever came after them to lead the attack. But Eriksson also understood that he would play with the twins, which under Green and previous coach Willie Desjardins happened only sporadically before the Sedins retired in April.
Eriksson knows he can play better for the Canucks than he has, but it’s clear he also wants some linemate stability and an extended opportunity to show he can still be a top-six forward in the NHL.
“It’s been tough these two years; I’ve been hurt a lot,” Eriksson said. “Then to find a role on the team, it’s been tough, too. I was supposed to play with the Sedins. We played together a few games and I thought we played well, but we didn’t produce. It’s been tough going through different lines through the whole season. It’s much easier when you find one line to play with and feel like someone believes in you.
“I’ve always been a player who produced and put up points. And it’s been tough coming here and, like I said, getting hurt and then playing on different lines, not finding anyone to play with. So it’s been a different role for me. I don’t mind taking on a checking role because that was how I was taught to play the game – to be a good two-way player. But, of course, I want to produce and help the team (offensively) as well.”
Eriksson embraces the idea of mentoring Pettersson. He remembers how veterans like Stu Barnes and Mike Modano helped him adjust to the NHL when he left Sweden for the Dallas Stars’ organization a dozen years ago.
One of Eriksson’s early assistant coaches in Dallas was fellow Swede Ulf Dahlen, Jonathan’s dad.
“It’s not easy to come to a new country, and it’s not easy to play in this league,” Eriksson said. “We’re going to try to teach them. In Dallas, I had a few guys stay in my house; I used to take them in and show them how things worked in the NHL. It’s a little different now because I have four kids and I don’t think anyone else will fit in my house.”
But he hopes there’s room for him on Pettersson’s line. That could be home, sweet home.