VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks lost five of their seven pre-season games but the only one that mattered – if pre-season games ever do – was their last one.
In their final and best chance to generate some scoreboard momentum before their season starts on Wednesday, the Canucks were beaten 3-2 on home ice Saturday by an Edmonton Oilers team that left superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and top defenceman Darnell Nurse home in Alberta.
Depth goalie Stuart Skinner played the final two periods for the Oilers and picked up the victory against a Canucks team that finally had nearly all of its projected NHL lineup together.
A third-period surge was nice for the Canucks, who trailed 3-0 until the final seven minutes, but the slightly flat finale was representative of Vancouver’s pre-season, which was complicated by several key player absences.
Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes missed the first half of camp before the club re-signed them to lucrative second contracts, and first-line winger Brock Boeser missed the last half with an undisclosed injury that threatens his status for Wednesday’s season-opener in Edmonton.
Defenceman Travis Hamonic missed the entire camp and remains home in Manitoba for “personal reasons” related to the NHL’s third season amid the coronavirus pandemic. Fourth-line forwards and key penalty killers, Tyler Motte and Brandon Sutter, remain out indefinitely with injuries.
All these missing pieces made it impossible for coach Travis Green to fit together his lineup puzzle and also contributed to the Canucks’ failure to generate the momentum they desperately wanted heading into this season after the disastrous last one.
“You're not playing with the full lineup much, really at all, missing people,” veteran forward J.T. Miller said late Saturday. “You're just trying to get your bearings, I think. You want to win these games; you're just trying to come together as a team. Obviously, the closer we get to the end of the pre-season, it's more and more of our (NHL) squad. We're ready for the real thing; I don't know what else to say. We just want to play. We want to have our guys back. . . and I think we're excited to go into that building (in Edmonton) and play against a really good team. It's going to be an awesome test and an awesome road trip for us to get going.”
The Canucks begin what they hope will be a season of redemption after last spring’s last-place finish with six straight road games.
It’s not an ideal schedule for a team looking for traction as it absorbs a handful of key newcomers, including top-pairing defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and scoring winger Conor Garland.
“I thought we got a lot of good work done with our group,” coach Travis Green said of the 2-5-0 pre-season. “We've worked hard probably more on the defensive side of the puck than we have in the past. I see a lot of the stuff that we're working on transitioning into the games, which I like. We've had a lot of guys out of camp, which has affected the camp but it hasn't affected, I think, the overall teaching that we're trying to do.”
The team is expected to practise Monday and Tuesday before travelling to Edmonton.
The Canucks will be trying to generate the cohesiveness and momentum in these practices that they failed to find in their exhibition games.
“Every practice is important, especially at the beginning of the year with a team that has so many new faces,” Green said. “We've got to try to find some lines. It's the first game that we've had close to a full group. I don't think we created a lot tonight, but I'm not quite sure if that's because of the lines or just because of the game itself.”
The Canucks outshot the Oilers 28-18 but generated so little sustained pressure and quality scoring chances that Green changed his lines in the third period.
Pettersson, who started the game between wingers Garland and Alex Chiasson, finished with Nils Hoglander and Vasily Podkolzin.
Garland auditioned in the pre-season with centres Miller, Pettersson and Bo Horvat, but has yet to find a home in the lineup. After arriving from the Arizona Coyotes in July’s blockbuster trade, Garland admitted there was “definitely a lot of adjusting” during the pre-season. He said he hasn’t played as well as he wanted.
Neither has his new team.
“I know I was on a different team, but we didn't play any pre-season games last year and we got off to a good start,” he said. “I don't know if (pre-season success) correlates; I'm sure if you win a bunch, you feel good about yourself. But you might go out and lose the home opener.
“These guys are really looking forward to getting a fresh start this year and it's a big year for us, so I don't think we'll be thinking about the. . . pre-season games too much coming out (Wednesday) night.”
Green must reduce his roster by at least five spots, more if any of the Canucks’ injured or missing players need to be accounted for within the 23-player limit. The capologists in hockey operations also must decide how to configure the long-term injured list to maximize salary-cap relief. Winger Michael Ferland, his career likely over due to concussions, isn’t expected to play at all this season.
And the team has to make a decision on Chiasson, who did what he was asked during his professional tryout.
Rookie Jack Rathbone, the only skater to play in all seven pre-season games, has done enough to earn a place on Vancouver’s third defence pairing. Experienced depth players Phil Di Giuseppe and Justin Dowling also appear to have won roster spots, partly due to their ability to kill penalties, and rookie Podkolzin had his best week of camp at the end.
Players on the bubble include defencemen Brad Hunt, Kyle Burroughs, Madison Bowey and Olli Juolevi, the fifth-overall pick from 2016 who is subject to waivers if the Canucks try to send him to the minors, and forwards Nic Petan and Matthew Highmore.
There’s a lot of work to do before Wednesday.