VANCOUVER — When Bruce Boudreau said before training camp that he had gone through Vancouver Canuck line combinations “5,000 times” over the summer, he hadn’t factored in injuries.
In the first practice for his National Hockey League group on Tuesday, he was up to 5,004 combinations and counting. Five days after the opening of training camp, the Canucks were already missing four players due to injury or illness.
In order: first-line winger Brock Boeser mysteriously injured his hand Saturday in the final skate at camp in Whistler, then had surgery on Monday; marquee free-agent acquisition Ilya Mikheyev suffered a lower-body injury in the first pre-season game Sunday; key defenceman Tyler Myers felt ill Tuesday and did not practise; and blue-liner Travis Dermott did not finish practice after taking a hit and wobbling to the dressing room.
At this rate, the Canucks’ opening night lineup on Oct. 12 will be determined by attrition.
“Well, I didn’t foresee this when I was thinking about our group in the summer,” Boudreau said Tuesday after remaking all four forward lines. “But I mean, if you can’t fight through a little adversity, then you’re not going to win anyway.
“You look at last year, the lineups that we were using and still persevering, still winning. We’ve got good players. . . so I mean, I’m not worried about it. These things happen. And if you start worrying, one player going down (and) ‘oh, woe is me,’ then we’re in trouble. I think it’s a great opportunity for the leaders to shine. . . and say, ‘oh, yeah, follow me. I’ll show you.’”
The leaders all had new linemates on Tuesday.
Conor Garland was elevated to the top line to replace Boeser with J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson, while captain Bo Horvat found himself with Vasily Podkolzin and Curtis Lazar — who was promoted from the fourth line to cover Garland’s spot. Nils Hoglander, a fifth-liner at training camp but touted by Boudreau as one of the best players in Whistler, was rewarded as the replacement for Mikheyev beside Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko. On the fourth line, Phil di Giuseppe moved into Lazar’s place beside Jason Dickinson and Dakota Joshua.
Let’s see what Wednesday’s practice brings.
The Canucks’ next exhibition game is Thursday against the Seattle Kraken at Rogers Arena.
“We have a deep lineup; you can play anywhere,” Garland said. “Obviously, injuries happen so you’ve got to be ready to go and switch it up and I’m fine with it. I like playing with any of those three centremen. That’s hockey. That’s why you have depth, you have guys ready to go.”
The good news is that the injuries may not be lengthy.
The Canucks announced Boeser will be out 3-4 weeks, although there is hope within the organization that the scorer will be available for the season-opening road trip and possibly even Game 1 in Edmonton. But it’s worth remembering that when Pettersson injured his thumb during the pandemic season in 2021, the Canucks initially thought he’d miss a couple of games, then categorized his absence as week to week. Pettersson didn’t play again for seven months.
Boudreau called Mikheyev’s injury “week to week” and downplayed Myers’ absence on Tuesday.
“He’s just sick,” the coach said. “Not COVID sick, just not feeling well. So stay home and get better and see you tomorrow.”
Boudreau also downplayed Dermott’s exit, saying the player was told to take the rest of the day off. But if he suffered a head injury, then he’s unlikely to be practising or playing for at least this week.
The sudden drop in healthy bodies feels familiar for the Canucks, who were missing as many as six players at a time during their failed push for a playoff spot last April. They also endured an early-January COVID crisis that at one point had them without three of the organization’s top four goalies. The team had university students backing up in both the NHL and American Hockey League.
And this is painfully familiar with Boeser, who has sustained September or October injuries in five of his six autumns in the NHL. The only season he wasn’t hurt early on was the 56-game pandemic season two years ago, when training camp was in January, and Boeser finished with 23 goals and 49 points.
Starting a new three-year, $20-million-US contract, the 25-year-old is still trying to surpass the 29 goals he scored as a Calder Trophy runnerup in 2017-18, a season that ended with serious wrist and back injuries.
The Minnesotan endured a torturous season last year, scoring 23 times in 71 games while struggling to focus on hockey as his dad’s grave health further declined back home. Duke Boeser passed in May.
“I wish I could have been so much better,” Boeser told Sportsnet in July. “You never know, if I score five or six more goals maybe we’re in the playoffs. I think about things like that and it eats at me for sure.”
Highly motivated, fit and focussed, Boeser told reporters on Thursday that this would be the season he finally breaks through the 30-goal ceiling. Two days later, he was hurt.
“We were watching, like: What happened there?” Boudreau recalled Tuesday. “He was shaking his hand, (but) nobody knows what happened.”
Just like you never know what will happen next.
Boudreau has split his remaining players into NHL and AHL groups that will practise separately, although players from the second squad will still see pre-season action during the Canucks’ five remaining warmup games. . . Without Boeser, the first-unit power play Tuesday was Kuzmenko down low, Horvat in the bumper, Miller and Pettersson on the flanks and Quinn Hughes up top. . . Boudreau finally put players through an endurance test, skating them 14 varying lengths of the ice after practice. Everyone passed, including Garland, who lost his breakfast at training camp last year while skating former coach Travis Green’s notorious “40s” on Day 1. “I ate earlier today,” Garland explained Tuesday. “I had to pick Bo up, so I had to get up early.” Boudreau praised his team’s fitness: “This team, in the summertime, they took it very serious. They want to be a good team and their fitness level was great — everybody. It showed in the (skating) test.”