Canucks offseason mailbag, part 1: Is finding linemates for Elias Pettersson challenging?


The weather is spicy in British Columbia at the moment, the return of Vancouver Canucks hockey is still months away and the dog days of summer are upon us.

We invited our readers to submit mailbag questions as we settle into the offseason. And as always, the VIPs responded overwhelmingly, submitting hundreds of questions to The Athletic this past weekend.

In part one of our special edition Canucks offseason mailbag, we dive into reader questions about whether the club should target additional puck-moving help on the back end, whether it’s challenging to find linemates capable of complementing Elias Pettersson, which centre fits best with Dakota Joshua and Conor Garland and whether there are any sleeper prospects in the Canucks system capable of making an NHL impact down the line.

VIPs, this is your mailbag.

(Note: Some questions are edited for length and clarity.)


Should the Canucks pursue Adam Boqvist (Note: Boqvist signed with the Florida Panthers on Tuesday) or other puck-moving D men like Oliver Kylington to shore up that one missing aspect from the D core or wait for contracts to fall out during the inevitable cuts to start the season? Or alternatively, just toll daily cap space? — Randolph J

This is an interesting one to me. I do believe the Canucks’ biggest remaining need is some puck-moving dynamism outside of their projected top pair of Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek.

We saw in the postseason just how dependent Vancouver was on those minutes when Hughes was on the ice to generate quality looks and goals. This is the data I spotlighted last week that really drives home just how dire things got offensively for Vancouver in minutes when Hughes got a breather during the playoffs. It’s a factor I can’t really get over in assessing the quality and risk profile of this team:

During the Canucks’ 13-game playoff run, Vancouver generated 108 five-on-five shots on goal in Hughes’ 244 five-on-five minutes. That’s about a 26 shot-on-goal-per-60 rate, which is relatively low.

When Hughes took a breather, however, Vancouver’s ability to threaten fell off a cliff. In the 377 minutes that Hughes wasn’t on the ice at five-on-five during the postseason, the club managed an anemic 102 five-on-five shots on goal (about 16 shots per 60).

Now that said, while I’d strongly suggest identifying some puck-moving ability is essential for the Canucks between now and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, I’m not sure there should be urgency to do it this summer necessarily.

As it stands, I’m skeptical that the puck-moving issue is so acute — especially given the offensive abilities of the Canucks’ top pair — that it might prevent this team from contending for the postseason. I see the lack of depth puck moving as something more likely to be felt against elite two-way sides at the pointy end of the campaign than something an average regular-season opponent in October, November and December will be able to exploit.

My understanding is the Canucks view it somewhat similarly. There’s internal belief that Vincent Desharnais, for example, can be a greater contributor within the context of Vancouver’s coaching and system than he was in Edmonton during his first 100 NHL games (and change), and that includes making a greater two-way impact than most of us would imagine from the outside. I think there’s an appetite to give Adam Foote and Rick Tocchet some time to work through that before considering various fixes (whether those are changes to the roster, changes to the lineup or something more systematic from an X’s and O’s standpoint).

So to come back to the specific question: I don’t think Adam Boqvist had the defensive chops to log major minutes for Tocchet and Foote, and while I like the bet for the Panthers, I never thought it was a fit for Vancouver.

I’d think a zero-risk deal with Oliver Kylington could make sense if it’s under $1 million in salary on a one- or two-year deal.

Mostly, though, I think it’s OK for the Canucks to wait it out a bit and see what shakes loose over this summer and what opportunities present themselves before training camp, in-season and ahead of the 2025 trade deadline.

The priority should be to try and identify a fringe top-pair-calibre defender who will be a long-term fit as opposed to bringing in a more specialized third-pair puck-mover anyway. I don’t really see a potential 2/3-level defender available on the market at the moment, and as such, it would appear a patient approach is more likely to result in that outcome.

Do you think Elias Pettersson could centre Dakota Joshua and Conor Garland? Or is Teddy Blueger best fit for those wingers? — Michael H. 

Let’s start by taking the first part of this question literally. Do I think Pettersson could centre Dakota Joshua and Conor Garland? Yes, I don’t see why not.

The fit seems straightforward on paper: Combine your most consistent play-driving centreman with your most consistent play-driving wing duo at five-on-five and you should have something worthwhile in terms of controlling play. I also like the idea of putting the Canucks’ most efficient five-on-five playmaker, Garland, with a gifted one-shot scorer like Pettersson — especially given the righty/lefty fit between them — and a crash-and-bang type like Joshua to finish in tight and stress out opponents on the forecheck and on retrievals. It really should work.

Whether I think we could actually see Pettersson centre Joshua and Garland is a different question. On that score, I’m not really sure. If it was something the club was open to, you would think we would’ve seen it at some point, outside of partial changes. Across last season, however, Canucks didn’t give that look a chance — to the point neither Joshua nor Garland ranked among Pettersson’s six most common forward linemates.

The following table, with information cribbed from MoneyPuck, captures Vancouver’s aversion to lining Pettersson up with Garland and Joshua. It also helps us pivot to whether or not Blueger is the best fit at centre for the Joshua, Garland duo:

Joshua and Garland with TOI Goal Diff. xG% Shot Attempt%

360.5

+11

58.4%

54.5%

75

+3

69.2%

64.1%

62

+2

66.7%

60.5%

12

Even

30%

56%

The results from the Joshua-Blueger-Garland line were stupendous last season at five-on-five. It was Vancouver’s most commonly used forward line; the most stable five-on-five engine up front throughout the season. There’s an element to which it arguably makes sense not to try and fix what isn’t broken.

What Joshua and Garland accomplished with J.T. Miller and Pius Suter, however, wasn’t far off from what Joshua and Garland accomplished with Blueger, albeit in a smaller sample usage-wise.

Realistically, the Canucks have a variety of good options here, and I’m not sure there’s a right one. There’s clear chemistry between Joshua and Garland, and that chemistry seems to translate to success with every centre they’ve played with — Suter, Blueger, Miller and Elias Lindholm all included.

At some point, however, particularly given Joshua and Garland now take up a combined $8 million against the cap, it’s probably in the Canucks’ best interests to expand their usage. Joshua and Garland should be playing top-six minutes for the Canucks, and I’d certainly be interested to see what they’d look like on the second line with Pettersson for an extended stretch next season.

Finding wingers for Pettersson is challenging. Why so? Is it more about him? What needs to happen to finally find mutual chemistry b/w wingers & Petey? What matches exist? — Diana L.

I’d start my answer here by disputing the premise of the question.

It isn’t difficult to find wingers for Pettersson. Every winger he plays with appears to do better and produce more with him than without him, often by a mile.

This is a player who found immediate, electrifying chemistry with Brock Boeser and helped Nikolay Goldobin perform at a solid top-six clip as a rookie; a centre who combined with Miller and Boeser to form the best two-way line in the Western Conference in his sophomore campaign; a star forward who boosted the offensive production of Ilya Mikheyev, Andrei Kuzmenko, Sam Lafferty and Anthony Beauvillier over the past two years, helping each of them succeed to the point of fooling many close observers into believing they were passable top-six or even top-line options.

I know there’s some recency bias at play here given how significantly Pettersson struggled down the stretch and into the postseason, but throughout his career, he’s easily cleared any reasonable bar we might set for driving a line and making his linemates better.

When do we move on from Vasily Podkolzin? If he has a bad camp and doesn’t make the team, is that where we just risk losing him to the waiver wire or trade him? Ideally, he does have a good camp, but where do you think he’d fit, on the 4th line? — Sam B.

I’m still waiting to see the Canucks simply give Vasily Podkolzin a predictable fourth-line role where the expectations are to play crash-and-bang and loose and bring energy. Promise him 10 minutes a night no matter what and give him 30 games to just build some confidence. I’m not going to sell my Podkolzin stock until I’ve seen him get that opportunity.

Will he get that opportunity this season? One would hope so, and certainly the Canucks handing him a two-year contract before the playoffs would suggest it’s in their plans.

That said, if Podkolzin doesn’t make the team out of training camp, it feels like his Vancouver tenure could come to an abrupt end — either because he’ll have to clear waivers if he’s cut (and surely wouldn’t given his age, size and pedigree), or because the team may look to trade him before being forced to consider going down that route.

Is it possible the Canucks see either Cole McWard or Akito Hirose as the puck-moving option on the 2/3 pairs and that’s why they’re prioritized (bigger defenders) over some of the smaller, more mobile D available? Or is it simply to fit Tocchet’s system and there are no prospects on the farm that are close to NHL options on defence? — MT.

I think the Canucks are hopeful Cole McWard can make a strong case to play NHL games next season, but I don’t think they’re counting on it or building for it as a probable outcome. Their moves — extending Tyler Myers and Mark Friedman, bringing in Desharnais — make that apparent.

McWard, as GM Patrik Allvin noted, played well for Vancouver down the stretch, and did so mostly on a pair with Akito Hirose that handled tough minutes for Abbotsford in the postseason and performed solidly. That’s a good sign and McWard is still young enough that he has the developmental runway to perhaps become an NHL regular. Still, it’s not as if McWard’s first professional season was at a level in which we could realistically describe him as banging down the door for a full-time NHL job, and the Canucks’ actions would suggest they feel similarly.

As for Hirose, he’s now 25 years old — only about 18 months younger than Hronek, and older than Hughes — and the odds are now stacked against him developing into more than an NHL depth option given how little he produced as a 24-year-old first-year professional in the American League.

Think of it this way: At the age Hirose was this past season, Mark Friedman managed 18 points in 45 AHL games in the Philadelphia Flyers system and appeared in six NHL contests. In comparison, Hirose had two assists in 33 games and appeared in three NHL games this season.

Perhaps Hirose can overcome the odds, but this is sort of the reality of signing older college players: They either hit almost immediately as AHL stars that could be NHL-level options or they’re overwhelmingly likely to never hit at all.

Do you have a sleeper Canucks prospect that you think could surprise and be a difference maker? — Andy L.

I don’t see a ton of upside in the Canucks system overall, but I do think Elias Pettersson (the defender) is a real prospect and has actual top-four upside. Among the most recent crop of players Vancouver added, I like Anthony Romani as a sleeper Canucks prospect with a real shot to have NHL impact down the line.

(Photo of Elias Pettersson being congratulated at the Canucks bench: Derek Cain / Getty Images)



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