VANCOUVER – Shiny, new things often catch our eye on the first day of training camp, even when they are as small as Nils Hoglander.
But on Day 2 of the Vancouver Canucks camp, there was a compelling reminder Tuesday that it is the familiar (and best) players who will lead the team to success or failure starting next Wednesday.
Hoglander, the five-foot-eight Swedish jitterbug, looked excellent again as he builds his unlikely campaign to make the NHL as a 20-year-old, second-line player beside Canucks captain Bo Horvat.
But the reunited 6-40-9 Lotto Line with Brock Boeser back in his old spot alongside Elias Pettersson and opposite J.T. Miller was outstanding. The trio produced three goals, two of them by Boeser, in the first scrimmage of camp.
With the departure in free agency of Tyler Toffoli, Boeser, 23, gets another chance to play on what was one of the top lines in hockey last season. But there is an awful lot of pressure attached to this opportunity, which is why it was encouraging to see the winger in sharp form on Tuesday after Boeser struggled at the end of last season. He finished 2020 with just seven goals.
Pettersson is on his way to superstardom. Miller may not match last season’s career-high of 72 points, but has built consistency into his game during eight years in the NHL. But will Boeser score like the 29-goal man he was as a rookie three years ago or the 16-goal scorer he was last season?
“Last year was a good learning experience,” Boeser told reporters on Tuesday. “Not every year is going to go great. Just to be in the spot as a team as we were in the playoffs, it was a great learning experience for us young guys and. . . I think it made us more excited to come back this year because I think we know we can take that next step.”
Boeser appeared to be taking that step last season. After a two-goal game in Buffalo on Jan. 11, the talented Minnesotan was 21st in NHL scoring with 43 points in 45 games. But he didn’t score another goal until Aug. 4, in the playoff bubble in Edmonton, after managing just two assists in his final 12 regular-season games. He also missed four weeks with fractured rib cartilage.
He was briefly displaced from the Lotto Line in January, then replaced when Toffoli was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in February.
“Yeah, of course I want to be there with Millsy and Petey,” Boeser said. “(It was a) learning experience playing with other guys and other lines and I think it will help me. I think it pushed me to work harder in the off-season. I think. . . we have great chemistry and we read each other well and we communicate well, so obviously I'd like to play with those two.”
Boeser sniping two goals, one on a breakaway, another on a laser from right wing, was encouraging for the Canucks. But there’s also a bigger benefit to the 6-40-9 combo being ready to go next week.
In this profoundly different 56-game season – a sprint without the benefit of even an exhibition-game stretch – continuity counts and forward lines that have experience and cohesiveness should have an early advantage.
“There's a lot of guys and a lot of line combinations that are still going to happen, and there's some spots to be won in camp, so nothing is set,” Miller said. “But playing together now, if it sticks like that, I think it's definitely an advantage going into the season.
“We spent a lot of time together last year. I think it's good to be skating together again right now. We already know a lot about each other; we don't have to find that in camp like we had to last year. We're all more mature players than we were the year before and I think that's only going to be more helpful to our advantage playing against other hard-to-play against lines.”
The Lotto Line was one of the best in the NHL the first half of last season. The Canucks need it to be so again in 2021.
With new Canuck Nate Schmidt practising on a different pairing than Quinn Hughes, the Canucks will have two elite, puck-moving defencemen dividing about 50 minutes of playing time and supporting Pettersson, Boeser and Miller this season.
One of Boeser’s goals was set up by a terrific pass from Schmidt, whose characteristic woop-woop cry for the puck was easily audible among reporters seated near the top of the arena.
“Having a guy like Schmidty, the way he skates and the way he sees the ice, it's like having another forward out there,” Miller said. “There's a lot of movement, a lot of skill and I think when we get that the high urgency and high compete and our legs are working, I think it just adds another threat. I played against Schmidty at a long time; I didn't realize how skilled he really was. He's making some really nice plays.”
The forward lines and defence pairings were unchanged from Monday, which left Schmidt skating again alongside Alex Edler on what looks like the top pair. Hughes is practising with rookie Jalen Chatfield, who could be a placeholder for Travis Hamonic, currently fulfilling his travel-quarantine requirement. The third pair is rookie Olli Juolevi with Tyler Myers.
Two things you can count on from a Travis Green training camp: it’s going to be tough for both players and reporters. Under Green, not only do the Canucks not tell the media who will be skating with whom ahead of time, but in recent camps even the ice schedule seemed a secret some days.
On Tuesday, however, Green could be heard telling players on the ice to be ready for a game-like scrimmage on Wednesday night.
“I’ve got to start whispering on the ice,” Green said when confronted with his own scoop.
THE DAILY HOGIE
Hoglander looked comfortable and confident again practising on a line with Horvat and Tanner Pearson. The 2019 second-round pick loves to make plays, wants the puck and for two days has been doing good things with it. But he was almost beaten with his own trick shot in a one-on-one drill against physical Zack MacEwen.
The 215-pound winger, who graduated to the Canucks from the minors last season, stickhandled through Hoglander before nearly scoring and ended the drill from behind the net by lifting the puck on his stick blade in an attempt at a lacrosse goal. Hoglander is already renowned for executing the audacious move, which in Sweden is called the Zorro, during games.
“I wouldn't read too much into it,” MacEwen said, explaining that the whistle had gone to end the drill before he tried the move.
But he was aware against whom he was attempting it.
“Yeah, a little bit, I guess,” he smiled.