VANCOUVER – On the first day of training camp, Travis Green joked he had wall charts in every room of his house throughout the summer trying to figure out his optimal lineup in his first year as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks. Now, however, with just two games remaining on the team’s preseason schedule before the Canucks start playing for keeps, lineup certainty and line combinations are no laughing matter.
With split squads separated by 9,000 kilometres and 15-time zones last week, Green’s already difficult decisions were made that much tougher by geography. Now with the two groups of players re-united for a sprint to the finish of exhibition play, the Canucks appear no closer to settling on any kind of lineup for their Oct. 7 regular-season opener.
The team still has 20 healthy forwards in camp – a number that likely has to be reduced to just 13 by next week (unless the organization decided to carry 14 forwards to start the season). It’s a stew of veterans, rookies, professional tryouts and even a player on a minor-league deal only at this point. So there are plenty of decisions about the lineup yet to be made and beyond that about how the players who make the roster will be deployed.
Brock Boeser skated on Monday with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The 20-year-old may get a look there in one of the remaining preseason games, but it doesn’t mean he’s any closer to starting the season with the twins, who turned 37 on Tuesday. That spot could still fall to Markus Granlund or Sam Gagner or Loui Eriksson or maybe even Thomas Vanek. The same sorts of questions can be asked about who plays the wing with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi.
Alex Burmistrov, signed in the summer, as a depth option at forward hasn’t established himself in limited preseason action. Where does he fit in the big picture? Is Brandon Sutter still a centre on this team or due to a lack of play-making skills is he better suited to wing? How much can a 30-year-old Derek Dorsett coming off serious neck surgery contribute and can he be an every day player and be effective in his role? What about Jake Virtanen who, with a solid preseason so far, has worked his way back in the conversation about a roster spot to start the year? And then there are players like Anton Rodin, Nikolay Goldobin, Scott Upshall and even Darren Archibald, who survived the latest round of cuts, despite not having an NHL contract at this point.
Time is ticking on the Canucks to come up with answers to the many questions facing the hockey club. Even the players have no idea how things will shake down over the next 10 days.
“I’m not sure how it will look opening night and I don’t think anybody has a full idea at this point,” Brandon Sutter told TSN 1040 after practice Monday. “But we’re getting close. I think this is the week as players you want to have one or two good exhibition games here and really get your legs even more than you have already. I don’t know what it will look like, but there’s a lot of juggling right now.”
For his part, Sutter, who skated on Monday with tryout hopeful Scott Upshall and Derek Dorsett, isn’t trying to read to much into the deployment decisions at this stage of the preseason. But he’s been at this long enough to know that for some Thursday’s preseason game against Calgary will be a last chance to make an impression.
“I think when I was younger, I was more anxious about it and paid more attention to it,” he says. “But now, I think after a few years, you know what to expect and things will change and injuries will change everything. So whoever you’re put with, you’ll start with and then you go from there.”
The same sorts of questions facing the forward group exist on the Canucks defence. While the top six appears to be set – with Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher, Ben Hutton, Erik Gudbranson and newcomer Michael Del Zotto – it remains unclear how the defence will be designed. It appears from practices and the games in China, the plan is to have Edler and Tanev play together to start the season. The Canucks spent much of the first week of training camp with Del Zotto paired with Gudbranson leaving Stecher and Hutton to form the other defensive duo. However, on Monday, Stecher and Del Zotto spent time together which could mean a re-union of the Hutton-Gudbranson pairing which struggled when put together early last season.
It opens the door to a number of possibilities, but the easy-going Hutton isn’t losing sleep trying to read the coach’s mind right now.
“No clue,” Hutton said when asked if he had a sense how the team would lineup on opening night. “Every day you come in and go out and battle with whoever is at your side. You try to gain chemistry with whoever is there. We had a couple of games over there (in China) and coach was harping on a few things and he went over a lot of video. We’ve got two games left to kick it into top gear and Greener will have us ready to go for sure.”
With just two games remaining in the preseason, Thursday against Calgary and Saturday against Edmonton, both at Rogers Arena, the Canucks have some serious decisions on their hands. While it may be ideal to use the final exhibition outing as a full dress rehearsal for the 82 games that follow, that may not be the case this time around. The Canucks may require both of their remaining preseason games to carry out auditions to see who will make the grade. There are too many bubble boys still on the roster with little time left for them to stake their claim to a roster spot.