VANCOUVER — As the Vancouver Canucks move into the second half of their pre-season schedule, eager for some momentum before their National Hockey League opener on Oct. 11, an obvious need has arisen: they need more guys like Phil Di Giuseppe.
Di Giuseppe is a 29-year-old journeyman winger who until his callup by the Canucks last January had spent a full season-and-a-half in the minors without a sniff of the NHL. He has cleared waivers six times and the modest, two-year extension he signed in March to remain with the organization ended a streak of six straight one-year contracts.
He opened this training camp on the “bubble,” where he has existed for most of his career, and in a fourth-line deployment. But all Di Giuseppe has done since Day 1 in Victoria is work relentlessly, tirelessly, to push himself deeper into coach Rick Tocchet’s lineup.
This week, Di Giuseppe practised and played on the second line with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, re-claiming the prime spot he earned at the end of last season. Key prospect Vasily Podkolzin started camp there but has faded.
Di Giuseppe is not waiting and hoping for a lineup spot. He’s taking one. Who’s going to stop him?
Now, you aren’t winning a Stanley Cup with 18 Phillip Di Giuseppes, but you’d be a hard team to play against and you’d have a heckuva training camp.
Whether it is the five-month old baby, Stella, who Di Giuseppe is now playing for, or simply the wisdom he has gained the hard way in the NHL about opportunity and timing, the Torontonian looks more than just determined. He looks inspired.
Week 1 of the pre-season was hardly a disaster for the winless Canucks.
Their first pre-season game was an utter mismatch of lineups, and in the Canucks’ last two games, when Tocchet dressed a lot of NHL players but still nothing near his strongest lineup, the team was beaten 2-1 in Edmonton on Connor McDavid’s overtime goal, and 3-1 in Seattle by a Kraken team that was one of the best in the NHL at five-on-five last season.
The ”process” that coaches talk about endlessly was actually pretty good after Tocchet used training camp as a classroom on systems play. Excluding the 10-0 embarrassment in Calgary last Sunday, the Canucks’ defensive play has been solid, and their penalty-killing much better in the early rehearsals than it was last season.
What they’ve lacked is inspiration.
The Canucks just haven’t had enough players forcing themselves up the lineup, which means there’s been no need for incumbents already at the top to do anything more than they have.
But with just two goals in the three games — and after talk all summer about the urgency to start this season better — it sure feels like the Canucks need to find some traction this week so that they’re not standing still like they were the last two Octobers when seasons quickly got away from them.
The Canucks play the Oilers Saturday night at Rogers Arena.
So, go Phil, go. Maybe others will go with him.
“He’s trying to win a job,” Tocchet said admiringly of Di Giuseppe. “I love guys like that.”
“This is nothing new to me,” Di Giuseppe said before the Seattle game on Thursday. “This is my 10th year and nine or 10 of those years I’ve been in this same situation. Is it comfortable? It’s never comfortable. But I know what’s at stake, and when you go through something a number of times you kind of get a feeling of how to handle it day to day. You just stay focused on your game and don’t worry about everything else going around you.”
Di Giuseppe was recalled by the Canucks the week after Tocchet replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach and, but for a brief return to the American Hockey League in late February, spent the rest of the season in Vancouver.
He played the final 21 games, mostly as a speedy, robust forechecker on Miller’s left side, and contributed four goals, five assists and a tonne of energy. Di Giuseppe was never easy to play against.
“You know my path,” Di Giuseppe said, 11 years and four NHL teams since the Carolina Hurricanes made him a second-round pick out of the University of Michigan. “I’ve always been just right there (on the NHL doorstep). Luckily, last year, I got my chance. You never take anything for granted. When you go through bouncing between the minors and the NHL, you never know when that opportunity is going to come. I was playing good hockey, but for a year and a half there, I didn’t get a chance to get called up. So when I did last season, it was one of those make-or-break moments.
“You know, I’d kind of always split 50/50 (between the NHL and AHL) and then I played a year and a half strictly in the minors. One thing I’ve learned is it’s hard to just get an opportunity. And then when you do, what are you going to do with it? You’ve got to be ready to go. A lot of things have to fall into place, and then you’ve got to work your butt off.”
Di Giuseppe has never had an NHL roster spot guaranteed, never had the luxury of waltzing through a training camp or pre-season.
The birth of his first child last April, the day after Di Giuseppe arrived home from the Canucks’ final game in Arizona, has further fueled his motivation to become an everyday NHL player.
“Yeah, that’s a big thing,” he said. “It adds another level of pressure. It’s not just about me and my goals. A lot of the guys have families and they’ll tell you the same; you’re playing for their futures and trying to kind of put them in the best position and give your family the best lifestyle you can. So I do think about that, but I don’t let it consume me. If you have a bad day or a bad moment, I think it helps just refocus and kind of get you back on track.”
Di Giuseppe hasn’t had a bad day since camp opened. He can’t afford them.