The Vancouver Canucks have until Monday to set their opening night NHL roster, two days before they start to play for real, first against the Edmonton Oilers next Wednesday at Rogers Arena.
Most of the roster is set, but a few variables still remain for head coach Rick Tocchet and his staff.
Let’s take a look at these questions, ahead of Friday night’s pre-season finale at Rogers Arena against what’s expected to be a full-strength Calgary Flames lineup.
Shaking out the lines and defence pairings
The top end of the lineup is just about set, but there are a few lingering details.
It’s obvious that Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko will start the season as the Canucks’ first-line centre and right winger, but who will join them to start at left wing? Anthony Beauvillier? The winger spent time on the top line last season after coming over from the New York Islanders in the Bo Horvat trade, but he has bounced around a little in pre-season.
He and Nils Höglander have swapped spots a couple times between the Pettersson line and left wing on the likely third line, which is going to feature centre Pius Suter and right winger Conor Garland.
Ilya Mikheyev, when he is cleared to play, will also be an option to play left wing on either of these two lines.
In between those two lines on the lineup card is J.T. Miller’s second line, which seems almost certain to start with the hard-working, hustling Phil Di Giuseppe on the left wing and Brock Boeser on the right. Boeser, who is coming off two emotionally-difficult seasons, is hoping to rediscover his scoring touch after netting just 18 goals, the lowest total of his career (outside of the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season).
After Tocchet called out Dakota Joshua’s effort last week, the banging winger has cranked up his game and looks to have re-secured his winger spot on the Canucks’ fourth line. Teddy Blueger will centre the line, with either Nils Åman or Jack Studnicka on the other wing.
But whichever of Åman or Studnicka that loses out in this equation may not find themselves even in the NHL to start the season — they may have to be re-assigned to the AHL to start. Åman doesn’t need waivers, but Studnicka does.
When will Mikheyev be ready?
This Åman-Studnicka dilemma has to do with Ilya Mikheyev’s health.
At the moment, he is on injured reserve, which means he doesn’t take up a roster spot. But his salary still counts against the cap, and the way the Canucks’ cap hits add up, there won’t be room to have a full 23-man roster to start the season, even if Mikheyev is on injured reserve.
The speedy Russian is almost ready to return to action, just over eight months since he had surgery to repair the damaged anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which he partially tore in the first game of the 2022 preseason.
Tocchet said Wednesday that Mikheyev, who still managed to score 13 goals while playing in 46 games on his bum knee last season, won’t play Friday in the pre-season finale and may not be ready for next week’s regular season opener.
“He’s in the pushing mode now, so we’ll just ramp it up,” said Tocchet. “He’s tracking in the right direction. The opener (Wednesday) I’m not sure about. We’re going day-by-day with the pushing and shoving.
“He has got to get a little bit more when there’s a lot of people around and he’s got to change directions and work on getting hit. That’s the next process.”
It stands to reason even if he’s not ready to go next Wednesday, he will return to the lineup sometime on the season-opening road trip, pushing a forward to the press box.
Who will be the defenceman on the outside looking in?
The Mikheyev-Studnicka-Åman equation could also be affected by how many defencemen the Canucks choose to start the season with: seven or eight.
Of the nine defencemen still in camp, only rookie Cole McWard is waivers-exempt.
In general, teams like to keep eight defencemen to start their season, so one of Guillaume Brisebois — who Tocchet has spoken glowingly about — Christian Wolanin — who has some offensive talents, separating him from the group — Noah Juulsen — who has a hard edge and shoots right — and McWard will be odd man out.
If Tocchet and his staff choose to keep only two, then the extra from the Åman-Studnicka question wouldn’t have to go to the AHL.
Might a trade fix all this?
Sure. And the Canucks have been poking around other ideas for awhile. So don’t be surprised if all this pondering is meaningless before next Wednesday.
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