The Vancouver Canucks started the 2020-21 season without J.T. Miller, their leading scorer from last season. Miller is ruled out for the season-opening road trip due to a false positive COVID-19 test. The NHL has agreed with health officials that players will travel on team flights and not commercially or privately. The Canucks will be on the road in Alberta until they return to face the Montreal Canadians at home on January 20th.
Losing Miller to start the season is a big blow for the Canucks. He is a first-line left-winger and a factor in why the Canucks had one of the league’s best powerplay last season. Losing Miller for a few games isn’t bad for everyone. There are a few players in the lineup who will benefit from his short absence.
Jake Virtanen re-signed with the Canucks this past offseason with the expectation of being a top-six forward. Nils Hoglander’s emergence led to Virtanen playing on the third line in camp. Miller’s absence has led to the 24-year old starting the season on the top line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
The Canucks won their first game of the season against the Edmonton Oilers, 5-3. Virtanen failed to register a point, while Boeser scored two goals, and Pettersson finished with an assist. Virtanen struggled in the season opener. He finished with a team worse 44.83 Corse For % (CF%).
Thursday night’s game wasn’t any better for Virtanen. He lost his spot on the first line to Adam Gaudette and Tyler Motte. Furthermore, he posted a 41.18 CF%. Although his CF% wasn’t the worst on the team, two poor performances don’t bode well for Virtanen.
Virtanen has an opportunity to start the 2020-21 season off right by producing with Pettersson and Boeser. The winger has to be better in the next two games against the Calgary Flames before finishing the road trip.
Although Gaudette is a centre, he has experience playing on the wing. Gaudette has a great shot and speed, which he hasn’t shown at 5-on-5. Last season, four of his 12 goals came on the man advantage.
The forward would benefit from playing on the wing with top-end players, such as Pettersson and Boeser, for an extended period of time. Late in the game against Edmonton on Thursday night, Gaudette saw some time with Pettersson and Boeser. Although they failed to register a point, they had a 100 CF% in the 1:13 they played together. With Virtanen struggling, look for head coach Travis Green to give the 24-year-old more time on the top line.
“It’s always easier going back and playing centre, so getting used to the wing is something I’ll always have in the future, which is good. It will make me a little more diverse.”Gaudette said about playing on the wing.
Green started training camp with Hoglander in the top-six, where the rookie impressed while playing with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson. Hoglander played well in the season opener on Wednesday night, as the rookie scored his first goal in his first NHL game. Additionally, he played great 5-on-5, finishing with a 59.38 CF%.
With Miller out of the lineup, Hoglander plays on the first power play unit with Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat and Quinn Hughes. By placing him on the first unit, Green shows that he is willing to give the skilled rookie more offensive zone time. Playing on the man advantage allows Hoglander to get comfortable and gain confidence earlier in the season.
Similar to Hoglander, Boeser benefits from Miller’s absence on the power play. Usually, Boeser plays below the goal line, while Miller sets up shop on the left faceoff circle on the man advantage.
Instead of playing close to the net, Boeser plays on the left faceoff circle on the power play. He benefits from this because his shot is his best weapon, and he is effective in shooting from the faceoff circle instead of playing down low. Boeser has been hot to start the season, as he scored two goals in the first game against the Oilers.
Miller Will Return Soon
Green showed in Thursday night’s game that he is not shy when it comes to shuffling lines. Green’s line shuffling allows Virtanen and Gaudette to play with Boeser and Pettersson in the next two games against the Flames. Also, Hoglander and Boeser will be in an advantageous spot on the power play until Miller returns.
Once Miller returns, Virtanen and Gaudette will play on the third line, while Boeser will return to playing down low on the power play as well. As for Hoglander, he will be a big part of the second power play unit. Miller’s absence is still an opportunity to have a great start to the season. It also allows each player to earn Green’s trust in case of an injury later in the season.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.