Boudreau eyes big season for Pettersson with Canucks: 'Sky's the limit'

Vancouver Canucks' Elias Pettersson, of Sweden, celebrates after scoring the winning goal against the Carolina Hurricanes during overtime NHL hockey action in Vancouver, on Thursday December 12, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

PENTICTON, B.C. – The question that has burned ever hotter since Bruce Boudreau replaced Travis Green as the Vancouver Canucks’ head coach more than nine months ago was finally answered Friday, six days before the start of training camp.

Yes, Boudreau, too, has a skating drill to test players’ stamina and fitness. But it’s not the timed intervals of Green’s infamous “40s” and it won’t be on the opening day of camp. So the ice crew in Whistler may not need the vomit scrapers necessary at past camps due to the, uh, fallout from Green’s notorious drill.

It took the ice crew in Abbotsford several passes to remove the stain of Conor Garland’s breakfast last year.

“I always have a skate test, but it's not going to be in the first week,” Boudreau said Friday in an interview with Sportsnet ahead of the Canucks’ Young Stars tournament here. “Every coach, and I mean every coach, wants to be known as: 'My training camp is the toughest.' That was always the thing. I mean, from Roger Nielson and his five-mile run, Tortorella was torture-rella, my skating test, nobody wants to be soft. But I want to run a camp where everybody knows the way we're going to play by the first week. And then we just build on that.”

So much transpired around the Canucks last season, and in the summer that followed, that it’s easy to forget this will be Boudreau’s first training camp with the team.

Other than an apparent upgrade up front, where Russian free agents Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko were signed to play in the top-nine and Curtis Lazar to centre the fourth line, Boudreau’s team is largely unchanged from the one that missed the playoffs by six points last spring.

Of course, it’s also largely unchanged from the team that went 32-15-10 under Boudreau -- a winning percentage of .649 that is comfortably a playoff clip over 82 games – and had the NHL’s second-best power play and third-best goals against.

“We will have our systems down knowing exactly how we play,” Boudreau said. “Frankly, in the regular season, I've always been successful doing the same things. I don't see why I'm going to change. We've tweaked a couple of things with new coaches and everything, and they’ve got new ideas. But for the most part, we want to play the same way, which is being an in-your-face, hard-to-play-against team, and be exciting offensively.”

Boudreau said he believes the team is better, due to the speed and skill added on the wings, and offered some hints about how players may be deployed.

• He likes the idea of rolling out J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson at centre, rather than using Pettersson on the wing, because there are now enough talented wingers to build a top-nine that can score.

• Boudreau confirmed that elite defenceman Quinn Hughes will switch to the right side from the left, at least for training camp, potentially beside Oliver Ekman-Larsson on a new top pairing.

• He wants to better manage the workload of star goalie Thatcher Demko, who played in 64 games last season before breaking down in April, but that this will depend on how well backup goalie Spencer Martin plays.

•Western Hockey League scoring champion Arshdeep Bains broke a scoreless tie at 5:58 of the third period Friday as Vancouver’s prospects won a goaltending duel 3-0 against Calgary Flames rookies at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton.

Bains, who signed in March with his hometown Canucks as a free agent out of junior, guided a rebound past Flames goalie Dustin Wolf after Chase Wouters’ shot was stopped from right wing. Key Canuck prospect Linus Karlsson, the Swedish Hockey League’s rookie of the year last season, earned an assist with his quick-up pass on the winning goal.

• Vancouver’s best player was goalie Arturs Silovs, who stopped all 24 Calgary shots. Silovs is expected to battle minor-league veteran Collin Delia for the starting job this season with the Abbotsford Canucks. Wolf, the Flames’ minor-league starter in Stockton, was also excellent, making 33 saves.

• Tristen Neilsen scored an insurance goal with 2:06 remaining, cutting around Flames defenceman Jeremie Poirier and ramping a backhand over Wolf before Karlsson scored into an empty net.

The four-team prospects tournament ends Monday.

“I think Petey can play with anybody,” Boudreau said of Pettersson, who moved between lines and positions last season while scoring 28 goals and 56 points under the new coach. “I think he's proved that he can play any type of game. Like, I watched all these games again this summer, and. . . he's a physical player. You know, he hits. When he killed penalties, he was good at it. The offensive stuff takes care of itself. I still think the sky's the limit if he's healthy.”

Boudreau said by playing Pettersson at centre, even if it’s theoretically on the third line, one of Pettersson, Horvat or Miller is going to get an advantageous matchup.

“I think it's easy to say that no one's going to be classified as really a third-line player because most of them are going to be on the power play,” he said. “Our third line last year was Tyler Motte, Juho Lammikko and Matthew Highmore. They would kill penalties, but their role (at even strength) was to make sure the other team didn't score. And they did a great job at it. But I think this year's so-called third line is going to be asked to score.

“There's a lot of rolling parts here. Believe me when I say I've gone over it 5,000 times this summer.”

Denied an extension by new general manager Patrik Allvin and president Jim Rutherford, Boudreau will be coaching the final season of the two-year deal he signed with Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini in December. 

After sharp year-end remarks by Rutherford about the Canucks’ “structure” under Boudreau and how poorly the team exited its defensive zone, the coach has only the same defencemen to work with. Allvin landed Mikheyev from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Kuzmenko from the Kontinental Hockey League, but failed in his stated mission to upgrade the defence over the summer.

“You know what, I think they're really underrated,” Boudreau said of his blue line group. “I've worked in my head and on video a lot on that, and we'll be better (at zone exits). Yeah, we want great exits. Everybody does. At the same time, I'd rather be great defending. I think in the last 57 games we were the third-best defensive team. We might have scrambled a little bit but we protected ourselves off of mistakes and we had good goaltending. And I'm not going to apologize for good goaltending.”

The Canucks sunk themselves the last two seasons by starting 8-14-2 in 2020-21 and 6-14-2 last year, which is why Boudreau is desperate to re-establish the success and positivity the team enjoyed over the final 57 games.

Vancouver opens this season with a five-game road trip that begins Oct. 12 in Edmonton.

Boudreau’s next win will be his 600th in the NHL.

“I don't know if there's anybody that can read the future,” the 67-year-old said. “But I do believe. . . the awareness of Game 1 and the importance of Game 1 might mean a lot more this year than it did last year. It makes life an awful lot easier if you can get ahead of the curve rather than have to play catch up.

“I think we've improved. Who knows how much?”

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