VICTORIA, B.C. — The Vancouver Canucks have held an idiosyncratic, systems-work-heavy training camp at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria this week.
There have been battle drills and flow drills, of course, but the emphasis has been on breakouts, retrievals, regroups and other structural elements. There’s been more time spent huddling around the whiteboard than what’s typical for NHL teams at this time of year, and accordingly, fewer opportunities for those more competitive environments that are often so telling in terms of shaping the outcome of the various training camp battles for what open jobs exist on an NHL team’s 23-man roster.
On Saturday morning, however, that changed, as the Canucks held their first scrimmage of training camp, with Team Blue -— led by J.T. Miller and Quinn Hughes — coming out of the scrimmage with a 3-1 victory over Elias Pettersson’s Team White.
The first scrimmage of training camp is an essential battleground for those depth players jockeying for roster spots. It’s less crucial for veteran players, who will ramp up in the final week of preseason and at this point in camp tend to still be finding their feet and their hands. Pettersson, for example, was quiet at Saturday’s scrimmage, but that’s zero cause for concern. A roster hopeful having a quiet game, however, is more troubling given how fine the margin can be between earning that 12th or 13th forward job and ending up on waivers over Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.
Here are some notes on three players who stood out and helped their cause at Saturday’s scrimmage, and three that probably didn’t.
Players who helped themselves
Jack Studnicka struggled mightily to ingratiate himself to new Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet down the stretch last season. After Tocchet took over, in fact, Studnicka was a healthy scratch in 16 of Tocchet’s 36 games.
Given that first impression, Studnicka appeared to be in tough coming into training camp. He’s responded, however, with the urgency that any coach would hope for.
“A lot of guys were maybe forgetting about me, so I took it personal,” Studnicka told The Athletic after Saturday’s on-ice session. “I’ve put it upon myself to make some noise here.
“I was just honest with myself, yeah I didn’t play well down the stretch after the All-Star break, but I’m capable of a lot more and I’m looking forward to showing that.”
In terms of making noise, Studnicka hit a high decibel level during Saturday’s scrimmage, during which he was Vancouver’s most active and noticeable forward. He threw a couple of heavy hits — and smartly pulled up on another that could’ve been devastating on Filip Johansson — was a handful on the forecheck, had a good defensive stick along the wall to clear the zone and aggressively looked to take the puck to the net.
Jack Studnicka with a big hit on Josh Bloom. pic.twitter.com/mzDnjo3SFi
— 𝗖𝗵𝗿𝗶𝘀 Faber 🔥🎙 (@ChrisFaber39) September 23, 2023
For Studnicka, the recipe is a simple game, a “North-South game”, and that’s be design.
“You look at the makeup of our roster and we have guys that are going to put the puck in the net, we have our power-play guys and we have our skill guys,” Studnicka said. “I think we need a bit of meat and potatoes. Everyone has to start somewhere, so if I can form that identity then hopefully there’s more layers to my game that come out later on. I see the situation. I’ve got to be a good forechecker, I’ve got to be a heavy presence and I’ve got to win my battles.”
Studnicka’s performance didn’t just turn our heads either. After the scrimmage ended, J.T. Miller, who was playing for the other side, sought out Studnicka to offer him some praise for how he’d competed.
“Yeah, I just went over to him and said, ‘Great practice’,” Miller said.
“Studsy has looked good. He came in in great shape, he’s been here for a while and you can tell he’s hungry … He’s looked great and he’s dead serious about filling a role for us.”
Make no mistake through the first three days of training camp, Studnicka has perhaps surprisingly put himself squarely into the mix in the battle for a fourth-line or depth forward role to open the season.
Jett Woo was rock solid during Saturday’s scrimmage.
His skating played and he won battles on retrievals and evaded forechecking pressure effectively — most notably winning a 50/50 battle with Miller off of a dump-in in the early portion of the game. His shot selection was solid and although he’s unlikely to ever be a real offensive threat from the offensive blue, he did very well to get his shot past the first defender on multiple occasions in Saturday’s scrimmage.
To our eyes, his playmaking looked pretty close to NHL level too. On one sequence he made a clever play to hold the blue line with his feet, kicking the puck to keep his team’s possession on-side Kevin Bieksa-style. Later on that same sequence, he marauded down the right-side half wall, and when pressure arrived and took away his options, made a clever backhand pass into space down low that permitted a teammate to retain possession as the heavy shift continued.
If the club is going to be steadfast in preferring to play defenders on their strong side, then opportunity knocks in a major way for Woo given Vancouver’s relative shortage of right-handed options. To this point at camp, he’s made a strong case to get a longer look once preseason begins.
“There’s competition there and he’s trying to climb that depth chart, and I think he has a little bit,” Tocchet said after Saturday’s practice.
“Now it’s about the NHL level can he think (about) the game fast? The puck gets to him, does he know where to put it?” Tocchet continued. “In the minors, you get maybe an extra second, here you don’t. He’s got to fast-track that, so we’ve got to get him into exhibition games and things like that. And he’s got to practice like that and I think he’s trying really hard out there.”
It’s funny how drastically a player’s opportunity can change from one training camp to the next.
In 2022, Nils Höglander opened camp at Whistler with two projected AHL players, Linus Karlsson and Nils Åman. That surprising decision foreshadowed the limited minutes and difficult season he’d have under Bruce Boudreau, before eventually being demoted to Abbotsford.
This year he’s opened with the best role any Canucks winger could ask for, getting the first look on the top line alongside Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko.
Höglander had a strong showing on the Pettersson line on Saturday’s scrimmage. It started from the first shift where Höglander made a quick, decisive bump pass along the boards in the defensive zone on the breakout. He made the play fast enough to catch the opposing team’s pinching defenceman which sprung Pettersson and Kuzmenko for a two-on-one rush that resulted in a terrific scoring chance.
The sequence was very similar to this wall play we saw from Höglander in his rookie season:
(Courtesy of Sportsnet)
One of the noticeable differences between Höglander’s successful rookie campaign versus his struggles the last two seasons was the difference in his ability to make those quick passes under pressure on the breakout. When Höglander’s at his best, he cleanly moves the puck in those situations along the boards, which is instrumental for driving play and helping his line transition the puck. But over the last two seasons, he seemed to struggle in that department — there were too many plays where opposing defencemen were successful with their pinches and able to hem Höglander and his line in the defensive zone.
Höglander looked fast and annoying as the first man in on the forecheck. He generated a couple of high-danger scoring chances, including a slick pop pass to Tyler Myers on the rush. And the key is that Höglander’s success wasn’t dependent on Pettersson, who looked rusty in the scrimmage. Höglander looked good on his own accord, he wasn’t riding anybody’s coattails.
A big question that still needs to be answered is whether Höglander has the finishing ability to mesh with that line and we did see a rush one-timer that he flubbed. But Tocchet’s commentary has made it clear that Höglander’s role on that line is to create havoc with his speed, make plays, and not make any big turnovers or defensive mistakes. Höglander clearly checked those boxes in his first look next to Pettersson and Kuzmenko.
Players that didn’t
Soucy isn’t competing for a roster spot, but he didn’t exactly make a meal of his first look on the top pair on Saturday.
Now this isn’t cause for real concern or anything. One scrimmage isn’t enough time for anyone to make judgments on what combinations can and can’t work together over the course of the season. It was, however, a tough debut for the Hughes-Soucy pair.
Soucy was the defender who pinched in the offensive zone and got caught out of position on Höglander’s quick wall pass, which resulted in a two-on-one rush against Hughes. The biggest problem, however, was that the pair seemed to get hemmed in the defensive zone nearly every time Soucy had to go back to retrieve a dump-in and start a breakout. He consistently lost races to the puck and even got pickpocketed by the first forechecker on some occasions. One of those failed retrieval sequences eventually led to Teddy Blueger’s goal against them. The D-to-D passes Soucy made when under pressure were sometimes launched too hard for Hughes to cleanly and quickly corral.
The pair came on in the second half of the scrimmage, but that’s because Hughes started handling all the retrievals and breakouts. It’s probably not sustainable for Hughes to be responsible for every transition play considering the huge minutes he’s going to log every game.
There was a clear difference between how uncomfortable Soucy looked handling the puck and making plays compared to another defensive defenceman like Ian Cole, who was really solid next to Filip Hronek while playing on his strong side.
Vasili Podkolzin was given the premium spot on Miller and Brock Boeser’s wing in Saturday’s scrimmage and didn’t do much with the opportunity.
There weren’t too many glaring errors — he was beaten a bit too easily by Tyler Myers after taking a suspect lane on the forecheck, and stick-handled into traffic on a rush chance sprung by Akito Hirose — necessarily, it’s more that Podkolzin wasn’t nearly as physically assertive as Studnicka and didn’t have as many productive, play driving touches as Höglander or Arshdeep Bains or Nils Åman did on their respective lines.
Although Team Blue won 3-1, Podkolzin didn’t combine much in the way of heavy shifts or productive rush chances with Boeser and Miller on Saturday. He’ll presumably have more opportunities to complement skilled forwards going forward into the preseason, but in a plum spot in the lineup and with a chance to really kick the door down, Podkolzin wasn’t a standout on Saturday.
Christian Wolanin didn’t play poorly in the scrimmage. He was totally fine. The reason he’s listed here has less to do with his play and more to do with how strong the depth defence competition around him has looked.
Akito Hirose was calm and poised making plays with the puck. He used his stick really intelligently to make defensive stops too. There was a clear two-way impact with his game.
Guillaume Brisebois was his usual reliable self defensively. The cherry on top is that he made some sweet outlet passes, including a stretch one that sprung Danila Klimovich for a breakaway. Puck moving is the clear advantage Wolanin needs to have on Brisebois because when it comes to physicality and defensive prowess, Brisebois probably has the edge in the eyes of the coaching staff. With that context in mind, the fact that Brisebois looked comfortable making plays with the puck is a promising sign for him.
Even Jack Rathbone looked dynamic and confident at driving play.
Wolanin, in comparison, didn’t really stand out at all. He was beaten once on a rush chance sequence by Åman, but there weren’t any concerning moments. It’s just that you were still left wanting a bit more from him, especially considering how excellent his competitors have come out looking in the early part of camp.
(Photo of Jett Woo: Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press via AP)