The week began with the final cuts being made as the Canucks whittled down the roster to a max 23 men. Among those not making the cut was Sven Baertschi (more on him later), Nikolay Goldobin (more on him later) and Alex Biega (more on him later). The Canucks got good news on the injury front with Brock Boeser and Oscar Fantenberg both cleared to play (more on that later). It was a light schedule to start the season with just two games this week. The Canucks opened the season against the Edmonton Oilers and lost a close one 3-2. There was controversy (the second Oilers goal shouldn’t have counted) and a horrible turnover on the GWG. Quinn Hughes was one of the more noticeable Canucks. Tanner Pearson accounted for a third of the Canucks total offence, firing a whopping 11 shots on goal. Jacob Markstrom did his part and for the most part looked sharp, although he’ll want the first goal he let in back. Jake Virtanen, Loui Eriksson and Tim Schaller did not impress. In Calgary on Saturday, Loui Eriksson was made a healthy scratch. In Edmonton, Eriksson had just a single shot on goal and was caught really not making any effort to hustle back after Brandon Sutter turned the puck over with just over 5 minutes left in the game. This one was a pretty poor performance. The Canucks started each period strong, but a huge giveaway by Tyler Myers right onto the stick of Lindholm and 4 Canucks not covering Sean Monahan gave the Flames all the goal support they needed. The Canucks also got sloppy on line changes in the 2nd period taking 2 too many men penalties. Quinn Hughes, Adam Gaudette and Jacob Markstrom were the best Canucks. Looking at the week ahead, the Canucks open the home portion of their schedule with a tilt against the LA Kings. Ben Hutton is expected to be named the 14th captain in team history before the game. Ben Hutton will also be making his return to Vancouver after he signed a contract with the Kings last week. The Canucks won 3 of the four meetings last season and took 7 out of a possible 8 points. Three days later, the Philadelphia Flyers come to town for their annual west coast swing. The Flyers certainly didn’t make any friends with Canucks management last season when they snatched Mike McKenna off waivers, leaving the Canucks in a bind with their goaltending that eventually forced 19-year-old Michael Dipietro to make his NHL debut on February 11. Last season, the two teams split the season series with the home team winning both games and the Canucks outscoring the Flyers 6-3 overall thanks to a huge 5-1 victory in Vancouver. Here are ten random thoughts from week 3 of the NHL.
1. I want to start things off this week talking about the final cuts made Monday. The Canucks needed to make at least one move (more if Boeser and Fantenberg were cleared to play, which they were). On Monday, the Canucks cut three players and I want to look at each one in a separate point, starting with the surprise move of cutting veteran Sven Baertschi. First, Adam Gaudette forced the Canucks to make a tough choice with a very strong camp. You want to see personnel decisions based on merit and there was no way Gaudette was getting cut after being the Canucks best player in preseason BY FAR. I felt like Baertschi outperformed some of the players who made the cut, including Loui Eriksson, Tim Schaller and Jake Virtanen. All three of the aforementioned played poorly in Edmonton and were basically non-factors. Jim Benning made an interesting comment in his explanation on why Baertschi did not make the team. He stated that Baertschi was still hesitating in the corners. Of course, there are major concerns about the health of the 27-year-old winger, who has had 5+ major concussions in his career and missed all but 26 games with two separate bouts of post-concussion syndrome. To be honest, I didn’t really notice Baertschi hesitating in the corners, but if he was that could put him in a vulnerable spot and increase the chances of yet another concussion, Another factor could be financial. The Canucks netted more salarry cap savings than they would have netted from either Sutter or Eriksson. I do hope that Baertschi works his butt off in Utica and gets another chance in Vancouver.
2. With Nikolay Goldobin, the surprise wasn’t so much that he was cut at the end of training camp, but that he was re-signed by the Canucks. Last year was a disaster for the Russian winger. While Goldobin played 63 games last season, scoring 27 points (7G 20A) and finishing a paltry -10, he did not play the final 6 games of the season (healthy scratch). His game is not a good fit for the bottom 6 on the Canucks. He was not noticeable in the preseason and his cut was not much of a surprise. Obviously, the Canucks saw enough in him to qualify him and extend him for just above the league minimum. Credit to Goldobin for not bolting to Russia after getting cut. He’ll have a better shot at employment fine tuning his game in an NHL-sized arena than a bigger ice surface back home in Russia.
3. The third Canuck cut on Monday was depth defenseman Alex Biega, who was edged out by free agent signing Oscar Fantenberg. Biega has been with the Canucks since signing as a free agent in 2013. For the most part, he has been a high energy guy, playing on the 3rd pairing. He’s generally split every season between the press box and playing. Biega’s been pretty reliable on the whole. Last season, he had an even rating and scored 16 points (2G 14A) over 41 games last season. Fantenberg is seen to be a late-bloomer and the Canucks opted to give the newcomer a spot over the veteran. Biega will almost certainly be back before long with a high likelihood of injuries on the back end (Edler/Tanev). It should be noted that Goldobin, Baertschi and Biega all cleared waivers and are still Canucks property.
4. Let’s move on and look at some injury updates starting with the two players who were cleared to play after suffering concussions in the same game in Abbotsford to start the second week of preseason: Brock Boeser and Fantenberg. Boeser’s injury has to have been frustrating as the winger endured a rough off-season with his father in poor health and had just arrived in training camp after a contract dispute that dragged into the 1st week of training camp. Boeser didn’t even get a full game in before he left the game Monday. He was cleared to play after making his way through the NHL’s return to play concussion protocol Monday. Understandably, he was rusty on opening night with the rest of his teammates having played an extra couple of games in the preseason. He had 1 assist in 20:40 of ice time on opening night. Fantenberg also suffered a concussion in the same game. He was just cleared on Friday as an option to play. As Fantenberg is a depth defenseman, his debut is uncertain. I expect that Travis Green will want to get everyone on the 23-man roster into a game fairly early, so expect him to play on the homestand this week.
5. As expected, Antoine Roussel was placed on the LTIR to start the season as he continues to work his way back from ACL surgery. Roussel was injured on this play March 13 vs. the NY Rangers. Roussel is entering the 2nd year of a 4 year contract with the Canucks. In 65 games last season, Roussel scored 31 points (9G 22A), including an assist on the play that ended his season. When Roussel returns, he’ll likely play on the 3rd or 4th line. He got time on the top line last season, but is not likely where he’ll start. Roussel should also get some penalty killing time as well. Benning said he is a bit ahead of schedule and is aiming to return sometime in November, about a month earlier than first projected. Roussel has been skating for about a month now.
6. Another player starting the year on the injured list is Tyler Motte, who suffered an upper body injury late in preseason and is expected to miss the first couple of weeks of the season. Motte was a surprise making the team last season through a blue collar training camp that saw him working his butt off. Motte played 74 games last year on the 4th line, scoring 16 points (9G 7A) and was -12. He led the team with a whopping 200 hits. He’ll be expected to do more of the same when he is cleared to play.
7. The worst kept secret for the Canucks at the moment is that Bo Horvat will be the team’s 14th captain (to be announced at the home opener Wednesday). Horvat has been steadily improving every year since he made his NHL debut back in 2014. Horvat was essentially the main piece back when the Canucks traded Cory Schneider to the Devils prior to the 2013 NHL entry draft. The Sedins took him under their wing right from the get-go and Henrik groomed him to be the next captain of the Canucks. Horvat is one of the few players left from the last Canucks team to make the playoffs in 2014-15 and is one of the longest serving Canucks (he’s entering his 6th season in the NHL). Last season, Horvat was 2nd on the team with 61 points (27G 34A). He was the only Canuck to play all 82 games last season and he’s well-respected both in the locker room and in the community. There is really no other player on the team who could be named team captain. The longest serving Canuck is Alex Edler, but he’s too injury prone and is on the wrong side of 30 and is already taking a step back in terms of his effectiveness. Chris Tanev and Brandon Sutter are in the same situation, suffering significant injuries every season and declining in their performance (Sutter made a huge defensive gaffe in closing minutes of the game Wednesday that cost the Canucks the game). Elias Petterson had a fantastic season last year, becoming the second Canuck to win the Calder trophy, but unless your name is Wayne Gretzky or Connor McDavid you don’t become the team captain at the age of 20. Jacob Markstrom could have been another consideration, but we all know how well things went when Roberto Luongo was captain. No, Horvat is the clear choice here and I think he’ll do a fantastic job.
8. Let’s look at the opening game for a second. There are a couple of plays I want to look at. First of all, the Canucks were robbed by the refs. The second Oilers goal because of this blatant infraction by Oilers goalie Mike Smith. Last time I checked, you aren’t allowed to grab someone else’s stick, let alone yank it out of said player’s hands. The play should have been blown dead and Smith assessed a two-minute minor for holding the stick. Instead, the play was allowed to continue and the Oilers quickly transitioned up the ice and a few seconds later a wide open Zack Kassian snapped the puck home. It wrecks the integrity of the game when the refs don’t make the calls they should make and the play ends in a goal. I call for increased coaching challenges where penalties can be called retroactively if the play results in a goal against. The other play I want to draw attention to is the game winning goal with just over five minutes left. The turnover at the Canucks blueline was bad (Sutter needs to be aware of who’s on the ice and needs to get the puck deep on a line change), but what’s worse is that Loui Eriksson was just gliding back and making no real effort to catch McDavid. That is a big reason why he was the one who sat to get Adam Gaudette in the lineup. If he keeps playing like that, the Canucks may release him.
9. One of the early pleasant surprises has been goaltending. Jacob Markstrom has picked off right where he left off after a strong year last season. The only shots that beat him were the result of 2 horrible giveaways (Wednesday by Brandon Sutter to Connor McDavid, and Saturday on a horrible pass by Tyler Myers right onto the stick of Sean Monahan), an Oilers goal that should not have counted because of Mike Smith yanking the stick out of Tanner Pearson’s hands, and a bad rebound. He got not goal support from his team Saturday and he has to get used to Myers, Jordie Benn and Quinn Hughes. There will be plenty of practice time to sort out the communication issues with his defenders and work with goalie coach Ian Clark with a light game schedule this week. Thatcher Demko probably won’t play until week three when the Canucks have four games in 6 days. Hopefully he works out his own kinks as he wasn’t sharp in the preseason.
10. Canuck of the week: Quinn Hughes. The rookie defenseman had one assist this week and was one of the better Canucks. He looked great on the power play, creating chances and moving the puck. At the moment, he is on the second PP unit, but that could change if the first PP unit continues to be ineffective.