VANCOUVER — The first question on the first day of training camp was both predictable and revealing. Until the Vancouver Canucks sign restricted free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, the story of the two players who are not at camp is going to feel more important than all the stories about the players who are here.
Take One: General manager Jim Benning talking about missing his best forward and top defenceman.
“I'm disappointed that they're not going to be here for the start of camp,” Benning said Wednesday at the start of his press conference. “But I'm going to continue to talk to (agent) Pat Brisson and try to get something figured out here as soon as we can. I don't think we're that far apart, but these are complex and unique deals. These are two good young players and an important part of our group so, like I said, we're going to continue to work with Pat until we get something figured out.
“I think we're getting close, but we'll just continue on and hopefully we can get it done sooner rather than later.”
Benning told reporters at Rogers Arena that he and Brisson, who have been in contact daily, would speak again Wednesday afternoon.
Expectations that Tuesday’s agreement between the Minnesota Wild and their star free agent, Kirill Kaprizov, would spur the Canucks’ negotiations on Pettersson, who appears to be a close comparable, may be misplaced.
For a variety of reasons – age, years until unrestricted free agency, Kaprizov’s fallback option in Russia – the Canucks don’t believe Pettersson’s situation is identical even if the five-year, $45-million deal for Minnesota’s rookie of the year feels like a reasonable valuation for Pettersson.
Benning and Brisson had been trending towards shorter bridge deals for Pettersson, 22, and Hughes, 21, and although a long-term deal is still possible – Vancouver can’t afford two -- it’s more likely to go to Hughes, who would be slightly cheaper than Pettersson and has a year longer to wait for UFA status.
But the start of training camp practices Thursday in Abbotsford, an hour east of Vancouver, provides another pressure point in negotiations.
Canuck Brock Boeser, Pettersson’s linemate, missed the start of training camp two years ago as a restricted free agent exiting his entry-level contract, but was motivated to settle on a three-year bridge deal once he saw teammates practising without him.
“Before camp started, I didn't think it was going to be that urgent,” Boeser recalled on Wednesday. “But when I started to see videos of the guys skating together and they're going to play pre-season games, I didn't like that feeling of sitting out and not being there with the guys. Not just my side but their side, too, wanted to push things ahead and it got a little more urgent. A deal can come fast when both sides start to agree on some terms.
“It obviously sucks, but it's part of the process. It's all about finding a fair deal for both sides. Obviously, I think we all know that they want to be here and be here for a while, so I'm not too worried about it. I think they'll be here soon. And I think they'll be ready to go when they get here.”
Pettersson and Hughes are training together in Michigan, where Hughes lives in the off-season. Pettersson was briefly in Vancouver last week due to visa issues.
NHL players are excellent at compartmentalizing. Their focus usually isn't on players who are missing. But it’s impossible to ignore the absence of teammates with the stature of Pettersson and Hughes.
“It affects the players themselves individually,” coach Travis Green said of missing his two best young players. “(I'm) disappointed that they're not here, obviously, as a coach. We’ve got a lot of new bodies on our team. Being two big pieces to our team, it's important that they're here. And obviously, being two younger players, training camp is a big part of working on certain parts of your game.
“I think ... the players understand that this has happened before. This is not a market that it's not (going to be) talked about a lot. But the players know how important training camp is as well, and they're all going to want those players here.
"I'm not worried about it affecting how we get ready; I'm worried about the two players coming back into our group and missing the time that is vital not just for your hockey team on the ice, but what we talked about off the ice and having so many new faces. There's something to be said about (being together).”
Key newcomers are top-six winger Conor Garland and top-pairing defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, two-way centre Jason Dickinson, rookie winger Vasily Podkolzin and veteran goalie Jaroslav Halak.
Green will be test-driving centres to start camp. Besides missing Pettersson, Benning revealed that veteran centre Brandon Sutter is undergoing tests for fatigue (he has tested negative for COVID-19) and Canucks captain Bo Horvat was not feeling well enough on Wednesday to be with the team.
Benning also confirmed that winger Tyler Motte’s summer surgery was for an “upper-body injury” that may not allow the energy forward to be ready for the start of the regular season. But the GM tried to shut down conjecture about defenceman Travis Hamonic’s unexplained absence by saying “he’s going to be here.”
Winger Justin Bailey is home in Buffalo after testing positive for COVID-19 but will join the team as soon as he is able, Benning said.
The general manager also stated unequivocally that the Canucks will be “100 per cent” vaccinated for the team’s season-opener in Edmonton on Oct. 13.
“We have a strict policy in place,” he said. “Players, everybody on the staff, everybody in the front office, everybody's been vaccinated.”
After three practice days in Abbotsford, the Canucks will open their pre-season against the Seattle Kraken Sunday in Spokane, Wash.