Canucks still seeking best combinations up front with offence sputtering

Canucks winger Micheal Ferland skates through drills with teammates during practice. (Chad Hipolito/CP)

VANCOUVER — There weren’t 14 million reasons Micheal Ferland signed with the Vancouver Canucks as an unrestricted free agent in July. There were two: Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

Promised during his initial meeting with Canuck general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green that Ferland would get to play on the top line if he chose to come to Vancouver, the 27-year-old winger made it clear to everyone that the chance to skate alongside young stars Pettersson and Boeser closed the deal.

“It came down to just having the chance to play with Petey and Boeser,” Ferland reiterated during an interview just before the National Hockey League season began last week. “I thought that was the best thing for myself and where I was at in my career. It’s not easy to turn down an opportunity to play with two really great players. That’s why I chose here.”

So, Ferland signed with the Canucks a four-year, $14-million contract that was cheaper than anyone had forecast for the power forward who scored 38 goals and 81 points for the Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames over the previous two seasons.

And Tuesday, two games into that 328-game (plus playoffs?) contract, Ferland practised on Green’s third line beside Adam Gaudette and Brandon Sutter.

Ferland left Rogers Arena on Monday after practising with second-line centre Bo Horvat, but was demoted again on Tuesday. Green also removed Ferland from the Canucks’ power play, which went 0-for-10 on opening week and is a major reason for a 0-2 start that has seen Vancouver generate just two goals.

Ferland, who has no points, three shots and just three hits through two games, did not speak to reporters on Tuesday. On Monday, he told The Vancouver Sun: “A couple of games in and you start gripping your stick and you don’t play with the confidence you’re usually used to. I’m just trying to get that first goal and make plays after that.”

Vancouver Canucks’ Elias Pettersson skates with the puck. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Ferland isn’t the main problem, of course, although he hasn’t played well after a virus restricted him to just two pre-season games — both while Boeser was in concussion protocol — and depleted him by nine pounds.

But the new Canuck is symptomatic of an overriding concern: a rebuilt team struggling to find the right line combinations and cohesiveness after a summer of significant lineup changes.

“I’m trying to find the right fit for everyone on the team,” Green said Tuesday when asked about Ferland. “You look at some teams in the league, we played Calgary the other night and it’s the same team we played last year minus one player. They’ve already gone through their trial and errors with their lines. We haven’t had that luxury.

“I think we have 10 players that are new from Christmas on last year, maybe more. Obviously, we had a big summer of changeover. And with our exhibition schedule, it wasn’t that easy to get our lineup together as well. We tried to, but Brock wasn’t here and Ferland was sick. We can’t overthink it. We’ve just got to adjust and do it on the fly right now.”

When the Canucks play their home-opener Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings, just after Horvat is confirmed as Vancouver’s new captain during a pre-game ceremony, Pettersson and Boeser will be joined by another newcomer, J.T. Miller.

Despite 3-2 and 3-0 losses to the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, Miller had looked good on a powerful, direct line with Horvat and Tanner Pearson. But Josh Leivo is expected to play Wednesday with Horvat and Pearson.

Green is also changing his power play, moving Horvat up to the top unit and Leivo down to the second, in addition to replacing Ferland with Gaudette, who didn’t even dress for Game 1 in Edmonton.

“It’s just going to take some time,” Miller said. “We’re just learning each other’s spots (on the power play) and our tendencies.”

But like the other 25 or so NHL teams not guaranteed a playoff spot next spring but hoping to earn one, the Canucks don’t have time to wait before starting to accrue points.

The undertow to this early sense of urgency around the team is that neither Pettersson, 20, nor Boeser, 22, the Canucks’ most gifted players offensively, has been close to his best during the first two games.

Pettersson is pointless and has three shots on net, while Boeser hasn’t scored on any of his eight shots and has one assist. The first-liners have been far outshined so far by the opposition’s best players.

“For me, I’ve kind of played slow,” Pettersson said Tuesday. “I haven’t played the fast hockey that I want to — like fast decisions, make plays fast. That’s my main goal for next game. I feel like I’ve lost too many battles. The play has been there but I hold on to the puck for half-a-second, one second, and the play is gone.”

Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, who was expected to benefit from more run support this season, said he isn’t surprised the Canucks have scored only two goals in two hours.

“If we would have scored 10 goals, I wouldn’t have been surprised, either,” he said. “It’s two games. Guys are looking great in practice, looking great creating scoring chances. You don’t want to get frustrated with anything. At the same time, you don’t want to say it’s early because come crunch time (at the end of the season), it’s these points that count.”

The Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings follow the Kings to Vancouver before the Canucks embark on a four-game road trip that starts Oct. 17 in St. Louis against the Stanley Cup champion Blues.

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