NEWARK, N.J. – For the first time in about as long as J.T. Miller can remember, he walked into a Vancouver Canucks dressing room Sunday and found someone other than Bo Horvat sitting in the next stall.
His new neighbour for the rare evening practice at The Prudential Center was Anthony Beauvillier, one of the players acquired Monday in the blockbuster trade that sent Horvat, the Canucks’ 27-year-old captain and longest-tenured player, to the New York Islanders.
“It’s just weird not seeing him sit next to me in the room today,” Miller said.
Beauvillier isn’t Horvat, but he is a good National Hockey League player, too. And for now, he is also Elias Pettersson’s new first-line winger and Horvat’s replacement in the “bumper” spot on the Canucks top-unit power play.
But whether it was Beauvillier or another player, the real estate next to Miller’s seat in the locker room wasn’t going to sit vacant. There are always players.
Much tricker to fill, however, is the void in leadership – trying to replace the ambassadorial Horvat as the spokesman and most exposed representative for the organization in an unyielding hockey market.
In this sense, the greatest change in the aftermath of the Canucks’ biggest mid-season trade this century isn’t Horvat’s spot on the power play but his place at the front of the franchise. The biggest changes are the little letters that will be sewn on the jerseys of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes before Monday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils.
Head coach Rick Tocchet, on the job himself for only two weeks, revealed to Sportsnet on Sunday that Pettersson, 24, and Hughes, 23, will be named alternate captains, part of the rotation of A’s that include veterans J.T. Miller and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Pettersson and Hughes have been the Canucks’ best players since, more or less, their rookie seasons. Now, Tocchet is asking them to lead not only during games, but in everything.
“It might be a little bit of a push out of their comfort zone,” Tocchet said after the only practice the Canucks get before a difficult road trip that starts with three games in four nights in the New York area. “All I know is they both were excited. I told them I need them to push the pace around here for me. I need them to set the bar high.
“I think that they’ve earned the right to take that next step. I like the support group that I have here to help them lead. J.T. Miller is going to be very important because I need him to help lead those kids. You want to insulate those guys with good character people around, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do.”
After much discussion and disappointment after general manager Patrik Allvin stated upon his arrival in Vancouver one year ago that an over-arching goal is to change the culture on a team that will miss the playoffs this spring for the seventh time in eight seasons, the trade of Horvat and elevation of Hughes and Pettersson force the Canucks in a bold, new direction.
“I tried to stay away from everything on the break and give my mind a rest,” Hughes said. “But me and Patrik have talked prior to that about trying to evolve as a person and as a player and teammate and leader in the group, and trying to elevate the group from within. I think that’s me and Petey’s job, and to keep getting better ourselves in every aspect of our life.
“I’ve always not been the loudest guy. I’m always respectful of guys that have been in the league a lot longer than me and they’ve seen so much more. But at the same time, me and Petey are good players and we have to do those things or the team’s just going to stay the same. I feel like it’s something that we have to do.”
Ready or not.
“I think me and Quinn, we want more,” Pettersson said. “First off, we focus on hockey and playing well, but of course it’s good to grow into a leader. Lead by example or set a standard, show how it should be done.”
It sounds simple but is still a lot to ask because leadership is about setting a standard at practice, and in game-day preparation. It’s about eating and sleeping the right way and training as hard as anyone in the off-season so when you arrive for training camp in September you have the moral authority – not just the letter on your jersey – to demand more from teammates.
And on top of that, you have to speak to the media, after bad games as well as good ones, understanding that whatever you say is going to be parsed and debated and seen as representative of the organization.
“I play hockey for a living; I can talk to media people,” Pettersson said. “There are bigger problems in the world.
Ekman-Larsson said all anyone expects from Hughes and Pettersson is that they be themselves and lead by example.
“For this organization to move in the right direction, I think this is a good step,” he said. “They have been our best players for a long time now, and I think they’re ready for this next challenge as well. I really like what I’m seeing off ice; they’re really good guys that care a lot about their surroundings and family and friends and everything like that. They don’t have to change or prove anything. They just have to be themselves.”
Another veteran defenceman, Luke Schenn, proof that leadership does not require a letter, said: “There’s going to be a transition, for sure, in the room. You’ve got young guys that are perceived as young guys but, in reality, they’re not exactly young anymore. It’s time for them to take the next step and that’s what everyone in the organization, top to bottom, expects. I don’t think it’s anything you can force. But I do think that they’re growing into it for sure.”
The oldest Canuck at age 33, Schenn said he has seen many young leaders grow into their roles.
“It’s an awkward transition but all players have been through it,” Miller, 29, said. “You’re in (seasons) four to six, and you’re transitioning out of just listening. (Pettersson and Hughes) are our best players and hopefully they’ll be here for a long time being our best players. And for them to kind of take over the room vocally. . . if they take that step, I mean, this room is going to change big time. If you get guys like that holding you accountable, I think that’s going to be really good for our group. To answer your question, yeah, they’re ready for it. But it’s up to them to take that step.
“It’s on all of us a little. We need to make sure that when we come in, we understand. … we’re finding an identity as a group here, and there’s a void to fill. I think we have a leadership group that can do it, but it’s going to be a challenge for everybody.”
• Recalled from the minors for the first time since November, winger Vasily Podkolzin skated Sunday on the third line with Sheldon Dries and Brock Boeser and practised on the second-unit power play. Also recalled, Nils Aman centred the fourth line between Curtis Lazar and Phil DiGiuseppe. Miller’s wingers were Dakota Joshua and Conor Garland.