Exactly 23 players skated in the early session of the Canucks’ practice on Friday morning. An NHL roster is 23 players. You do the math.
For the first time at training camp, the Canucks had all of their NHL locks in the same group at practice. For the first few days, the Canucks’ expected top-six were split into separate groups, with Elias Pettersson and his linemates in one session and Bo Horvat and his linemates in another.
On Friday morning, the top-six was reunited, as was the bottom-six. They were arranged into lines that looked an awful lot like what one might expect them to ice on opening night. In fact, the forward lines were exactly what was projected by PITB in Thursday’s article.
J.T. Miller - Elias Pettersson - Brock Boeser
Tanner Pearson - Bo Horvat - Nils Höglander
Antoine Roussel - Adam Gaudette - Jake Virtanen
Tyler Motte - Jay Beagle - Brandon Sutter
Extra: Loui Eriksson - Zack MacEwen
Alex Edler - Nate Schmidt
Quinn Hughes - Jordie Benn
Olli Juolevi - Tyler Myers
It’s easy to look at this group and see the Canucks’ opening-night roster, with one expected change: when Travis Hamonic signs and joins the group, he’ll likely take Benn’s spot on the right side with Hughes.
If this is the roster, then the main battles of training camp are over. Eriksson won’t be sent down to the AHL or taxi squad. MacEwen is on the roster over competitors like Jayce Hawryluk, Justin Bailey, and Kole Lind. Beagle is back in the lineup, pushing Sutter to right wing.
The most noteworthy element of this lineup: Höglander is still on the second line.
The rookie winger has been the talk of training camp ever since head coach Travis Green put him with Horvat and Pearson on day one. In the scrimmage on Wednesday, he was one of the best players on the ice and gave the coaching staff no reason to demote him from Horvat’s wing.
It’s important to keep in mind that Höglander is already in mid-season form and to temper expectations. The rest of the team is still getting up to game speed, while Höglander is already there after half a season in the SHL. He may not stand out as much when everyone else around him catches up.
The other intriguing element is on defence. Earlier in training camp, Jalen Chatfield was playing with Hughes, presumably as a placeholder for Hamonic. Now he’s been replaced by Benn, with Rafferty skating as the extra defenceman.
This suggests a question: will Benn or Rafferty be the Canucks’ extra defenceman?
The safe money is on Benn. Rafferty is still exempt from waivers, so can be safely sent to the taxi squad or AHL, not that Benn would be likely to be claimed. Benn has plenty of NHL experience, while Rafferty has just one full professional season, though it was a very good one in the AHL.
It does suggest that Rafferty has the edge in the final battle of training camp: the battle to be on the taxi squad.
The Canucks are able to have six players on their taxi squad. It’s easy to assume that they will fill the taxi squad with a player from every position: left wing, centre, right wing, left defence, right defence, and goaltender.
The forwards battling for a spot on the taxi squad include Sven Baertschi, Marc Michaelis, Justin Bailey, Jayce Hawryluk, Kole Lind, and Will Lockwood. In net, the Canucks need to decide if they’ll keep their top goaltending prospect, Michael DiPietro, in the taxi squad or send him to Utica to get the starts he needs to keep developing.
The biggest battle may be on defence. Guillaume Brisebois and Jalen Chatfield were frequent call-ups from the AHL last season, if only to sit in the press box, so they would make sense for the taxi squad, but Rafferty and Jack Rathbone could challenge for those spots. Or, if Rafferty is kept up as the extra defenceman, Benn could take a spot on the taxi squad.
Whatever happens with the battle for the taxi squad, it appears the battle to make the main Canucks roster is already over.