By: Trent Leith / September 19, 2022
It is September, JT Miller has signed a new contract and it’s now time for us to get excited about the prospect of another year of Canucks hockey. There were a fair amount of changes the Canucks made early this summer. They signed Curtis Lazar to shore up the fourth-line centre role, brought in Ilya Mikheyev to add to their winger depth and landed Andrei Kuzmenko, a highly coveted Russian free agent; but how does this all look on the ice? We won’t know what the coaching staff has in mind until training camp begins, but that doesn’t stop us from speculating on what the Canucks forward lines could look like on opening night.
The Canucks are likely to utilize the depth they have up front in a way we have not seen for a long time in Vancouver. With the embarrassment of riches up the middle of the ice in JT Miller, Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, the Canucks are much more likely to roll their top three lines rather than run a more rigid first, second and third line structure.
“I think it’s easy to say that no one’s going to be classified as really a third-line player because most of them are going to be on the power play,” Bruce Boudreau said. “Our third line last year was Tyler Motte, Juho Lammikko and Matthew Highmore. They would kill penalties, but their role (at even strength) was to ensure the other team didn’t score. And they did a great job at it. But I think this year’s so-called third line will be expected to score.”
Conor Garland – Elias Pettersson – Brock Boeser
There are endless possibilities of player combinations we could start with; and as I said, there is going to be a less firmly defined “top line” and more of a rolling top-nine. But let’s start with the Pettersson line, we know that Miller, Horvat and Pettersson are likely to all play centre, at least to start the season.
This line combination works for a few reasons. We have known for a few seasons now that Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser have undeniable chemistry. The eye test tells us the two are better together than apart.
Garland, as we all saw last year for the first time in Vancouver, has a very unique style of play, and at times it seemed as though linemates had a hard time reading his play. However, Pettersson is a uniquely skilled player and the two seemed to work together.
This trio would work because you have a player (Garland) who will battle along the boards, be hard to play against and dig pucks out of a crowd to feed two of the best shots on the team for scoring chances.
Vasily Podkolzin – JT Miller – Andrei Kuzmenko
There are a couple of reasons I want to see this trio in action to start the season. Firstly, I like the relationship that Miller and Podkolzin seem to be brewing. Miller seems to have taken the young Russian under his wing.
“He took on a very difficult role as a leader and justified it one hundred percent. J.T. does everything thoughtfully,” Podkolzin said of Miller, “It is clear that he is very experienced, but still enjoys his actions and constantly teases me.”
The other reason I would like to see this line is Andrei Kuzmenko. If Podkolzin and Miller are on a line together, I want Kuzmenko to round that line out. Not only are Kuzmenko and Podkolzin both from Russia, they were also both briefly linemates in St. Petersburg SKA. If there is a way to make Kuzmenko feel comfortable and at home in Vancouver, sticking him on a line with a countryman is a good place to start.
This is a line that will have some physicality and talent behind it, and I think it’s worth an extended look to start the season.
Tanner Pearson – Bo Horvat – Ilya Mikheyev
Over the past three seasons, Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat have played over a combined 1500 minutes together. Last season, they controlled play well in their roughly 300 minutes together. They had an impressive 53.2 CF%, a surprising 66.7% of goals for vs. against, and controlled 52.5% of shots. It is undeniable these two work well as a duo.
The wild card here is Ilya Mikheyev, this will be his first season as a Canuck after coming off a strong season with the Maple Leafs. Mikheyev scored 21 goals in 53 games, which is a 32-goal pace over the course of 82 games. That goal pace would have tied him with JT Miller and Elias Pettersson on the Canucks last season, who both ended the year with 32 goals as well.
While last season is promising for the young player, it is certainly an outlier for his career in the NHL to date. In his two seasons prior to last, Mikheyev scored eight and seven goals respectively. That said, if Mikheyev has taken another step in his game, and can maintain it into this season, he will surely be a lock in the Canucks’ new look top-nine. His speed will surely be a standout asset on a team that isn’t known for its speed.
Jason Dickinson – Curtis Lazar – Nils Höglander
This is the only line that won’t be expected to score, but rather, just try to tread water. Curtis Lazar was brought in as a fourth-line centre, and the only centreman currently playing for the Canucks that is right-handed. He is coming in to fill the role Dickinson was expected to fill last season, but for whatever reason, couldn’t make work. Dickinson certainly had a rough year in Vancouver, but will now be given a lighter load on the wing thanks to Lazar.
The only thing I don’t like about this line is Nils Höglander’s role as a fourth-liner. Höglander’s skill set suites a role higher in a lineup, but the young Swede has not been able to round out his game to his full potential. It is undeniable that he has a motor that doesn’t quit, and is always going at 110%, but his defensive game hasn’t come into form yet.
Usually, Höglander’s profile would make for an odd choice on the fourth line. He is an interesting player in the sense that he is too skilled to be sidelined for an extended period of time. However, between his defensive game not rounding out yet, experiencing a bit of a sophomore slump, and the Canucks new look-forward group, he isn’t currently in a position to leapfrog anyone in the top-nine.
If all goes well, Höglander will replace a player that is slumping, or outperform another winger higher up the lineup. This is the reason I was critical of the Pearson extension when it was signed, Pearson has become an aging winger that has created a $3.25M blockade for a younger player.
I have a tendency of being way too optimistic at the start of every season which leads to an endless cycle of sadness and disappointment that I never learn from. Instead, a make the same mistake year in and year out and I always leave with a broken heart. But with that said, this is the best top-nine assembled since 2011. Now, this team isn’t a juggernaut that will push for the cup yet, but it is one that will compete hard every night and make for an interesting season.
There is more flexibility to this top nine than there has been in years, and while my projected lines may not be what ends up happening, it just goes to show how dynamic this group of players has the potential to be.