VICTORIA, B.C. — The Vancouver Canucks hit the ice for training camp on Thursday at the Save-on-Food Memorial Centre.
It was the first official on-ice session of a 2023-24 season that, for this group of players, first-year head coach Rick Tocchet and the Canucks’ not-so-new-anymore management team, has to be different from the three that have preceded it.
The team, split into two groups, took part in on-ice sessions that were fast paced and detailed. There was some breakout work, a lot of defensive zone work, and a few battle drills — although that didn’t seem to be a major point of emphasis. The sessions both ended with hidden bag skate drills — a breakaway shooter shoots, and then has to back-check — which produced an entertaining moment or two.
As Elias Pettersson held court, sort of, on his contract status, and as Tocchet put some young players in intriguing spots in his day-one lineup, The Athletic was there to observe and capture it all. It’s time for our annual training camp notebook.
Reading too much into line combinations
A lot of thought and a lot of organizational discussion goes into the composition of line combinations on the first day of an NHL training camp.
It’s not the be all and end all. Lines get juggled at the snap of a finger, depending on a variety of factors. Still, this is one of those coaches decisions that tends to be relatively telling.
On Thursday, Group A skated in the following combinations:
Now that drills are underway we have a good sense of the full #Canucks Group A lineup:
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) September 21, 2023
And Group B’s forwards skated like this:
#Canucks Group B forward lines based on jersey colours:
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) September 21, 2023
While Group B’s defense pairs skated as such:
#Canucks now showing D pairs in Group B drills.
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) September 21, 2023
There are a lot of young players across the lineup getting significant opportunities within this formation. Nils Höglander getting the first look on Vancouver’s ostensible first line, Vasili Podkolzin getting a look with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, Arshdeep Bains in a possible top-nine role and Cole McWard skating with Carson Soucy all seem like stretch assignments for a quartet of the Canucks’ youngest professional-level players.
We asked Tocchet if there was a developmental focus to the composition of his “Youth will be served” line combinations at the first day of training camp, and for the most part he demurred.
“It’s important that you get chemistry. I wanted certain guys to be with certain guys, try to stay with pairs,” Tocchet said. “I wanted to keep Kuzy (Andrei Kuzmenko) with Petey (Pettersson), Millsy (Miller) with Boes (Boeser), Ahms (Nils Åman) and Dakota Joshua last year. Then you can rotate certain guys in.”
If we read into the logic of that commentary, we might reasonably look at Vancouver’s forward depth chart somewhat differently than we have in the past. Perhaps the first several lines should be viewed in the following manner:
And if we follow that logic somewhat further, we might imply that players like Höglander, Podkolzin, Bains, Linus Karlsson, Phil Di Giuseppe and Aatu Räty are then competing to be rotating pieces who play up and down the lineup.
Obviously it’s not as simplistic as that. Ilya Mikheyev will be returning to the lineup at some point too, and Tocchet indicated that after conversations with other Canucks coaches he might switch things up as early as tomorrow. It’s still, perhaps, a useful way of thinking about precisely where the lineup battles sit at the outset of training camp.
One final note of interest is that the club carried over the Aidan McDonough, Max Sasson and Danilla Klimovich line they used heavily at the Penticton Young Stars tournament. The consistency with which those three have played together seems to strongly suggest that the club is intent on allowing them the time and space to build up chemistry. One wonders if that trio might make up the first line for the Abbotsford Canucks to open the campaign.
On the back-end, meanwhile, it was a bit surprising that neither of the club’s key unrestricted free agent acquisitions — Carson Soucy, or Ian Cole — were plugged in on Hughes’ right side. From Tocchet’s commentary on Thursday, it seems most likely, in fact, that he’ll avoid plugging a left-handed defender in on their off-side with Hughes unless he’s absolutely required to do so due to injury or situational circumstance.
“They had a little bit of success last year,” Tocchet said of having Hughes open camp alongside Noah Juulsen. “Huggy (Quinn Hughes) is going to get a couple of other guys.
“I’d have to be convinced to put a lefty there,” Tocchet continued. “I’m not sure lefty-lefty is going to work with (Hughes) unless something else convinces me. Right now we’ve got to find that guy that can get (Hughes) the puck. If you get that puck to him he’s going to walk that blue line, so whoever plays there has to get him that puck, and that’s hard to play lefty. I get it, situational maybe… But I’m mostly a righty-lefty guy.”
Elias Pettersson speaks
There’s one of two versions of Elias Pettersson you’ll get when interviewing him.
The first version, which comes out more often in one-on-one settings, is really thoughtful, genuinely insightful and even has some humour sprinkled in. He might warmly invite you to sit with him by his locker room stall and it’s more like a conversation than an interview.
The second version of Pettersson is guarded, short with his answers and calculated with every word. In his first media appearance since telling Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that he was going to wait rather than sign an extension with the Canucks this offseason, we saw that second version of Pettersson, but on steroids.
Pettersson’s scrum started with light questions about the first day of camp and his summer training. He was measured with his responses, carrying the posture of a player very careful not to say anything headline-worthy. It’s as if he was already bracing for the inevitable questions about his unresolved contract situation. Rink Wide’s Jeff Paterson eventually brought the topic up, asking Pettersson how he can make sure his contract situation isn’t a distraction for him this season.
“It’s not a distraction” Pettersson replied. “You guys make it a distraction. I got one year left, I’m happy now but I just want to focus on the season, my teammates and just come out with a good start with the team.”
TSN’s Farhan Lalji followed up by asking what the key factors will be in terms of his decision to eventually sign an extension. Pettersson hesitated for a couple of seconds, seemingly processing how to stickhandle around the question without giving a quote that would go viral on social media.
“I’m just here to play to win,” he said. “I’ve got one year left on my contract, that’s all I want to say.”
Pettersson really didn’t like the contract questions. He’ll surely be asked about his future later on in the season, especially when he visits big markets like Toronto, but based on his comments Thursday, don’t expect genuine insight into his contract decision-making process or how he’s feeling about his future in Vancouver. It’s his actions that will speak volumes.
Teddy Blueger’s life-changing decision
How many times has a rerun edition of a run-of-the-mill regular season NHL game actually captured your full attention? You know, the ones that are re-aired in the middle of the day, and because it’s not live (chances are you already know the final score) or high stakes, it’s just something to toss on in the background.
Teddy Blueger, 13 and living in Riga, Latvia at the time, made a life-changing decision that guided his path to the NHL because of one of those casual reruns.
“I was at home after school and they were showing a rerun of the Wild playing Pittsburgh,” said Blueger. “They did a little segment on Sid (Sidney Crosby) coming back to Minnesota and Shattuck (Shattuck St-Mary’s Prep School) and all the guys that played there and ended up making the NHL.
“I honestly hadn’t heard about it at all to that point. My mom and I literally Googled it afterwards and looked into it and arranged a visit for while we were there in the US.”
A year later, at 14, Blueger moved halfway across the globe and away from his family to emulate Crosby’s path to the NHL through Shattuck St-Mary’s.
“Everyone’s kinda in a similar spot like I was playing with guys from Sweden, California, Canada — everyone’s from all over and everyone’s away from their family,” said Blueger. “It was actually kinda fun you’re living with your buddies in the dorms and going to class and you’re on the same schedule.”
Blueger’s path had a storybook ending as he eventually got his first NHL opportunity with Crosby and the Penguins. Who knows how different Blueger’s hockey career would have played out if he hadn’t tuned into that random rerun of a Pittsburgh–Minnesota game that spotlighted Crosby’s boarding school days.
“We talked about it a fair bit, especially when I first got to Pittsburgh,” Blueger said with a laugh. “He’s got some funny stories from his days in Shattuck.”
The hidden bag skate
At the end of both session on Thursday, Tocchet broke out a breakaway drill with back checkers.
The drill flows as follows: the first skater takes a pass from a coach and goes into a full-ice breakaway. Once that shooter takes the shot, the next player goes, and the first shooter is called on to back check and attempt to chase the second shooter down. The second shooter then turns and back checks themselves. And on and on it goes.
It’s the sort of fitness-centric drill that, given that it takes place over the full length of the ice, is in fact a bag skate in disguise.
“I liked the effort with that bag skate, that hidden bag skate,” Tocchet laughed. “It’s hidden because you get the breakaway first. So you get the candy. I think that’s why you can get away with it as a coach.”
The Canucks moved their official skating test behind closed doors this year, which is probably sensible given the many iconic moments of embarrassment it’s created for players in previous years (from Troy Stecher and Conor Garland vomiting, to Olli Juolevi lying prone on the ice, to Oliver Ekman-Larsson falling behind in his first Vancouver training camp). Still, at the conclusion of Thursday’s camp sessions, Canucks players were doing multiple lengths of the ice sheet at full tilt. So this wasn’t too far removed from what you’d expect from a skating test. Tocchet, anyway, suggested he was watching intently.
“That drill, sometimes somebody is going to be way ahead of you, but I want to see guys chase them down,” Tocchet noted. “Oh yeah, I watch that stuff. And I thought for the most part guys hustled all the way. They did a nice job. Some drills early I saw a couple of guys cheating and we kind of addressed it.”
It’s interesting to watch that drill transpire. Some veterans, chasing down a young player, will work hard enough to make the young player hear footsteps but won’t necessarily attempt to interfere with the shot directly. In other moments, players will go all out to interfere with the shooter. Later in the drill, the pressure from the back-checker becomes lessened significantly.
One sequence in particular was incredible. Miller was on the breakaway and Hughes, in the chase position, put a little extra mustard on his chase to make sure he broke up the shot.
“I always go full tilt, you know that,” Hughes captioned of the sequence.
Miller, as you might imagine, was not amused.
“It was f—–g bulls–t,” Miller said when the sequence was brought to his attention. “That was Danny’s fault,” he added, pointing the finger at Daniel Sedin.
“He’s releasing us and he released me after Quinn had already turned!” Miller added. “I needed like a half hour head start on Quinn, but (Danny) f—-d me. You can write that. It’s his fault, let him have it.”
As you can imagine, Miller didn’t just shrug and move on after Hughes broke up his shot. Instead he turned, and put a little bit of extra mustard on his own chase the other direction. He caught up to Canucks depth defender Matt Irwin, breaking up the shot.
“Oh, 100 percent,” Miller said of his reaction. “No offence to Matty, but I’d rather him be chasing me than Quinn.”
(Top photo of Teddy Blueger, left, and Guillaume Brisebois: Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press via AP)