VANCOUVER — On the Monday that once-glittering Vancouver Canuck prospect Jack Rathbone cleared waivers and reported to the minors with former first-round pick Vasily Podkolzin, winger Dakota Joshua didn’t need any reminders about how precious and fleeting the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League can be.
Joshua’s reality check came last week when Canucks coach Rick Tocchet bluntly told reporters that the 27-year-old needed to “pick it up” if he wanted to stay in Vancouver.
“Quite frankly — I’m not going to get into some other factors — but he’s got to try to win a job,” Tocchet said last Tuesday. “The job is not there. There are guys breathing down (his neck) that want jobs. There’s a lot of other factors that I’m not going to get into, but, yeah, he’s got to pick it up.”
That tough love may turn out to be another building block in Joshua’s career.
“No one obviously likes hearing that,” Joshua told Sportsnet on Monday. “But at the same time, you like when people are straight up and that’s what Toc is. For him to come out and be straight up, even though I didn’t like it. . . that’s what I needed. And now it’s about getting on the other side of that and being somebody that he talks highly of.”
Joshua is heading in the right direction — north Dakota instead of south Dakota.
“There’s been a response that I like,” Tocchet confirmed. “He has played better. I know there’s another level, but he has played better. He’s also taking the initiative to seek out our trainers, our strength coaches, to get to another level. I don’t know if it was criticism or whether he’s taken my advice (about) where he should have been, but I think he’s had four or five good days. Now it’s a matter of. . . consistency.”
For the first time in his career, Joshua became a full-time NHL player last season after signing as a free agent with the Canucks. The 79 games he logged were nearly twice as many as the 42 NHL appearances he made over three seasons in the St. Louis Blues organization.
Given more opportunity by Tocchet than previous coach Bruce Boudreau, Joshua elevated his game after the January bench change. He became a penalty-kill regular, reduced his penalty minutes while increasing his hits, and finished with 11 goals and 23 points on average ice time of 11:31.
The six-foot-three forward from Michigan is big, fast, physical and tough — all attributes that are not in great abundance on the Canucks. Everyone figured Joshua was on his way as an NHL player. And that might have been the problem because maybe Joshua felt that way, too.
“Human nature, for sure, you can let your mind slip that way,” he said. “But you see every day that there are good players that don’t play in this league. It’s waking up and realizing how special it is to play in the NHL every day and not letting that mindset creep in.”
Tocchet’s comments last week purged Joshua of any complacency he may have felt.
The “other factors” the coach alluded to were largely about conditioning.
“He wasn’t in horrible shape, but he wasn’t in the shape that I felt he should be after four months,” Tocchet explained.
Joshua said: “Obviously, what I thought was good enough wasn’t where they wanted me to be. But you can’t go back and, you know, re-do the summer at this point. It’s about. . . making a step forward and doing what you can to make up the lost ground.”
This is why Joshua sought help from the Canucks training staff, who have set up a conditioning program for him.
A fourth- or fifth-line player since training camp opened in Victoria, Joshua was promoted for Monday’s practice at the University of British Columbia to the third line, beside centre Pius Suter and opposite Conor Garland.
Sunday’s truckload of pre-season cuts reduced Tocchet’s roster to just 25 players, including injured winger Ilya Mikheyev, and the Canucks are down to their final two pre-season games. They play the Seattle Kraken Wednesday in Abbotsford, B.C.
Tocchet said Joshua has earned the opportunity he is getting this week.
“He’s a big puzzle piece for this organization — a big guy that can penalty kill and can forecheck,” Tocchet said. “That’s a big thing that we need. We need him to be that guy.”
This has been a learning experience for Joshua, who sounds determined now to make sure he deserves a second, full NHL season so that it can be better than the first.
“Maybe show people that it wasn’t a fluke,” he said. “In my mind, it’s still proving that I deserve to be here and just chasing it game after game. (Compared to) last year, I look to maybe not get off to a slow start and be able to be more comfortable right away. And hopefully that shows in the results. I’m just building off last year and making sure I do better than what I did before.”
ICE CHIPS — Top centre Elias Pettersson missed Monday’s practice with what Tocchet said is a cold, but should be back with the group on Tuesday. . . During what have become daily questions about the Canucks’ defence pairings and, especially, who will partner Quinn Hughes, Tocchet said: “I don’t think we’re going to have true partners the whole year, so we might as well get used to playing with different guys. We’re built as a committee, and I like that”. . . Rookie Cole McWard continues to partner Hughes. . . Still practising in a non-contact jersey eight months after ACL knee surgery, Mikheyev was flying Monday and was one of the pace-setters in the conditioning skate that ended practice.