Good vibes were plentiful through the first two days of on-ice sessions at Vancouver Canucks training camp in Whistler, and not just because there wasn’t a bag skate.
It’s often the case for teams at this time of year. They’re undefeated, after all.
But this year does feel different.
Here’s a rundown of things we observed from the first two days of training camp.
1. They mean business
The marketing department was likely responsible for the new “unfinished business” motto, but it does feel accurate with this team.
The Canucks missed the playoffs last year, and players don’t want that to happen again. It doesn’t sound like lip service either.
There’s a snarl to this group that wasn’t there in previous years. That’s certainly true for Brock Boeser, who is promising a 30-goal season.
“In his mind, he had an off-year, so he wants to come back here with a vengeance and be the Brock Boeser that he knows he can be,” said Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau.
2. Pettersson looks good
The best player in Thursday’s scrimmage was Elias Pettersson. Though he didn’t score a goal or earn an assist, he looked like himself — which is something that didn’t happen until the second half of last season.
3. So does Höglander
We called it a make-or-break season for Nils Höglander back in August, and he has been a fascinating player to watch so far in training camp.
Höglander started on the fifth line, with a pair of players likely destined for Abbotsford, in Linus Karlsson and Nils Aman.
That’s not a good spot to be, as he appears to be on the outside looking in — at least to start.
He has, however, caught the eye of Boudreau.
“I think he’s the best player on the ice right now,” Boudreau said of Höglander after Friday’s on-ice sessions. “He looks so much faster than he did last year. Determination. He’s definitely ready. Last year was a little bit of a setback for him and he doesn’t want it to happen again.”
4. Fourth line potential
Höglander is on the fifth line, it would appear, because the Canucks are trying to construct a fourth line with an identity.
Jason Dickinson is centring newcomers Curtis Lazar and Dakota Joshua right now, and the line does appear to have some potential.
Coming off a dreadful season, the Canucks are hoping that Dickinson can bounce back and regain the form he had with the Dallas Stars. He and Lazar should be relied-upon penalty killers for the Canucks this season.
Six-foot-three, 206-pound Dakota Joshua, who had 18.3 hits per 60 minutes last season, brings good size to the line. The 26-year-old scored eight points (3-5-8) in 30 games with the St. Louis Blues last season.
Curtis Lazar went down to block a shot during a drill and all his #Canucks teammates immediately erupted, clapping their sticks on the ice to salute him.
— Rob Williams (@RobTheHockeyGuy) September 23, 2022
Lazar’s already blocking shots in training camp, which gives you an idea of what he brings to the table.
“That’s what I expected out of Curtis Lazar,” Joshua said of Lazar’s shot-block that drew admiration from teammates. “[He] didn’t flinch. Took it right off the foot and was ready to go the next shift.”
While Lazar is lined up on right wing, he has the capability of playing centre, and was taking draws on the right side of the ice rather than Dickinson. That should help the faceoff percentages for both players, who will only have to take draws on their strong sides in this configuration.
5. DeKeyser getting a real chance
No idea if he’ll actually make the team, but Danny DeKeyser has been put in a good spot to prove himself.
The longtime Detroit Red Wings defenceman is playing with Tyler Myers. If he succeeds there in training camp, he should earn a contract off a tryout.
6. Kuzmenko is hilarious
Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko speak with the media following the Day 1 scrimmage of Training Camp in Whistler.@TD_Canada | #Canucks pic.twitter.com/k18IW7LVQo
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) September 22, 2022
He’s still mastering the English language, but no player had the assembled Canucks media laughing more than Andrei Kuzmenko.
The first-year Canuck, who is coming to the NHL from Russia, has loads of personality. He answered most questions on his own, often with a big smile on his face, but had Ilya Mikheyev by his side to translate when needed.
Those two are also playing on a line with Elias Pettersson right now. If Kuzmenko can live up to the hype on the ice, he’ll be a fan favourite in no time.
7. Hughes on the right side
Quinn Hughes playing on the right side is the biggest experimentation of training camp. He’s playing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, which would give the Canucks a formidable top pairing.
The problem? It leaves them vulnerable on the second pair.
Count me as skeptical, but preseason should provide a good indicator.
8. What about Keeper?
If the Canucks need a right-shot defenceman, what about Brady Keeper?
The Cross Lake, Manitoba native has flown under the radar, given that he missed all of last season after suffering a broken leg in his first Canucks training camp.
Though he only has two games of NHL experience, he was brought to Vancouver on a one-way contract. That’s an indication that previous management thought pretty highly of the 6-foot-2, 197-pound blueliner.
“I feel fine, honestly. I feel good,” said Keeper. “Once I start playing more, and skating more, it just comes natural.”
Keeper is a physical defenceman, and perhaps the 26-year-old ends up as a regular in Vancouver this season. He probably will need time in Abbotsford first, just to get ice time after a long layoff, but don’t count against him being a legit call up option at some point.
“I’m just happy to be on the ice, honestly,” said Keeper. “My dad reminded me to be grateful for where I am, especially for where I come from. So I kind of keep that in my heart. I’m just happy to be playing.”