Don’t look now but the Vancouver Canucks are finally starting to get healthy. Brandon Sutter and Micheal Ferland are skating with the team and Antoine Roussel has been assigned to the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets for a conditioning stint. With the three players returning, head coach Travis Green and general manager Jim Benning will have to do some shuffling of bodies.
Related: Canucks Weekly: Markstrom, Power Play, Hughes & More
Zack MacEwen, Adam Gaudette, Loui Eriksson, Tyler Graovac and the recently called up Nikolay Goldobin are all candidates to come out of the lineup in favor of the three regulars. With Roussel not expected to rejoin the team until now, the Canucks avoided another major roster decision at the end of training camp in September. They needed to make one anyway when they elected to send Sven Baertschi and the aforementioned Goldobin to the Comets instead of Eriksson, Gaudette, or Tim Schaller.
Now it’s time for Benning to make some tough decisions again. Does he make more of an effort to trade Baertschi, Goldobin or Eriksson? I’m sure Baertschi is not happy being sent to the minors a second time already this season. Will he give him the Sam Gagner treatment and move him to a better situation? I guess we will have to wait and see.
Until then, we can only speculate what the lineup will look like and the moves that will be made. So without further ado, here is just one of many line combinations Green could go with once his team is back to full strength.
First Line – Miller, Pettersson, Boeser
You know what they say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The Lotto Line has been the Canucks’ top line for most of the season and has generated the most of any line on the team. So it’s a no brainer to keep it intact when everyone is healthy. Now that the roster will have more depth, J.T. Miller is not needed to help out on any other lines. Recently he has been playing with Bo Horvat and MacEwen. His production hasn’t decreased, but he just looks more dynamic aligned with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
Miller also makes the line more of a threat offensively. Looking at the advanced stats, the line has a 62.8 Corsi-for percentage (CF%) with him compared to a 48.94 CF% without him. That’s a pretty significant difference for a line that is expected to score. Digging deeper, their expected goals for (xGF) is 7.96 with him compared to 4.54 without him. Again, a very significant difference. If those stats don’t convince you that they should be together, then nothing will.
Second Line – Roussel, Horvat, Ferland
With Roussel playing his first game since getting injured against the New York Rangers in March of last season, he should be fired up to get back in the saddle. Horvat played his best hockey with Roussel by his side, so it’s a natural fit.
Last season Roussel and Horvat played 268 minutes as a unit. The team scored 15 goals and allowed five with them on the ice together. Their CF% was 54.1 and xGF was 11.72. Not bad for a duo, I must say. They score goals and allow very little, which makes them a perfect fit together.
Horvat hasn’t had much success five-on-five this season, with seven of his eight goals coming on the power play. Maybe Roussel can help him generate more since he has underrated playmaking abilities and is a beast on the forecheck. Last season he had a career-high 22 assists, not to mention he’s also a super pest, which makes him even more difficult to play against.
If Roussel wasn’t enough, add in Ferland and you probably have two of the most effective agitators in the NHL on one line. Hopefully, his most recent concussion doesn’t affect his play too much. If he can start playing the way we all know he can, this line will be hell to play against. Teams better watch out when they are on the ice.
Third Line – Pearson, Gaudette, Sutter
This trio could be a very good two-way scoring line. They are also all over 6-foot-1 and can wreak havoc down low. Gaudette has shown an ability to score and Tanner Pearson has done a good job complimenting any line he has been on. If Sutter can pick up where he left off before his injury, this line is in very good shape.
Related: 3 Canucks Stepping Up With Sutter Out
Even though Gaudette is playing his natural position of center, Sutter will most likely be taking the face-offs. He hasn’t had much success in that department sporting a 38.5 face-off percentage so far in his career. I put Sutter on the wing because he looked more dangerous offensively when he played there earlier in the season on the fourth line. His lack of playmaking skills is also not as evident when he’s playing right-wing.
Maybe Gaudette can be more effective if his line has the puck more, instead of always starting play without it. Last game against the Philadelphia Flyers he lost every one of his face-offs, going zero for ten. If he wants to be an everyday NHL centerman, he’s got to improve on that skill.
Fourth Line – Leivo/Schaller, Beagle, Virtanen
Finally, we get to the fourth line where we do not see Eriksson’s name anywhere near it. So far this season he has zero points in 14 games along with a minus-4. He has also averaged only nine minutes of ice time. So, I think it’s time to say goodbye to the six million dollar man. By having Josh Leivo (or Schaller), Jay Beagle, and Jake Virtanen as a unit, Green can roll four lines and spread the minutes around.
Just like the third line, they are all over 6-foot-1 and can be a great forechecking line. Leivo and Virtanen are also a threat to score, making it a very non-traditional fourth line. Beagle is a great face-off man as well, which means they will have the puck more often than not. This trio could be a very appealing option for Green.
Goldobin or Baertschi, That is the Question
At this point, I think the Canucks need to choose either Goldobin or Baertschi to move forward with. Baertschi had his chance to impress Green and the coaching staff in his most recent callup and was underwhelming, to say the least. He had two assists and was rarely dangerous even with Horvat. Now it’s Goldobin’s turn to try and force his way onto the team.
With everyone healthy, I don’t really see a spot for Goldobin. But Sutter, Ferland, and Roussel won’t be returning to the lineup together, so he’s got some time to change my mind. If he can perform and finally show some progress in his defensive game and work ethic, he could potentially hold down a spot in the lineup.
He definitely deserves a chance after the season he’s had for the Utica Comets. In 18 games he has 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists), including a hat trick in his most recent outing. Lately, he has also shown some hustle and a willingness to play defence, which should be music to Green’s ears.
The problem with Goldobin is that he has to play in the top-six with skilled players, specifically Pettersson. Fortunately, there are two players right now that can play down the lineup in Roussel and Ferland. So if Green plays him on the top line and he stays consistent, he could force one of them to the third line.
One thing is certain, I do not envy Green and the coaching staff right now. It’s like training camp all over again, and a decision will have to be made. Not right away, but soon, and it could have ramifications on the rest of the roster going forward.
With all these scenarios, some players will lose their spot on the roster. In this projected lineup MacEwen, Graovac, and Goldobin get sent to the minors and Eriksson and Schaller become healthy scratches. If Goldobin actually impresses Green enough, which is unlikely considering his deployment against the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of them will need to be moved as well through waivers or trade.
One thing is certain, the Canucks have a lot more options with Sutter, Ferland, and Roussel returning to the lineup. They will finally have their identity back along with some much-needed grit added to their attack. The team has just been missing that extra something with this trio injured.
That hole has become more evident recently in poor third period performances. The defensive acumen and work ethic of these three will drastically change the Canucks’ makeup for the better, helping to avoid these in the future.
After the most recent collapse, it will be nice to finally look forward to seeing the Canucks at full strength, with all the soldiers healthy and ready for battle. So, let’s buckle up and watch captain Bo lead his troops onto the battlefield that is the rest of the NHL season.