Canucks’ ‘Lotto Line’ dominance wanes as trio faces perplexing offensive slump

Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet reflects on a year behind the Canucks' bench and discusses how despite the play of the top guys on the roster, it's the depth players buying in that's responsible for the winning culture.

VANCOUVER – The best thing about the Vancouver Canucks since Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser were reunited on Jan. 6 is that the team is 8-0-1. 

The worst thing is, lately, the Canucks’ top line has disappeared at five-on-five. Actually, somewhere in the trio’s perplexing “slump” is another positive sign for the National Hockey League-leading team, which has developed so much depth scoring that the Canucks have been able so far to keep winning even with their top line generating almost nothing at even strength.

In Monday’s 2-0 win against the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver’s Lotto Line was outshot 5-1 at five-on-five while playing mostly against Jason Dickinson, Colin Blackwell and Joey Anderson. Those three Blackhawks have combined for fewer goals (19) and points (37) this season than any one of Miller (21-42-63), Pettersson (25-36-61) or Boeser (27-19-46).

In the three home games since the road trip that saw the line’s re-birth, Miller, Pettersson and Boeser have been outshot 18-4 at five-on-five and generated expected-goals-for of 26 per cent, 35 per cent and 26 per cent.

With the St. Louis Blues visiting Rogers Arena on Wednesday in Vancouver’s second-to-last game before the All-Star break, coach Rick Tocchet made it clear he is considering splitting up Miller, Pettersson and Boeser.

“I think they’ve struggled the last three or four games,” Tocchet told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “I don’t think they’re happy with their play, either. Like I told you guys, I’m not sure how long I would keep that line together. But we’re what, 9-0-1 since we put them together? So that helps. We’ll see if I play them tomorrow, I don’t know. We’ll talk to the coaches about it.

“If they’re doing the job defensively, you know, if you’re controlling play, you don’t always have to score. But the one good thing is they could be struggling a little bit — I get it — but they’ve come up with some big goals, too. When lines struggle, (sometimes) they don’t do anything. At least they’re coming up with some big (goals). They’re playing average (but) they’ve raised the bar. So we’ll see if we keep it together.”

After Tocchet bluntly declared before the Chicago game that Miller, Pettersson and Boeser “haven’t been good the last three games” and “they’ve got to raise the bar,” Monday’s game saw it lowered.

The ice times for Boeser (14:19) and Miller (14:36) were their lowest of the season, while Pettersson’s 16:58 TOI was his least since Nov. 24.

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“We know we need to be a driving force for this team and we haven’t been lately,” Boeser told Sportsnet. “I think we’re all very aware of it and it’s unacceptable, to be honest. I haven’t done much in these past few games. But luckily, other lines and teammates have picked us up and helped contribute and help get us wins. That’s a good thing that we’re winning games still, but we know we have to do better.”

The players, at least, have accountability to match their skill.

“We know,” Miller said Tuesday. “We’re not generating. We’re not connected at all. For me, I like to move my feet. And when I’m skating on the forecheck, it’s one (pass) and then two and then three and they’re out, and now you’re tired and have to backcheck. It’s a bad cycle, a domino effect. Maybe that’s what brings frustration — when you feel like you’re wasting energy. Every time you chip the puck in, you feel like you have no speed. Every time you skate it in, it feels like you’re by yourself. It’s just about being connected. 

“Teddy’s line (Teddy Blueger between Dakota Joshua and Conor Garland), we watch video and they’re just connected non-stop. You can throw a blanket on them no matter where they are on the ice, and that’s a good thing. There’s a reason they’re getting a lot of success. So we could take a page out of their book and maybe have a little success ourselves.”

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The 6-40-9 Lotto Line has had success, but the smart bet is it won’t be together much longer.

Elevating Pettersson from his regular deployment between wingers Andrei Kuzmenko and Ilya Mikheyev, Tocchet never loved the idea and grouping his best three forwards – and top two centres – on one line. 

Three spectacularly successful games into the experiment, the coach wondered after a dominant 5-2 win against the New York Islanders on Jan. 9 how he would ever be allowed by fans to split up Boeser, Pettersson and Miller.

The trio torched opponents in their first four games together, generating 13 goals as the Canucks outscored the Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins 21-12 over a span of six days.

In the Lotto Line’s nine games, Pettersson has 10 goals and 16 points, Miller five and 13 and Boeser three goals and seven points. But in the last five games, they have one even-strength goal and been dangerous mostly on the power play.

“Just for the skill on our line. . . it’s easy to think your skill can win and get you scoring chances,” Boeser said. “But it’s a hard league and you’ve got to work for it. You’ve got to get on the forecheck. Sometimes you can’t carry the puck in and have to dump it in. You’ve got to backcheck hard. I do think we’ve been playing good defensively even though we haven’t had much offensively. We’ve just got to be better; that’s pretty much all there is to it.”

ICE CHIPS – After shutting out the Blackhawks while starting for the ninth time in 11 games, goalie Thatcher Demko was excused from Tuesday’s regular practice, replaced by practice goalie Roman Basran. Tocchet said the team is considering taking Basran, a 22-year-old who played junior hockey in Kelowna and last season dressed for 11 games in the ECHL, on road trips so that Demko can get more rest. . . The Canucks practised in new chrome-blue helmets that sparkled under the arena lights. “I’m not a designer, man,” Tocchet said when asked about the gleaming buckets. “I’ve got no comment on the helmets.”

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