1. While Wednesday was not a good night for Jake Virtanen, who sat and watched as 13 forwards got into the Vancouver Canucks exhibition line-up ahead of him, it wasn’t all bad news for the Abbotsford native. That’s because neither Brandon Sutter nor Zack MacEwen did much to separate themselves from Virtanen in the battle to be the final forward when the Canucks open against Minnesota on Sunday. Everything about Brandon Sutter’s game is quiet now at this stage of his career – there is no expectation of offense, he’s not physical and, at times, he struggles to keep up with the pace of today’s game. One are he’s supposed to be able to contribute is on the penalty kill, but last night he took a needless offensive zone penalty early in the second period with team already down 1-0. Sutter can’t kill penalties if he’s the guy in the box. All of that said, I think Sutter’s experience on a youthful team probably keeps him in the line-up for the opener against the Wild. But is coach’s trust and penalty killing enough to maintain a spot in the line-up when an 18-goal scorer is waiting in the wings? I guess we’ll soon find out. As for MacEwen, after a strong 10 days of training camp, he was clearly the extra forward on Wednesday logging a team-low 5:15 of ice time and just eight shifts on the night. His most-memorable shift involved him being the nail to Nathan Beaulieu’s hammer as the Jets defenseman sealed off MacEwen’s lane on the forecheck and sent him sprawling with a thunderous check against the side boards just inside the Jets blueline. The funny thing about the collision is that the stats trackers in the rink in Edmonton didn’t call it a hit on the game sheet – apparently even they are still shaking off some rust. Regardless, MacEwen needs to be the one delivering those kinds of hits and while his night included two shots on goal it also featured a blank in the hit column.
2. It was encouraging to see the Canucks top six forwards generate as much offense as they did with 19 of the team’s 38 shots on Connor Hellebuyck coming off the sticks of high-end forwards. Tanner Pearson led the way with five shots while Brock Boeser and Tyler Toffoli had four apiece and Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat were both given credit for three. JT Miller was the only one of the top six crew that did not put a puck on goal on Wednesday although he had two shot attempts and a decent chance set up by Pettersson early in the hockey game. Horvat’s line in particular – in a match-up role against a truly legitimate elite scoring line of Mark Scheifele between Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler – looked particularly sharp and winning that possession battle handily outshooting the Jets 9-4 at evens and controlling a staggering 68.4% of all shot attempts on the night. Boeser had the Canucks best chance of the first two periods when sent in all alone on a breakaway at 1-0. It would have been a boost for his confidence had been able to beat Hellebuyck. It would have been nice to see a confidence Boeser pick his spot and rip a shot past the likely Vezina Trophy winner. Instead, the Canuck forward opted to try a back-hand deke that Hellebuyck was able to brush away. My takeaway from Wednesday night was that the Canucks best players looked the part for most of the night. But starting Sunday against the Wild, I don’t want to hear about how many chances they generated. Hockey – particularly in the post-season is a bottom line business – and players like Boeser need to bury their opportunities.
3. Micheal Ferland continued his progression with his first NHL game appearance since December 10th. Ferland wasn’t a standout, but had some memorable moments skating on a line with Adam Gaudette and Antoine Roussel. The rugged winger logged 12:52 of ice time (11:46 at even strength and 1:06 on the power play). His night included one shot on goal and a pair of hits. The most important thing for Ferland was playing in traffic and engaging in board battles against NHL competition. And he appeared to get through the night unscathed. As noted in the first item, it feels at this stage of the proceedings like Sutter, Virtanen, MacEwen and even Loui Eriksson are in a four-for-one battle for a spot on the fourth line. With his emergence over the second week of training camp and his usage last night against the Jets, Micheal Ferland seems to have cemented his spot in the line-up to start the Play-in round against Minnesota.
4. While Ferland’s night qualified as a positive and Roussel scored the Canucks lone goal, it was a mixed night for the centre on that line. Adam Gaudette did a nice job of separating himself from Jets defender Josh Morrissey to create space behind the Winnipeg goal on the play leading to Roussel cashing in on a loose puck in the crease. From this vantage point, there are very few concerns about Gaudette’s offensive game. However, there are two ends of the rink, and with Gaudette on the ice, the Canucks controlled just 31.3% of the shots at even-strength last night (only Jay Beagle had a lower individual Corsi percentage). That’s concerning. Part of the issue was the young centre managing to win just two of eight face-offs. Every little detail matters starting on Sunday and it’s going to be interesting to monitor Gaudette’s usage and the way the Wild may try to exploit some of his defensive deficiencies. In the end, Gaudette and his line outscored the Jets 1-0 last night so they held their own despite the ice being tilted against them. But many perceive Minnesota to have an edge in the battle of bottom six forwards. It’s going to worth keeping an eye on what role Adam Gaudette plays in all of that and in which end of the ice he spends most of his shifts in the series.
5. Olli Juolevi earned praise from the coach following last night’s game. And with good reason. In limited minutes, Juolevi certainly didn’t look out of his depth in an NHL-ish game. For me, the surprise wasn’t how the young Finn played, it was more that he played at all. With Jordie Benn still on baby duty in Dallas and now unable to get to Edmonton in time to satisfy quarantine guidelines in order to be an option for Sunday, the depth defenseman story is a bigger one that it would normally be. And for Juolevi to be selected over camp standout Jalen Chatfield and Brogan Rafferty last night is certainly a nod to the hard work the fifth overall pick in 2016 has put in this season. Juolevi dressed as the extra defenseman and saw just 6:37 of ice time. But it was a clean night of action with strong positional play, good reads and decisions with the pucks and no blemishes in the form of penalties or turnovers. A lot would have to happen still for Juolevi to get into game action in the post-season, but based on the fact he played – and played well -- last night, perhaps he’s closer now that he’s ever been to making his long-awaited big league debut.