Before the Vancouver Canucks opened training camp on Sept. 23 at Abbotsford Centre, only two roster spots appeared to be up for grabs. Then the inevitable injury bug reared its ugly head. By the time the first day was in the books, fourth-line fixtures Tyler Motte and Brandon Sutter and top-four defenceman Travis Hamonic were on the sidelines for the foreseeable future. Going into the sixth game of the preseason on Thursday, two roster spots have turned into five.
Luckily for the Canucks, a number of players have stepped up throughout camp and the preseason and have made solid cases to be on the opening night roster. They may not all be there two weeks from now, but they all deserve the chance to make an impression in a regular season game. So without further ado, let’s take a look at who is leading the charge in the ongoing battle to be in the lineup come Oct. 13 versus the Edmonton Oilers.
Roster Battle #1: Fourth-Line Center
Even though Matthew Highmore is not a natural center, Green has been using him there in the preseason. Over the 91 games he’s played in the NHL, he has only ever taken 19 faceoffs and has a career 36.8 percent success rate. Not exactly ideal for a regular fourth-line center. He does have experience killing penalties though, as he saw almost two minutes a game last season after coming over from the Chicago Blackhawks. In three preseason games so far, he has seen seven minutes on the penalty kill and owns a 42.9 percent success rate in the faceoff circle.
Without Elias Pettersson in training camp and the preseason, Nic Petan has seen a healthy dose of the top-six with Brock Boeser, Nils Hoglander, and J.T. Miller. Now that Pettersson is back in the fold, he will battle for a spot on the fourth line where the Canucks are in desperate need of centers.
Like most of the players in this group, Petan doesn’t have a lot of experience when it comes to faceoffs. The last time he took more than 25 draws was back in 2016-17 when he was a regular in the Winnipeg Jets’ bottom six. That season, he took 315 faceoffs and won 145 of them for a success rate of 46 percent. He also played a career-high 54 games, a mark he has not been able to get to since.
I’ve been kind of the up and down guy for my first six years so my goal is to be a guy that’s going to play regularly and that’s what I’m pushing for.Nic Petan on his NHL career so far (from ‘Canucks: Nic Petan filling in … but on which line?’, The Province, 9/25/21)
After a strong training camp in Abbotsford, Green rewarded Petan with a lot of ice time in both preseason games he played in. He was even seen on the penalty kill against the Jets on Sunday. That fact alone should tell you how much leverage he has in this particular battle right now.
Of the three players in this battle, Justin Dowling probably fits the mold of a fourth-line center the most. Now 31 years old and a veteran of 438 American Hockey League (AHL) games, he knows what it takes to stay relevant in the pro leagues. He was captain of the Texas Stars during the 2018-19 season and finally saw a somewhat regular role with the Dallas Stars last season when he played 27 games with the big club. He also has a career 49 percent success rate on faceoffs.
Green has used him on both special teams during the preseason, so he’s getting a long look as a potential short-term replacement for Sutter. His proficiency at faceoffs might give him an edge over Highmore and Petan as the Canucks still need centermen to win draws on the penalty kill in the absence of Sutter and Jay Beagle.
Leading the Pack: Nic Petan
Petan may not be a prototypical fourth-line center, but he has earned his way onto the team through his offensive skill and versatility. He has been one of the Canucks’ best forwards during the preseason and unlike Highmore, is a natural center. If Green is rewarding players based on their performance in training camp and the preseason, Petan has done more than enough to be on the opening night roster.
Roster Battle #2: Bottom-Six Wingers
Phil Di Giuseppe
Phil Di Giuseppe has impressed throughout training camp and the preseason with his speed, forechecking, and overall two-way game. Paired almost exclusively with expected third-line center Jason Dickinson ever since the festivities began on Sept. 23, he has been one of the best wingers in camp next to Will Lockwood. A veteran of 201 NHL games, he is the most experienced of the bunch and could find himself on the third line and first penalty-killing unit come Oct. 13.
Right now Zack MacEwen is trailing the pack when it comes to the race for roster spots. With Gadjovich and Will Lockwood turning in superior performances in training camp and the preseason, he’s going to have to turn on the afterburners in order to catch up. He has not hit the scoreboard yet and has not really been that noticeable in any of the games. Save for the quick fight with former Canuck Erik Gudbranson, his presence has not been felt so far this preseason.
If I was constructing the Canucks roster, I would have Will Lockwood on my team. The spark plug who hails from Royal Oak, Michigan has been impressive ever since he hit the ice at Abbotsford Centre. From laying out veteran teammate Luke Schenn in one of the final scrimmages of training camp to throwing his 5-foot-11 frame at anything that moves in the preseason, he is everything the Canucks need on their fourth line.
Breakneck speed and deceptive physicality are what Lockwood brings to the rink every single game. He has not shown off his offensive talents yet, but that should come with time. The only thing that may keep him off the opening night roster is the fact that he’s one of the only forwards that are waiver-exempt.
Leading the Pack: Will Lockwood & Phil Di Giuseppe
Lockwood and Di Giuseppe have done everything they can to punch their ticket to opening night. Di Giuseppe’s versatility and penalty-killing prowess likely have convinced Green already that he needs to be on this team. Like Motte, he also has sneaky offensive abilities and can be elevated up the lineup when another line needs a spark. The same goes for Lockwood as I believe he could be just as good or better than previous fan favorite and Swiss Army knife Jannik Hansen.
Roster Battle #3: Left-Side Defence on the Third Pairing
Jack Rathbone has played himself onto this team. Period. His defensive game is still a work in progress, but you can’t deny that his mobility, smarts, and first pass out of the zone are things that need to be a part of the Canucks blueline this season. The fact is, they are better with him than without him.
Olli Juolevi probably had his best game of the preseason against the Seattle Kraken on Tuesday. Even though he finished with a minus-1 in the plus/minus column, he played a quiet and efficient game from the back end. After his overall mediocre training camp and poor performance in the bag skate, he needed to have a game like that to make Green and the coaching staff think twice before placing him on waivers. Although in the absence of Travis Hamonic and Alex Edler, that probably won’t happen considering he’s one of the only defencemen on the bubble that can kill penalties.
Seemingly destined for Abbotsford when he was signed in the offseason, Brad Hunt has turned heads this preseason as a legitimate roster option for opening night. His two-way game and ability to play both sides of the ice are rare commodities in the NHL and the Canucks need all the help they can get when it comes to balancing their defence pairings.
Leading the Pack: Jack Rathbone
As you can probably guess already, I am a huge fan of Rathbone. From his days with Harvard to his brief stint in the AHL with the Comets, he has done nothing to make me believe that he can’t be a regular defenceman in the NHL. The anticipated bout that he was supposed to have with Juolevi has not come to fruition as he’s been far and away the better player in the matchup. In fact, if this was a boxing match, he would have already laid out Juolevi in one punch.
The Canucks only have two more preseason games to go before they have to make the final decisions on these battles. As of right now, Petan, Di Giuseppe, Lockwood, and Rathbone are the frontrunners. Time is running out for Juolevi, MacEwen, Dowling, Highmore, and Hunt to turn the tide in their favor. It will be interesting to see who Green dresses on Thursday in the penultimate game against the Oilers. With Pettersson and Quinn Hughes finally returning to the lineup, we might see a roster very close to the final version. Who he includes might give us an indication of who is leading or who has already won a spot.
Finally, we are less than a week from games that actually count in the standings. Just two more meaningless games remain before everyone starts playing for keeps. All I have to say is, it’s about time.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.