VANCOUVER -- As the Vancouver Canucks wait to assemble the Maple Leafs alumni portion of their lineup, they’ll play a critical two-game series against the Winnipeg Jets without one of their biggest pieces.
Canucks coach Travis Green confirmed after Monday’s morning skate that centre Elias Pettersson, who left the lineup after March 2 with what was expected to be a day-to-day injury, will miss Monday and Wednesday’s games at Rogers Arena against the Jets.
Moved to long-term-injured reserve over the weekend, Pettersson’s next game won’t be until at least March 31 -- after a six-day-schedule break that the Canucks begin on Thursday.
Forward Travis Boyd, claimed Monday on waivers from Toronto, will likely make his Canucks debut that night against the Calgary Flames after fulfilling his National Hockey League-mandated travel quarantine during the break.
Last week’s waiver acquisition from the Leafs, winger Jimmy Vesey, will play his third game for the Canucks on Monday. Vesey hasn’t yet a point for Vancouver, but has averaged 18:36 of ice time in two games alongside former New York Rangers linemate J.T. Miller.
Pettersson’s absence hurt the Canucks last week even as his team went 3-0-1 during a four-game road trip. Adding Vesey and Boyd doesn’t make Pettersson’s reported wrist injury any easier, but it does give general manager Jim Benning interesting depth options as the April 12 trade deadline approaches.
Vancouver has several veterans on expiring contracts who, during a normal NHL season, would have trade value as deadline rentals: defencemen Alex Edler, Travis Hamonic and Jordie Benn, penalty-killing centre Brandon Sutter and injured two-way winger Tanner Pearson. Winger Jake Virtanen has also been the subject of ongoing trade talks.
With Vesey and Boyd, the Canucks are positioned to absorb the loss of a couple of players in a trade.
But the roster jockeying occurs amid the backdrop of a surprising 7-1-1 run that has lifted the Canucks nearer to the playoff race in the North division. Their chances of qualifying for the Stanley Cup tournament are still tiny -- 10 per cent according to The Athletic’s projections -- but Vancouver has four games remaining against each of the Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, teams the Canucks are trying to pass.
“I think we've been saying this for a few games now ... that this game tonight is our biggest game of the year,” Canucks winger Brock Boeser said. “We definitely put ourselves in a hole early in the year. There were some of those games earlier in the year where we didn't show up and we weren't prepared. In some of those games (since then) it's been a battle to be prepared and focussed each and every night. You do need to give that extra percentage of effort and mental focus, so yeah, it definitely can be tiring.
"But like I said in the past, I think it's just a matter of really dialing in the small details ... and being sharp in those areas. And I think we've done a really good job of that. I think our whole group feels confidence right now and we’ve just got to keep it going.”
It’s counter-intuitive that the Canucks’ best run this season has come in the nine games Pettersson has missed. But Thatcher Demko, who was finally given a rest in Saturday’s 5-4 shootout loss in Montreal, has been the best goalie in the NHL in March with eight wins and a .950 save rate.
The Canucks played poorly only once on their road trip but were badly outplayed twice. Including a 5-1 home loss against the Canadiens on March 10, the Canucks have struggled in three of their last six games. They need Pettersson back.
“We originally thought it wasn't going to be a huge issue,” Green said of the injury which occurred during a two-game visit to Winnipeg at the start of the month. “Obviously, it's gone longer than we thought. He won't play this week, and then we get the break, so hopefully he makes some improvements and he's back sooner than later.”
In the meantime, Miller continues to fill in for Pettersson at centre.
But asked Monday about Miller, Green interestingly pivoted to captain Bo Horvat, who has been centring Boeser and rookie Nils Hoglander and has nine points in the last eight games while averaging 21:18 of ice time.
“Bo's game is a game that people haven't been talking about as much lately (and) we're seeing him play probably as good a hockey as I've seen him play, going back to the playoffs,” Green said. “It's just very direct right now, very responsible. I think his play right now is speaking volumes to how our team is having success. And when he plays that way, he's very effective and he drives the play for our group. I put him with young Nils and Brock, and I think their games have been solid because we've made that move as well.”
Injured fourth-line centre Jay Beagle skated with the Canucks in a non-contact jersey but isn’t expected to play on Monday.
If he were available now, Boyd would be a natural replacement for Beagle.
“He's a player that's a smart player, can play centre or wing,” Green said of the newest Canuck. “Obviously, he was in an organization in Washington (before signing with the Leafs ) where he had a lot of good players ahead of them.
“I know he's a guy that (our scouts) talked about in the past. I've watched a little bit of video and from what I've seen, I liked him. Our scouts have liked him and, obviously, Jim did, too. It's a good pickup and I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
After a team day off Sunday, Demko completed his own mini-break by doing extra work with goaltending coach Ian Clark ahead of the morning skate. He’ll be starting for the 12th time in 14 games.