By: Brayden Fengler / July 22, 2023
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are long over, the NHL Entry Draft is complete, and NHL Free Agency has come and gone. With all those items now firmly in the history books, the next NHL season is starting to peer more and more around the corner. The Canucks haven’t made any major moves on the offensive side so far this off-season, but there have been enough pieces shuffled around that there is plenty to speculate on. Do the Canucks have the makings of a reliable forward roster this year and have those they’ve signed and drafted stocked their shelves enough for the years ahead?
Signed and Sealed
To kick off the off-season on May 1st the Canucks signed right winger Jonathan Lekkerimaki to a three-year entry-level contract. Drafted 15th overall by the Canucks last year, and at 18 years old the Swedish Lekkerimaki has yet to play a game in Vancouver. However, his continued reliable performance with both Djurgårdens IF and during international competitions has clearly indicated to the Canucks that Lekkermaki is at least ready to enter their system soonish.
Lekkerimaki is still far from making the NHL club as a series regular, especially since it has been reported that the young player will in fact lace up in Sweden once again this coming season.
A more tangible contract signed by the Canucks in regards to an existing player comes in the likes of Nils Höglander’s deal, struck on July 4th the Canucks extended Höglander by two years at a deal valuing $2.2mil per year. Höglander saw a lot of playing time in Abbotsford last season, which turned out to be very positive development time for the player. With only 25 games played last season with the big team, compared to the 60 the year before Höglander is by no means a sure thing to make the Canucks opening night roster. However, he should have every chance to make it and the Canucks clearly want him to.
The club also re-signed undrafted AHL centre Tristen Nielsen to a two-year entry-level contract. Nielsen will have his work cut out for him in regards to cracking the NHL lineup as Nielsen would have to overcome fellow new signee Lekkerimaki, as well as Teddy Blueger, whom we will get to in a moment. Needless to say, Nielsen has a renewed shot at making the club this year, but if in fact, he will make a difference in Vancouver rather than just Abbotsford remains to be seen.
Help Is on the Way Through Free Agency
The Canucks didn’t make flashy headlines with their forward free agency signings this year, but what they did do is acquire depth in centre with Teddy Blueger.
Blueger who has played five seasons with Pittsburgh before playing 18 games for the Stanley Cup-winning Vegas Golden Knights last year, will likely slot in on the third or fourth line for the club next season. This placement depends a little bit on the performance of Sheldon Dries, and Nils Aman. Blueger will be costing the club $1.9Mil this coming season.
That price tag is not a lot in the grand scheme of things for the Canucks, but it’s enough that he will be required to fill his intended role with precision. Blueger, unfortunately, saw a downtick in production last year compared to the three seasons prior. Since the 2019-20 season, he was always able to crack 20 points a season and even came close to 30 in the 2021-22 outing. However, last year he ended his campaign with just 16 points between his two teams.
Help Is on the Way… Through the 4th Round of the Draft
The club didn’t take a stab at drafting any highly touted forwards during this year’s draft. All of the forwards that the club did draft, came in the fourth round. The team’s main focus in this draft was undoubtedly on defence.
At 105th overall the canucks drafted Ty Mueller, a centre from, Nebraska-Omaha (NCAA), at 107th the team took Sweedish player Vilmer Alriksson, a left winger from, Djurgardens Jr., and lastly at 119th overall, the Canucks selected Matthew Perkins a centre from Youngstown (USHL).
By the very nature of the fourth round of the NHL draft, it’s a far cry to say that these players would be relevant to discuss in the same breath as next year’s lines. In reality, if one or two are lucky in 4-5 years they may be making a case for themselves to be in this article once again, where they are in consideration for a role on the big club, but for right now, like all fourth-round picks, they are facing an uphill battle in this regard.
Projected Forward Lines
So with all that said, the young guns drafted, the new pieces added and the old ones signed, how different will the Canucks forward lines look next year? The answer… not that different, at least not as different as the defensive pairings will look (check out our article from last week on defensive pairing projections). There were not a lot of moves made to add or subtract from the key building blocks of this forward team. Vancouver clearly thinks there is more that this core can offer and the solution for fixing this club lies on the blue line. So with that said, a reasonable projection for next year’s lines goes as follows:
Kuzmenko – Pettersson – Mikheyev
This first line is a given, Andrie Kuzmenko and Elias Pettersson are dynamic forces when paired together, with Pettersson up the middle and Kuzmenko on the wing this is a combo that the Canucks can win with. A lesser but still important part of this line will be Ilya Mikheyev, who now back from injury will hopefully play more than the 46 games for Vancouver this coming season, as was the case last season.
Kuzmenko and Pettersson combined for a total of 176 points last year. With some added chemistry and development that the duo will undoubtedly have coming into this season, it’s hard to say where the limit is for this first line.
Pearson – Miller – Boeser
Line two gets immediately harder to predict. with Tanner Pearson back in the fold since his injury, there suddenly seems to be a wealth of comparable middle-six talents. It’s likely lines 2 and 3 that will see the most shuffling ahead and during the start of this coming season. However, in assembling this line, for starters, Miller will no doubt be running at centre, as the “Miller at centre, over Miller as a winger” boat has clearly sailed.
Next, with Pearson back in action he should likely rejoin a somewhat familiar linemate in Miller and serve as a reliable left-wing, providing required secondary scoring along with Miller. Brock Boeser is the least safe bet in regards to constructing this line. In terms of familiarity and chemistry, he can certainly play with Pearson and Miller, but his defensive game was extremely lacking last season, and in a way could be a liability on a line with a sometimes overly aggressive Miller.
Beauvillier – Bluegar – Garland
If Boeser isn’t cutting it on line number two, Beauvillier will no doubt be moved up to fill that spot quickly. At a $4.15mil Beauvillier is the odd one out in this projection, putting him on the third line doesn’t feel quite right. But with his particular pedigree, he could add some much-needed depth to the Canucks middle six forwards.
With Beauvillier and Bluegar this line looks the most different compared to previous years, looking at the cast of characters making up the rest of the forward group. However, these two newer Canucks should be well-suited to provide much-needed depth, thanks to their having a speedy linemate in Conor Garland.
Both Beauvillier and Garland possess the potential to move up the Canucks line formations if need be, with of course Beauvillier possessing that potential a little more so. This could happen either due to injury or just in the event that Head Coach Rick Tocchet wants to mix up the lines at some point during the season. In either case, these two are likely to see their stars rise first.
Di Giuseppe – Dries – Höglander
After signing a two-year contract with the Canucks in March, Philip Di Giuseppe will likely continue his time with the main club next season. The 29-year-old has shown that he can play alongside heavy hitters like Petterson and Miller, without falling behind or looking out of place, along with providing his own offensive benefits when not with those heavy hitters.
Line four is however very unstable in terms of its cast of characters. Sheldon Dries and Nils Aman, both with the current version of their contracts up this season, are likely to be the two centres battling for this last C spot on the roster. Aman at 23 years old is a lot younger, but that said so is Höglander and even Podkolzin if he rises up to take a spot on the roster. Perhaps this fourth line would benefit from older players in Sheldon Dries and Di Giuseppe. Training camp is going to play a big part in the make-up for this forth line, nothing is set in stone yet.
As for the wingers, To start although not guaranteed, Höglander will be the young buck that gets the go-ahead. Höglander has earned his spot to try and stay on the Vancouver Canucks for a good part of this season, even just as a fringe player. Perhaps it may be Podkolzin’s time to go down this year and see even more development in the AHL.
What Comes Next
Dakota Joshua will likely be pounding at the door for a LW spot once again this season, putting yet even more pressure on the shoulders of Nils Höglander and Di Giuseppe. The argument could be made that Dakota should be on the roster over either of those two players, and it is a reasonable argument given the number of games Dakota played in a Canucks uniform last season. But theirs no denying management’s affinity for Di Giuseppe and Höglander’s continued performance. As stated the margins for this fourth line are slim.
Beyond that, it will take some serious injuries or real gambles to call up the next few players on the depth chart. Jack Studnicka could make a respectable comeback to the club if there was ever a need for an RW or C shake-up, and Aatu Räty has proved to be a manageable centre piece in a pinch should the Canucks need him.
For others on the depth charts, however, they may have less luck this year. There may be a shy chance of Adian McDonough cracking the team in a meaningful way, the left winger who played six games and scored one goal last year.
On a grand scale, there are really no talents clawing at the door, that the Canucks haven’t already tried at some point during a previous season. Next to hopefully make a big splash will be Lekkerimäki but he won’t likely be making waves for a year to two down the road.
As mentioned the Canucks clearly felt that what needed the most restocking was the defence, and they are likely right. Hopefully, however, they didn’t put too much stock in their existing forwards to carry their team through the season, if their defensive solutions don’t pan out.