The Vancouver Canucks finally received some good news on Monday as Brock Boeser announced that he was returning to the lineup for the first time since being injured exactly one month prior.
I feel good. I’m ready to go and help this team out in any way I can.Brock Boeser (from ‘UPDATED: Canucks Game Day: Pettersson’s improved edge, Boeser’s big return,’ National Post, 03/10/20220)
He was expected to be out eight weeks since fracturing his rib cartilage, but his return was much more imminent than originally expected. This news couldn’t have come any faster as Boeser helped the Canucks dissolve a disastrous slide with crucial 5-4 win over the New York Islanders.
Boeser played almost every shift on the second line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson. However, they got off to a rough start by allowing the Islanders to score on them just 1:36 into the game.
With Boeser back in the lineup, the Canucks can’t really go wrong with their top-six forward group. His insertion into the lineup allows Jake Virtanen to be placed in a more fitting role on the bottom-six instead of forcing him or Loui Eriksson on the second line.
For the first time in a while, the Canucks actually have some options for their top-six forwards.
Before the Injury
Pre-injury, Boeser had recently been reunited with his most frequent linemates, Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller, on what was the high-powered scoring trio monikered as the Lotto Line (see jersey numbers).
This line has been money for the Canucks, torching their opponents on a nightly basis all season long. According to Natural Stat Trick, this line owns a Corsi rating (CF%) of 58.38 percent while also doubling their opponents in goals scored. The bottom line is that they’re a legitimate first line that is up there with the NHL’s best.
Worrisome for Boeser is that six games prior, Virtanen had hit the lottery and replaced the right winger, resulting in a demotion to the third line. Virtanen played well on the first line but not at the level of Boeser. While playing with Adam Gaudette and Antoine Roussel, Boeser couldn’t sustain the same level of success. This line only controlled 45.90 percent of the shot attempt flow while giving up more expected goals than scoring them. Individually, Boeser failed to pick up any goals.
This was a total mismatch considering that Vancouver almost always deploys its more physical wingers on the third line. It seemed awkward to have the former Calder Trophy finalist to be placed there given he generates the second-fewest hits per minute on the team among forwards.
It is possible that head coach Travis Green couldn’t put Boeser anywhere else given that he wanted to spread out the offence while keeping his shutdown second line intact. To Green’s credit, that formula seemed to work at that time as the Canucks experienced one of their stingiest stretches defensively on route to a five-game win streak.
The Last Stretch
Heaps have changed since those days. Now, Canucks fans might have to ask Siri what a win streak is to remind themselves. Furthermore, the trade deadline addition of Tyler Toffoli, who plays the same role as Boeser, complicates the forward lines to an even greater extent.
Nonetheless, I do believe the reunion with Miller and Pettersson on the top line is inevitable. At first, inserting Toffoli on that top line was a shock to some as everyone assumed he would be reunited with fellow former Los Angeles King, Pearson.
Part of Toffoli’s placement alongside the two most dominant forwards was to try to ease the transition onto a new team. For Toffoli to be expected to compete against the opposition’s best players on a shutdown line would be a nearly impossible task with a new team.
Toffoli has been on fire playing on the first line, scoring 10 points in his 10 games since being traded. Resultantly, it might be hard to knock Toffoli off that line if they continue their current success. It has become obvious that he formed instant chemistry on that first line. However, it might be in Green’s best interest at some point to put Boeser on that first line to provide a spark for him as he is in the midst of a 12-game goal drought.
Injecting Boeser on the top line will help ease his transition back from injury, too, especially given that one of Boeser’s weaknesses is his skating, which can be masked by playing with Miller and Pettersson.
However, whether it’s Boeser, Toffoli or anyone else on the team, the issue has never been with the first line – but instead the second line.
Related: Tyler Toffoli Linemate Options
Recently, the Canucks had been playing the dangerous game of sacrifice with their second line. Choosing between the offensive black hole that is Eriksson or the defensive liability that is Virtanen. Neither should be positioned in a top-six role but have been forced in there given the lack of depth.
Green favoured the shutdown purpose for this line with Eriksson’s steady defence but lacklustre goal production. Their possession stats aren’t terrible, however – for the last month, their line has been doubled in 5-on-5 scoring and key offensive catalyst Bo Horvat has not scored an even-strength goal against a goaltender since Jan. 12.
Boeser and Toffoli both know where to be defensively and have impressive defensive awareness.
Either selection will vastly improve the second line. Both wingers play their best against the opposition’s best. According to Puck IQ, Boeser has dominated against elite players with a favourable Corsi rating of 53.3 percent and a 70 percent goals for ratio (GF%). Comparably, Toffoli has a 66.7 percent goals for ratio while playing against elite competition. Further, he has a similar Corsi rating of 52.7 percent against other teams’ premier forwards albeit these statistics mostly include his games with the bottom-dwelling Kings.
This is an improvement from Eriksson’s mediocre 50.3 percent Corsi with barely any offensive production and Virtanen’s lousy 43.5 percent Corsi while playing a risky run and gun style.
This way, Virtanen can provide his physical style while minimizing his defensive costs in a more sheltered bottom-six role. As for the $6 million man, Eriksson, he will likely be providing his trustworthy defensive ways on the fourth line if he manages to sneak his way back into the lineup.
As for the power play, it has clicked with Toffoli being the only right-handed shot on the unit, ranking fourth highest in the league. I find it hard to believe that Boeser will replace the left-handed Horvat given that he leads the team in power-play goals. On Tuesday, Boeser started off on the second unit and he looks to remain there barring any injuries.
Thankfully, these are good problems to have moving forward. Regardless if Boeser remains on the second line or is promoted to the first, his presence on the ice will make a colossal difference towards helping the Canucks in their attempt to clinch their first playoff berth since 2015.