PHILADELPHIA — Vancouver Canucks fans have been relieved and euphoric in the wake of the team’s consecutive victories over the Edmonton Oilers to open the regular season.
That collective giddiness, however, couldn’t have stood in sharper contrast with the hard-driving, business-like atmosphere that characterized Canucks practice on Monday at Well Fargo Center.
The practice opened with a three-on-three small-area game played at centre ice, with the shifts kept exceptionally short and the pace almost frenetic. Tyler Myers, at one point, even sold out to block a shot and shortly thereafter scored a goal on a seeing-eye wrist shot. The goal was nice and earned stick taps from Myers’ teammates, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player leave their skates to sell out for a shot block in a small-area game. At the end of the on-ice session, the losing group did push-ups.
Later in the practice, after details were lightly admonished by Canucks assistant Mike Yeo, Rick Tocchet jumped in and beseeched his group not to be complacent or satisfied. “Earn your f—— ice time!” exclaimed Vancouver’s bench boss.
After a lengthy 55-minute session, which wasn’t necessarily gruelling but certainly had a higher pace relative to a standard in-season practice session, Tocchet gathered his team on each blue line for five minutes of skating lines to end the day’s work.
This wasn’t the sort of practice you’d normally expect from a team being widely fêted by fans and local and national media for their competitiveness out of the gate. It was harder than that, tougher all around.
The contrasts multiplied further when Tocchet met the media following practice and discussed in critical terms how he felt the Canucks had performed in their narrow victory over the Oilers on Saturday. While highlighting some positives — that they bent but didn’t break defensively, managed the game well and killed penalties effectively — Tocchet also noted they didn’t pay the price consistently enough to maintain puck possession.
Winning the game despite being under near-constant siege by the Oilers was better than the alternative, but it’s clear Vancouver’s bench boss knows that if they play in too many games that look like Saturday’s win in Edmonton, they’ll be in trouble big picture.
In the summer, as the Canucks touted their structure and standards and accountability, weaving those buzzwords into a marketing campaign, it was easy to be cynical and roll your eyes. Vancouver’s hockey fans have seen this team get meaninglessly hot down the stretch far too frequently to just accept that this time it would be different.
Cynical sentiments change, however, when evidence mounts. As the Canucks prepare like this, make their opponents work as hard as Edmonton had to in generating scoring chances and are scolded for lacking details even when they’re riding high, the meaning of “structure” and “standards” and “accountability” becomes more difficult to scoff at.
Pettersson’s strength and physicality
When Elias Pettersson first came into the NHL as a talented young player he was repeatedly asked questions about his weight.
Pettersson absolutely loathed those questions. To him, they carried a sinister implication about whether he belonged in the best league in the world.
Right from the get-go, of course, it was obvious not just that Pettersson belonged in the NHL, but that he had the potential to be a dominant force in this league.
Of late, that potential has been realized. Entering his age-25 season, Pettersson has managed 108 points in his last 82 games. On Monday, he was named the NHL’s second star of the week, wedged between Auston Matthews and Evgeni Malkin. It seems we’re getting close to the apex version of what Pettersson can be in this league.
To understand how he’s reached this point, it helps to know what came before. The younger version of Pettersson was slender, but he wasn’t a small player. He may have relied on his elusiveness, but from day one he was disciplined about going to and setting up shop in the heavy areas of the ice. Even before he had the physical stature to win those battles, he always was willing to pick them.
Now, Pettersson is winning those battles. Instead of parrying annoying questions about his weight these days, Pettersson is assertively throwing that weight around.
EP40 CAME TO PLAY 💪 pic.twitter.com/EGS2F24rfh
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) October 12, 2023
“I feel like I can protect the puck better, win more battles,” Pettersson said on Monday of his evolution as a physical presence. “I’m not getting pushed around as easy.
“I still fall down a little bit,” he added, “But I feel stronger, I have more confidence in battles. I don’t think I’ve been the best at protecting the puck, and now I feel more comfortable, more able to win puck battles.”
This isn’t an uncommon path for a young, extraordinarily skilled forward to take. Henrik and Daniel Sedin, to cite a totally unfair example, contend to this day that they weren’t really able to play their down-low cycle game as reliably as they wanted to until after the 2004-05 lockout when they added the requisite strength.
And the twins will also tell you that it took a few more years beyond that to add the stamina that became their trademark and enabled them to play their signature style consistently.
“Being stronger, it helps, but when it’s game time, I play with rage,” Pettersson later added of his more physical mindset, then thought better of such a dramatic statement. “No, not really,” he demurred.
“Hey, that’s a good headline!” I said, needling him for his habit of ducking questions with a standard ‘I don’t want to give you guys a headline,’ response.
“I know you guys love those,” Pettersson said. “No, but when it’s a battle or I get a chance to hit guys, I’ll do so. I want to be reliable not just with my offence, but with my ability to play the right way.”
Part of that growth in Pettersson’s game, although it’s yet to show up in his overall win rate, appears to be in the faceoff circle.
Pettersson has opened the regular season with 12 wins off of 27 draws, good for a 44.4 percent win rate that’s right in line with his career norm.
Quietly though, there’ve been signs that his ability to win draws has improved. Pettersson dominated in the circle in the preseason, for example, and even in Vancouver’s first two regular-season games against the Oilers. Pettersson has won more than half of the draws he’s taken in both the defensive zone and the offensive zone, where the outcome is higher leverage. NHL centremen tend to save their most reliable techniques for those situations, and it’s worth noting Pettersson has only won four of 13 draws in the neutral zone in the first two games.
Improving in the faceoff circle has been a preoccupation of Pettersson’s for years. Back on Oct. 15, 2021, nearly two years ago, Pettersson went 0-for-7 in a 5-4 shootout victory for the Canucks over the Flyers. Even though all those losses came against faceoff aces like Derick Brassard, Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, Pettersson’s inability to win a draw that night stuck in his craw.
After the game, Pettersson was asked by the media about his performance — he had a goal, an assist and a shootout tally in the victory — and after his scrum was finished, he noted to me off to the side, “Thankfully you guys didn’t ask about my faceoffs.” I reminded him of that on Monday after the Canucks practice, in asking him about his work in the circle this offseason.
“I’m self-aware of where I can be better,” Pettersson answered. “And I’m always hard on myself and want to be better. I still have a long ways to go, but I’m trying to improve slowly.
“Starting my Canucks career, I didn’t get that many defensive zone starts, coach didn’t trust me there, but it’s good to get that belief now.”
We’ll see where this goes as the sample expands this season, but Pettersson put in some extra work in this area of the game this summer.
“Some guys have different style or techniques,” Pettersson said on Monday, “But mostly it just comes down to be first to the puck and have a strong bottom hand. It’s something I’m working hard at and want to be better at.
“(This summer) I watched clips on what I could do better, and what my tendencies are when I lose.”
Even if the data isn’t there yet, Pettersson has looked more confident and imposing in the circle throughout training camp and the preseason. I’d expect a relatively significant improvement in his faceoff win rate — I will be surprised if he doesn’t flirt with a faceoff win rate in the 48-50 percent range — over the course of this season.
Höglander’s “predictable” role
A lot has been made about Nils Höglander opening camp on Vancouver’s top line and then dropping to the fourth line to open the season.
Fourth-line duty, however, suits Höglander just fine. His game is versatile enough that he can play an energy role, something he demonstrated in the win over the Oilers on Saturday.
Höglander’s contributions were essential in that win. The “pint-sized power forward,” as Pettersson has often described him, chipped in with a key first-period go-ahead goal, a deflection from the top of the blue paint. He later added a crucial third-period assist on the game winner, a goal that was scored off a defensive zone turnover that Höglander forced with a solid read to cut off the top and prevent the Oilers from cycling the puck low-to-high.
Fourth-line duty isn’t a banishment for Höglander and he isn’t concerned with where he plays in the lineup. In fact, after contending with two frustrating campaigns under Bruce Boudreau, he’s just looking to carve out some predictability in the Canucks lineup and chip in however he can.
“It’s about having a predictable role,” Höglander said on Monday. “You don’t really learn that much when you’re on the first line one night, on the second line the next night, then on the fourth line the game after that. Last season it was really going down to Abbotsford where I learned a lot.”
Höglander is slated to skate again on a line with Sam Lafferty and Jack Studnicka on Tuesday night in Philadelphia. All three players are plus skaters with some classic energy-line attributes, and all three scored for Vancouver on Saturday.
It’s a good spot for Höglander for now, and it’s a line that could pay dividends for a Canucks team that’s been desperate for more solidity and speed at the bottom end of their lineup over the past few years.
Soucy’s imminent return, patience on Mikheyev
Carson Soucy is a game-time decision for Tuesday night’s game in Philadelphia. Just from watching him skate at Canucks practice on Monday, it’s clear he’s unencumbered. If he’s not ready to give it a go on Tuesday, then he’s extremely close and will return to the lineup this week.
As well as Vancouver has played, its third pair’s performance hasn’t been as strong to open the season. Soucy’s return will help.
It will also necessitate some paperwork and some difficult roster management logistics.
Once Soucy returns and the Canucks have a full battery of 18 healthy skaters again, they’ll have to terminate the emergency conditions on Studnicka’s loan, and most likely return either Studnicka or Akito Hirose to the American League. One wonders if the Canucks may consider playing with seven defenders on this road trip, given the risk an NHL team takes on in travelling to Florida and Tennessee without an extra defender.
Ilya Mikheyev, meanwhile, skated as an extra at practice on Monday, taking shifts in drills interchangeably as a fourth-line wing and as a fourth-pair right-side defender alongside Hirose.
Tocchet downplayed how close Mikheyev is to returning, noting only that he’s “progressing” and that there’s “a good possibility he’s going to play a game on this road trip.” Watching Mikheyev closely on Monday, it looks like his customary skating burst is going to take a while to return in full as he continues to recover from the surgical procedure he underwent to repair a torn ACL.
Further patience may be required before Mikheyev returns to the Canucks lineup and to his usual speed-demon form.
(Photo of Elias Pettersson passing the puck behind Vincent Desharnais: Bob Frid / USA Today)