Canucks Training Camp Battles: Wingers

The Vancouver Canucks’ 7-2 win over the Calgary Flames at the Young Stars Classic marked the beginning of hockey season for many Canucks fans. Before too long it will be training camp and the battles for roster spots will be front and center. This year’s festivities will feature yet another new coach running the drills as the Canucks have not had the same bench boss two years in a row since Travis Green in 2020-21 and 2021-22. In 2022-23 it was Bruce Boudreau, this season it will be Rick Tocchet.

Training Camp Battles Wingers Nils Hoglander, Vasily Podkolzin and Tanner Pearson
Nils Hoglander, Vasily Podkolzin and Tanner Pearson (The Hockey Writers)

This year’s training camp promises to be a difficult one too, as Tocchet has made it clear that conditioning and hard work will be paramount to success this season. As a result, the roster battles will likely be won by the players who come to camp prepared and ready to work. With that said, in the first of a three-part series let’s start with the wingers and dive into the different battles everyone will be watching throughout camp and into the preseason.

Will Tocchet Stick With His Top-Six From 2022-23?

When Tocchet took over the team in January, he quickly established a set top-six with Andrei Kuzmenko and Elias Pettersson joining forces with new addition Anthony Beauvillier and J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser teaming up with a surprising name in Phil Di Giuseppe. According to Dobber’s Frozen Tools, those trios played the most even-strength minutes together out of any line combination last season with the former logging 225:08 and the latter 217:57. With no new additions who are clearly top-six caliber players, I expect he will run with the same 1A/1B lines as last season – at least to start.

With Ilya Mikheyev likely to miss training camp and the preseason recovering from ACL surgery, Tocchet won’t have the option of adding the speedy winger to the lineup until opening night at the earliest (from ‘Canucks: Ilya Mikheyev’s recovery may keep him out of pre-season games’, The Province, 9/6/23). When he does return, he is a major candidate for top-line duties alongside Pettersson and Kuzmenko considering their chemistry from the beginning of last season.

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As for Di Giuseppe, while he doesn’t scream top-six forward, he seemed to gain significant chemistry with Miller and Boeser and ended the season with six goals and 12 points in 30 games. Once he was called up from the Abbotsford Canucks and played his first game on Jan. 25 against the Seattle Kraken, he was a consistent member of the top-six and averaged a career-high 14:34 of ice time. He also averaged 55 seconds on the penalty kill.

Basically, Di Giuseppe became one of Tocchet’s go-to forwards as he epitomized all the qualities the new head coach wanted to see in his players; hard work and solid two-way hockey. As such, I see him staying in that role beside Miller and Boeser unless one of the newbies works harder than him in training camp – which is unlikely.

Bottom-Six Battle Will Be Fierce

The bottom-six will house the fiercest battles in training camp as there are only six spots and nine players that could conceivably take them. Newcomers Pius Suter and Teddy Blueger will likely take up residency as the third and fourth-line centers respectively, but beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess who their wingers will be. With locks Garland, Suter, Mikheyev (assuming he’s healthy for opening night), Joshua, and Blueger, that really only leaves one spot in the active lineup and two in the extras. Let’s take a look at the contenders:

Tanner Pearson

Tanner Pearson is probably the biggest wild card in training camp coming back from the hand injury that he suffered at the beginning of last season. When healthy, he is a force along the boards and has the ability to score 15-20 goals. He also can kill penalties and play up the lineup when injuries strike the top-six. In fact, he could replace Di Giuseppe on the second line with Miller and Boeser.

Tanner Pearson Vancouver Canucks
Tanner Pearson, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

During the informal skates the Canucks had before training camp, Pearson has looked good and appears to be ready to continue his NHL career. That’s good news, considering not that long ago it was uncertain whether he would play in the NHL again. All in all, I wouldn’t sleep on Pearson making an impact in training camp and the preseason and becoming a key part of the Canucks once again.

Vasily Podkolzin

If Pearson and Mikheyev aren’t in the lineup, Podkolzin could make his way onto the third line with Garland and Suter. The former 10th overall pick only played 39 games last season with the big club and spent the rest of it in the minors with the Abbotsford Canucks. He had a good stint there with seven goals and 18 points in 28 games, but everyone will be expecting him to take the next step in his development and become a full-time NHLer in 2023-24. He will have his work cut out for him with the logjam of forwards, but his combination of size, skill and physicality could be exactly what Tocchet wants on his roster. If he comes to camp prepared and ready to work, I don’t see why he can’t force his way into the lineup.

Nils Hoglander

The same goes for Hoglander, as he also spent a considerable amount of the 2022-23 season in Abbotsford. He was sent down in December and never got a sniff of the NHL after that. He did emerge as a solid AHL player, though, scoring 14 goals and 32 points in 45 games. His speed and skill were evident, as he looked like a man amongst boys at times.

Nils Hoglander Vancouver Canucks
Nils Hoglander, Vancouver Canucks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Canucks fans already know what Hoglander can bring to the NHL; tenacity, speed and a strong work ethic. He was forced to the sidelines because of his defensive game, but considering his development in that area in the AHL, he might have a chance of impressing the coaching staff and making the opening-night roster.

Nils Aman

Aman was a surprising addition to the roster in 2022-23 as he started the season with the Canucks and was a regular in the lineup until he was sent down before the new year. He was called up again at the beginning of February and then played the rest of the season, culminating in a 68-game rookie campaign with four goals and 16 points. He looked like an NHL player and was even assumed to be the fourth-line center before Blueger and Suter were signed. Now his status is up in the air, and he could start 2023-24 in the minors.

Sheldon Dries

After a career-high 11 goals and 17 points last season playing a Swiss Army knife role, it’s surprising to see Dries in the “outside looking in” group. But that’s exactly where he is with the new additions and the probable returns of Pearson and Mikheyev. Unless a trade is made in the forward group, he will probably start the season as an extra forward or on waivers to be sent down to the AHL.

Sheldon Dries Vancouver Canucks
Sheldon Dries, Vancouver Canucks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Dries played up and down the lineup last season and even saw significant time on the power play – where he scored four times. Now, that might have been out of necessity without the services of Mikheyev, but that shouldn’t take away from what he was able to accomplish. I wouldn’t count him out as he’s defied the odds throughout his career. As such, expect him to be in the mix right up until the last day of roster cuts.

Moves Will Be Made Before Oct. 11

As you can probably see by the plethora of options at forward – and we didn’t even mention Jack Studnicka, Aatu Raty, and the other rookies like Aidan McDonough and Arshdeep Bains – moves will have to be made before the puck drops on Oct. 11. Whether that is placing players on waivers or trades as training camp rosters get pared down across the league, something has got to give.

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Regardless, training camp and the preseason are nearly here, and we will finally have hockey back on our televisions and in arenas across Canada and the United States. All I have to say is, it’s about time.