The Vancouver Canucks were 10 goals better in their second pre-season game than they were in their first, but were still one goal worse than the Edmonton Oilers, who won 2-1 Wednesday at home on Connor McDavid’s overtime breakaway.
The Canucks’ 10-0 loss Sunday in Calgary may have been easy to dismiss but it was impossible to ignore. Those lineups were a mismatch, as Vancouver travelled with as few as three or four players who could start the National Hockey League season.
Coach Rick Tocchet took more of an NHL lineup to Edmonton and got more of an NHL scoreline, with the Oilers dominating early but the Canucks probably slightly outplaying the home team over the final 40 minutes. What was important in the wake of Sunday’s embarrassment was that the team looked organized, competitive and assertive. They don’t need pre-season wins, although Tocchet won’t turn them down. But they need pre-season improvement, so Wednesday was a good step forward.
The best Canuck may have been goalie Casey DeSmith, although defenceman Quinn Hughes was all-world until he was caught looking for a change 50 seconds into overtime as McDavid launched himself off the Oiler bench and on to Evan Bouchard’s breakaway pass, then did what Connor McDavid does.
Hughes scored the Canucks’ goal with a shot that caromed in off Bouchard on one of six Vancouver power plays.
“I really liked the effort,” Tocchet told Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy in Edmonton. “Some of the guys that we acquired really played well for us, the young guys played well, the veterans. We had two really good practices the last couple days and it kind of helped our game today. It was a good effort.”
The Canucks were outshot 29-22 and will send a team to Seattle to play the Kraken Thursday night.
Here are some random thoughts from PS2 for Vancouver.
A STORY WITH LEGS: The Canucks’ power play is likely to be nightly blogger fodder for a while, partly because Tocchet is trying to get what has been a successful unit to further evolve by adding far more movement and interchange, and partly because the head coach is chairman of the power-play’s coaching-by-committee that was formed after the summer departure of assistant coach Jason King.
At this early phase of the transition, a little goes a long way as far as the extra movement. Having a couple of players at a time rotating changes the power-play look, but having the entire unit in motion makes it unrecognizable at this point. It may often look chaotic as players adapt and get familiar with the motion.
The Canucks had consecutive power plays early that included a 20-second five-on-three starting at 4:03. But Vancouver managed only one shot on net, and was shotless again on its third advantage early in the second.
The unit looked a little more cohesive after that, possibly because it had a little more structure with Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko wandering less on the flanks.
And it must be noted that top-unit forwards J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser did not travel to Edmonton and their interior positions were filled by Nils Hoglander and Conor Garland.
Tocchet’s power play will be fascinating, and sometimes exasperating, viewing as it evolves.
NORTH DAKOTA OR SOUTH DAKOTA: After Dakota Joshua took a blast in the press from Tocchet, who said Tuesday that the rugged winger must “pick it up” to earn his spot on the roster, the Canucks incumbent was certainly noticeable in the first period.
Joshua clobbered Mattias Janmark with an early check, angered McDavid and blocked Leon Draisaitl’s shot during an Edmonton power play.
Joshua didn’t really stand out after that although not many of the Canucks’ “bubble” players did. Everyone dug in and worked hard, as Tocchet noted, but we’re not sure guys like Jack Studnicka, Aatu Raty, Sheldon Dries and Christian Wolanin are any closer to (or farther from) earning or retaining an NHL spot based on this one exhibition game. Auditions continue another four games.
“I thought he was moving his feet,” Tocchet said post-game of Joshua. “It’s a step in the right direction. You know, he’s got to keep chipping away. It was a good effort. Now he’s got to keep consistency.”
COLE’S NOTES: The most interesting player-pairing was Tocchet giving rookie Cole McWard a full game as the right-side partner for Hughes. The coach said at training camp in Victoria that he would try different players with the Canucks’ elite defencemen but wouldn’t experiment too long because he needs to find Hughes a regular partner.
But since Hughes may play only three of the six pre-season games, offering McWard this kind of platform to show himself is noteworthy. A 22-year-old who logged five games for the Canucks at the end of last season after the organization lured him out of Ohio State as a free agent, McWard played to his strengths with Hughes, using his speed to defend and generally transporting or passing the puck safely.
Hughes had an excellent night and probably could have carried anyone, but McWard deserves some credit for his 62-per cent shot share and expected-goals rating of 74.9 per cent.
It would be stunning for an undrafted player like McWard to make an NHL roster in his first training camp, but he is clearly a legit prospect highly-regarded by the coaching staff.
TED’S LASSO: New Canuck Teddy Blueger showed why Patrik Allvin grabbed him in free agency in July.
The fourth-line-plus centre was excellent on a penalty-killing unit that blanked the formidable Oilers power play (fully-staffed) on four chances over 7:02 of five-on-four. Blueger also stuck close to McDavid on several shifts, at one point knocking the puck away from the superstar to create a shorthanded breakaway that ended with a weak shot on Edmonton goalie Stuart Skinner. Blueger finished with 3:27 of shorthanded ice time, among his 15:23 TOI, and could be the first forward out on the PK this season.
The line of Blueger with Studnicka and Nils Aman, a possible opening-night checking combo when the Oilers visit Vancouver on Oct. 11, was solid all game.
WORTH NOTING: In his first pre-season game, Pettersson went 12-3 in the faceoff circle and looked sharper than he did at training camp. A potential Selke Trophy candidate, Pettersson won only 43 per cent of his draws during his first five NHL seasons — he was 44 per cent last year — and has vowed to improve that detail in his game. He will be an even better two-way player if his team starts with the puck more often.