Trent Leith / January 13, 2021
‘Twas the night before Hockey, it was finally back.
Everyone was happy when suddenly, SMACK!
The Hamonic signing was out, but the news didn’t stop.
Fore it was time, for the other shoe to finally drop.
The team was in Edmonton, but J.T. was at home.
And Canucks fans had a bad feeling, deep in the bone.
Just as the final piece to the puzzle was placed Tuesday evening with the announcement of the Travis Hamonic signing, there was one more piece of news. J.T. Miller and Jordie Benn were not with the team in Edmonton due to Covid-19 related issues. Speculation started midday when Miller was noted as not at practice, but it was chalked up to a maintenance day. Jordie Benn was also absent for a second straight day.
Later Monday evening, it came out that the pair were in quarantine due to Covid-19 related issues. Miller had been staying with Benn at his home. What is currently believed is that Benn had a false positive test, which is why he missed the first practice, and by league rules, he must produce 3 days worth of negative tests to be cleared to play. J.T. Miller, being Benn’s roommate, should have missed the same two practices that Benn did, as he was considered a close contact individual, and since has been in isolation with the same rules in place.
Richard Zussman reported that one of these players tested positive, then negative, then positive, and then negative one more time. If the second positive hadn’t happened, Benn could’ve returned to the team as early as next Wednesday. But now he is considered a “presumed positive” and must isolate for a minimum of 10 days to monitor for symptoms. It’s presumed Miller is only in quarantine due to contact with Benn and his situation should be more straightforward, but with a longer return to the lineup. This due to Benn’s Status as a presumed positive, Miller is in isolation for a minimum of two weeks as per provincial rules as reported by Patrick Johnston.
Should there be a true positive test from J.T. Miller, not only his health may be at risk, but the entire team may be at risk as he practiced with the team once already, when he should have been in isolation.
What Does This Mean
The Canucks have famously had white-hot starts to the season and having one this season would be even more of an asset than in normal seasons. With one of the top two forwards on the team out for a minimum of the first four games, the chances of a white-hot start have been slimmed down. With an 82 game season compressed into 56 games, every game counts. Even more so than normal. J.T. Miller tied for goals and edged out Pettersson for points 45-39 last season. Losing their scoring leader will be a hard first hurdle to jump, in a season bound to be filled with on and off-ice challenges.
5-on-5 there are a few ways this can go shake out. First is Jake Virtanen will get a chance to slot in alongside Boeser and Pettersson, he has been taking practice on that line implying he will start the season on the top line. Travis Green wouldn’t confirm that, however.
The immediate issue here isn’t Jake’s offensive play, he was on track to break 20 goals before the season abruptly ended, it’s the defensive side of his game. Jake had xGF/xGA difference of -4.9 last season. Meaning Virtanen was expected to have nearly 5 more goals scored against him than he and his teammates scored while he was on the ice. Jake has had issues with defensive and positional play for most of his Canucks tenure. Brock Boeser already expressed concern with Jake being on the top line saying “…If Jake is on our line we’re going to have to make sure to be responsible defensively…” as reported by Farhan Lalji. Jake did take practice on the first line in J.T.’s absence.
Prior to J.T.’s absence, the Canucks were expected to have Pettersson’s line match up against the top competition. This would allow the 2nd line with Horvat and expected rookie Nils Hoglander to face lesser competition, despite the inverse being true most seasons. With the prospect of Virtanen on the top line, that idea may be kicked down the road until Miller gets back into the rotation. Now, what does that mean for the rest of the line-up?
Hoglander likely won’t excel facing tough competition in his first pro game in North America, especially when he would be going head to head with the best player in the world, Connor McDavid. There is the chance that Virtanen stays where he is on the 3rd line, and Hoglander gets to start on the first line with Pettersson and Boeser, while Horvat takes tough comps for a little longer with recently waived Loui Eriksson by his side. It would be a chance for the rookie to showcase his offensive flair and playmaking on the top end first line.
The other option would be to put Virtanen on the top line, Hoglander drops to a 3rd line role, and Loui Eriksson comes in from the taxi squad to play a defensive shutdown role with Horvat on line 2. This is by far the least exciting option, more Loui, and less ice time for the rookie. However, it does scream Travis Green.
The next question comes on the man advantage. This is likely a simpler fix than the 5-on-5 situation, but again, you can’t be too sure. The simplest option here is just a straight swap Miller for Hoglander. This was what coach Green deployed in practice, so that would imply it is plan A. Hoglander plugged right in on the half-wall in Miller’s regular spot. However, because defensive issues are less of a concern with the man advantage, give Hoglander Virtanen’s time on PP2 and let Jake take a stab at the top power play. Jake was 4th on the team in powerplay goals, despite spending most of the season on the second unit. Green does like to make his guys earn their spots on the top power-play, remember Edler vs. Hughes to start last season?
It is most likely Jake who will play on the top line leaving Zack MacEwan to fill his role in the bottom 6 and leave the 2nd line untouched. At least to start the season. Coach Green has never been afraid to mix up the lines mid-game, so whatever he tries has every possibility to be mixed up within a single shift length. If Hoglander can hold his own, maybe the lines won’t shift at all beyond Virtanen jumping up the lineup. However, that is an outstanding ask in night one of your NHL career. All eyes will be on Jake and Hoglander in Wednesday night’s debut as we all watch to see how this shakes out.