“You can read into them. I know you will anyway,”
That was Canucks head coach Travis Green joking with the media on the first day of training camp when asked about how much they should read into the lines and pairings on the ice at practice. So, with that tacit permission, let’s read away.
In all seriousness, the short timeframe between the start of training camp and the puck drop on the regular season means there’s no time to waste. The combinations used in camp are not idle experimentations, but legitimate options that they need to quickly test to see if they’re going to work.
“We've got to make decisions,” said Green. “We're not just out there to skate and condition, we're out there to see how combinations look.”
How do they look? Let’s go through the lines and pairings we’ve seen so far.
Here are the main lines we’ve seen in practice and scrimmage so far, organized by how they might line up for the start of the regular season:
Line 1: J.T. Miller - Elias Pettersson - Brock Boeser
Line 2: Tanner Pearson - Bo Horvat - Nils Höglander
Line 3: Tyler Motte - Brandon Sutter - Jake Virtanen
Line 4: Antoine Roussel - Adam Gaudette - Zack MacEwen
Extra forwards: Loui Eriksson - Jay Beagle
Utica Comets/Taxi Squad
Line 1: Sven Baertschi - Marc Michaelis - Justin Bailey
Line 2: Kole Lind - Jayce Hawryluk
Line 3: Jonah Gadjovich - Tyler Graovac - Will Lockwood
The second Utica Comets line is missing a player — in a typical camp the Canucks might have had a few invitees or AHL veterans to round things out — but this is the basic shape of the lineup as it has been deployed so far.
Some lines look set: the top line, dubbed the Lotto Line for their 6-40-9 jersey numbers, is ready to go. On the other three lines, you can expect some set duos: Pearson and Horvat, Motte and Sutter, and Roussel and Gaudette. And the line of Baertschi, Michaelis, and Bailey is a good bet to be on the taxi squad, ready to step into the lineup in case of injury.
That leaves a big question mark for veterans Eriksson and Beagle. Perhaps because they’re experienced veterans, Green knows what to expect from them, so has instead focused on putting players on the bubble in line combinations to evaluate them. But there’s also the possibility that their spots in the lineup are in jeopardy.
With Pettersson, Horvat, Sutter, and Gaudette down the middle, is there a spot open for Beagle or will he be the 13th forward, waiting to step in when there’s an injury? If Beagle’s out of the lineup, who takes his spot on the penalty kill?
Key forward battles
There are a few key battles still to be fought. While Höglander has the inside track on playing with Horvat and Pearson, it’s important to keep in mind that he’s in midseason form already from playing in the SHL; there’s a risk that he diminishes as the pace of training camp quickens.
Virtanen may still get a look with the Horvat line, with MacEwen and Hawryluk as wild cards to keep an eye on as well.
Speaking of MacEwen, his spot in the lineup isn’t secure either. He’s been matched up with Gaudette and Roussel early on and is eager to earn a job as a full-time NHLer, but he didn’t stand out much in Wednesday night’s scrimmage. That’s another line where Hawryluk could get a look, with Bailey and Lind also looking to win a spot.
If the young players falter, veterans are waiting to fill in the gap. There could still be a place for Eriksson in the lineup, whether on Horvat’s wing in a matchup role or a bottom-six spot with Sutter or Gaudette.
The other possibility is that Sutter moves out to right wing, potentially with Gaudette to provide faceoff insurance. That would bump Beagle back into the lineup.
Green, however, has said that he prefers Sutter at centre.
“I look at him as a centreman, not a winger,” said Green. “I feel like he skates better when he's in the middle, like a lot of natural centremen. He's just a real smart player and he does a lot of good things that go into winning.”
At the same time, he said all five centres, including Sutter and Beagle, could be in the opening night lineup, so bumping one of them out to the wing could be in the cards. That could lead to further shuffling.
That covers the Canucks forwards; what about the defence? Here’s what we’ve seen so far in training camp.
1st Pairing: Alex Edler - Nate Schmidt
2nd Pairing: Quinn Hughes - Jalen Chatfield
3rd Pairing: Olli Juolevi - Tyler Myers
Extra Defence: Jack Rathbone - Jordie Benn
Utica Comets/Taxi Squad
1st Pairing: Guillaume Brisebois - Ashton Sautner
2nd Pairing: Jett Woo - Brogan Rafferty
3rd Pairing: Josh Teves - Mitch Eliot
With the forwards, it’s easy to see how they could enter opening night with the lines as is. On defence, however, we’re more likely to see changes.
For instance, it’s unlikely that Chatfield starts the season on the second pairing with the Canucks. Instead, it seems like he could be holding a spot for Travis Hamonic, who is signed to a PTO but is expected to officially sign with the Canucks once Micheal Ferland goes on LTIR. Hamonic is currently still in quarantine and has yet to join the Canucks at training camp.
Also, Rathbone is not going to spend his first professional season as an extra defenceman, sitting in the press box. If he doesn’t make the Canucks out of camp, he’ll likely start the season in the AHL.
So, a more likely lineup for the defence to start the season is as follows:
Edler - Schmidt
Hughes - Hamonic
Juolevi - Myers
Key battles on defence
The battles on defence are less about who makes the Canucks lineup and more about who is on the taxi squad.
The sole exception was thought to be the left side on the third pairing. The expected battle heading into camp was between Juolevi and Rathbone, but it seems from the start of camp that Juolevi has that spot sewn up.
The addition of Hamonic has erased the battle on the right side. Before his signing, Chatfield and Rafferty could have battled for a spot on the Canucks roster; now it seems like they’re instead battling for a spot on the taxi squad. Chatfield, skating with Hughes instead of as an extra defenceman, seems to have the edge in that battle for the moment.
The other battle for the taxi squad could be between Brisebois and Sautner, who have been paired up to start training camp. One of the two is likely to be the left-side defenceman on the taxi squad.
Teves and Eliot will be in the AHL, as will Woo, who had some good moments in Wednesday’s scrimmage, but will benefit from a full season or two with the Utica Comets.
Projected lineup for opening night
With all of the above in mind, here’s how I expect the Canucks to line up on opening night, complete with goaltenders.
Miller - Pettersson - Boeser
Pearson - Horvat - Höglander
Roussel - Gaudette - Virtanen
Motte - Beagle - Sutter
Eriksson - MacEwen
Edler - Schmidt
Hughes - Hamonic
Juolevi - Myers
There’s a distinct possibility that one of Eriksson or MacEwen will be replaced by Hawryluk as an extra forward. I have Beagle in the lineup because I’m not sure who else Green will be willing to play on the penalty kill at centre. And I have Demko starting because I have a sneaking suspicion it will take a little bit more time for Holtby to make the adjustments to his game from goaltending coach Ian Clark.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below.