VANCOUVER -- It’s not the elephant in the room that is the issue heading into the training camp for the Vancouver Canucks, but the two lion kings who are missing.
Refreshed and upgraded in the off-season, the Canucks begin preparations for their 2021-22 Redemption Tour without unsigned restricted free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, who are merely the National Hockey League team’s best forward and top defenceman.
Negotiations -- or at least communication -- continue daily between general manager Jim Benning and agent Pat Brisson. But barring a dramatic breakthrough, neither Pettersson nor Hughes will be on the ice when the Canucks start practising Thursday in Abbotsford, the new home of Vancouver’s American Hockey League farm team.
The Canucks acquired top-six winger Conor Garland, top-pairing defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and versatile forward Jason Dickinson in July, and the lineup should be further boosted by the arrival of rookie power forward Vasily Podkolzin and the deepest competition for depth positions since the Benning era began in 2014.
But while there will be a lot of compelling viewing at camp, especially with regard to who plays with whom up front, the absences of Pettersson and Hughes will grow more noticeable by the day as the clock ticks towards the Canucks’ season-opener on Oct. 13 in Edmonton.
“There's a new energy in the room and everyone's looking forward to camp,” goalie Thatcher Demko said. “I don't pay too much attention to (the contract drama), to be honest. It's so far out of my control. Obviously, we're all good friends and hopefully it gets done sooner rather than later. But that's between them and the team.”
“I’m sure they’re getting asked every day what’s going on and the last thing they need is more questions from me, so I’m staying out of it,” winger J.T. Miller said. “We all know it’s a business. There's a lot of other things to add to our excitement level and get us ready to go here. There should be no excuses.”
Current salary cap space: $14.8 million
General manager: Jim Benning, eighth season
Head coach: Travis Green, fifth season
Assistant coaches: Ian Clark, Nolan Baumgartner, Brad Shaw, Jason King, Kyle Gustafson, Darryl Seward
Unsigned free agents: C Elias Pettersson, D Quinn Hughes
Injured players: RW Micheal Ferland, LW Tyler Motte
Where will J.T. Miller play?
A Twitter-storm erupted in August when coach Travis Green suggested to Sportsnet that last season’s necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention use of Miller at centre could continue even when Pettersson re-signs. It’s not that Miller isn’t effective at centre; it’s that he was one of the better left-wingers in the NHL when he played with Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
Miller at centre would make the Canucks formidable down the middle with Pettersson, Miller, Bo Horvat and Dickinson or Brandon Sutter. But are there enough quality wingers to satisfy the Big Three? And which one of the centres would play on the “third line” or a matchup role against the opposition’s best players?
Dickinson, who relishes such a role, seemed the obvious third-line centre -- with Miller on first-line left wing -- when he was acquired from the Dallas Stars ahead of the Seattle expansion draft in July. But Dickinson’s speed, size and two-way chops also make him a viable candidate to play higher up the lineup as a winger who will win pucks and provide defensive cover for Vancouver’s more offensive forwards.
Factor in the arrival of Garland, the buzzsaw scorer the Canucks were elated to get from Arizona when they agreed to absorb most of Ekman-Larsson’s gigantic contract, and there are top-nine line options not seen since Vancouver went to the Stanley Cup Final a decade ago.
Is Vasily Podkolzin ready?
In successive years, Canucks drafting and development have produced Boeser, Pettersson, Hughes and Nils Hoglander. Podkolzin could make it five straight seasons with an impactful rookie. Of course, dynamic defenceman Jack Rathbone is also capable of extending the development win streak for the Canucks after his impressive eight-game cameo at the end of last season.
Podkolzin has a game similar to Hoglander’s. He plays directly and with speed, is eager to be first to the puck, protects it and makes plays, and gets to the net. Hoglander had an impressive 13 goals and 27 points in 56 games as a rookie, but was also the only Vancouver forward to finish in positive ground in shot-share (50.43 per cent) and goal-share (52.05).
At six-foot-one, Podkolzin is four inches taller than Hoglander and, at 10th-overall, was drafted 30 places ahead of his new friend and teammate in 2019. After spending the last two seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League as a teenager -- and enduring at times the suppression of his ice time by SKA St. Petersburg, which pressured Podkolzin to re-sign -- it looks like the right winger is ready for the NHL. But in what role?
If he is capable of playing right away in the top nine, like Hoglander did, Podkolzin will give Green even more options because the Russian’s speed and strength -- coupled with a mature, two-way game -- make him versatile.
Who wins the battles at the bottom?
It is ironic that the deepest field of players Benning has assembled to challenge for the final spots at forward and defence coincide with the Canucks’ most severe salary-cap challenges, which could limit or even dictate the bottom of the lineup depending on what salaries Pettersson and Hughes eventually command.
On defence, Rathbone’s impressive eight-game audition at the end of last season (one goal and two assists, a positive goal-difference at even strength, and power-play duty) make the puck-moving 22-year-old a favourite to join the Canucks’ four experienced blue-liners. But the left side of the third pairing looks open, with veteran newcomer Brad Hunt, among others, challenging sophomore Olli Juolevi. Another defenceman among the free-agent army signed by Vancouver, Stanley Cup winner Luke Schenn, looks like an ideal seventh man.
At forward, off-season surgery to Tyler Motte -- who may not be ready until November -- has created another opening on the fourth line. Several newcomers with varying skill sets and NHL experience -- Phillip Di Giuseppe, Justin Dowling, Nic Petan -- will be pushing roster incumbents like Matthew Highmore, Zack MacEwan and Justin Bailey. Speedy winger William Lockwood could also earn back the spot he was given late last season.