VANCOUVER — From the end of one season until the start of the next, “improvement” on a hockey team is gauged almost entirely by which new players are added. The Vancouver Canucks signed top-nine forwards Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko, as well as robust fourth-liners Curtis Lazar and Dakota Joshua.
But Sunday, when Mikheyev was injured just 24 pre-season minutes into his four-year, $19 million contract with the Canucks, second-year winger Vasily Podkolzin reminded everyone that internal improvement could be as important as the external additions.
The 21-year-old Russian led the Canucks in their 3-2 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena with one goal, five hits, four shots on net and 20:40 of ice time — greater than anything he logged during 79 games in his up-and-down rookie season.
Podkolzin played on a line with Bo Horvat and Conor Garland, who also was excellent, and has looked since training camp opened Thursday in Whistler, B.C., like he is capable of playing a greater role and scoring more goals this season than the 14 he tallied as a freshman.
“Way more confidence, that’s the most important thing,” Podkolzin told Sportsnet in Whistler. “I’ve got great linemates right now. I know these players, Garly and Bo, so it’s going to be easier for me.”
Podkolzin appears to be continuing the surge he had towards the end of last season when he scored four times in three games in April to help keep the Canucks’ playoff hopes alive. The first-round pick from 2019 was healthy-scratched by coach Bruce Boudreau two months earlier amid a 16-game scoring drought that frequently had him playing single-digit minutes on the fourth line.
“Not an easy season,” Podkolzin said. “But that’s what I need for (my) first season. I got really hard work in this summer to be ready for (the) second season. More skating, stronger shots, play stronger on the wall. Just play way smarter.”
Through camp and one pre-season game, he’s checking all those boxes.
AND SO IT BEGINS
The benefit of splitting your team and playing two exhibition games simultaneously, as the Canucks and Flames did, is that over the course of one evening you get two games nearer to the end of the NHL pre-season. A younger, far less NHL-laden Canucks team lost 4-0 Sunday night in Calgary. So Vancouver is 0-2.
Pre-season or not, it was a little disappointing the Canucks didn’t muster a little more at home against a far less accomplished Flames lineup, which outshot Vancouver 45-28 and led 2-0 until third-period goals by Podkolzin and Garland, who tied the game at 18:29 by scoring on his own rebound after a brilliant cross-ice pass by Elias Pettersson.
Pettersson, at least, looked fully engaged, skating with purpose and continuing his superior play from Whistler.
It’s impossible not to notice how much Boudreau is trying to build continuity after the Canucks finished last season 32-15-10 after a December coaching change. He has barely shifted an NHL player since he opened camp with lines and defence pairings that he hoped, ideally, might stand until the regular-season opener Oct. 12 in Edmonton.
The Canucks tripped over the starting gate last season, going 6-14-2 in the first quarter of the season under former coach Travis Green after stars Pettersson and Quinn Hughes missed the first half of the pre-season awaiting new contracts. As soon as they arrived, first-line winger Brock Boeser was injured.
To further sharpen focus and preparation for a good start next month, the Canucks are expected to make some cuts Monday and divide the remaining players into NHL and minor-league groupings that will practise separately.
Vancouver’s next pre-season game is Thursday at home against the Seattle Kraken.
Boudreau offered no details post-game about the injury to Mikheyev, who was hurt early in the second period when he turned back into a check and was run over by Flames defenceman Nicolas Meloche.
The Canucks spent the bulk of their summer free-agent budget to sign the speedy, two-way winger from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
An excellent penalty-killer and forechecker, Mikheyev had 21 goals in 53 games last season but had significant injury issues in two of his three years in Toronto.
Short-term, his absence could provide an opportunity for winger Nils Hoglander — the third-year dynamo who had a poor sophomore season and skated in Whistler on the Canucks’ fifth line. Boudreau said Friday that Hoglander, playing fast and tenaciously, was the best skater at camp. Hoglander was part of the Calgary contingent on Sunday.
The Canucks’ other marquee free-agent acquisition, Kuzmenko, didn’t score in Sunday’s home game on his line with Pettersson, but got into dangerous shooting positions several times and demonstrated his lightning release. He had 18:43 of ice time, including 7:42 on the 0-for-7 power play, and finished with three shots and a second assist on Garland’s goal. He missed the puck and a semi-open net on a hard, goalmouth feed from Pettersson.
Kuzmenko looked exhausted after many of his practice reps in Whistler, but the Canucks are not concerned about the stocky winger’s conditioning. A team official said Kuzmenko’s fitness testing results were “fine,” but the NHL is a higher standard than what the 26-year-old was accustomed to in the KHL.
THUMBS UP AND DOWN
Defenceman Jack Rathbone, trying to re-secure an NHL spot in his third pro season, skated and passed well during his whopping 25:45 of ice time. He launched nine shots, albeit only three on target, and also had three blocks. Minor-league centre Sheldon Dries was also noticeable, and goalies Spencer Martin and third-period reliever Arturs Silovs were solid.
Defenceman Danny DeKeyser was fairly quiet but did not appear to harm his chances of making the Canucks on a professional tryout. But winger William Lockwood, who needs to provide energy and physicality if he’s going to stick with the NHL team, was largely invisible. Minor-league agitator Vincent Arseneau was noticeable but did more to hurt than help his team by taking three minor penalties.