By Ben Kuzma
October 10, 2016
Can they score enough? Are they fast enough? Are they big enough?
Those questions were being addressed by the Vancouver Canucks in advance of the Tuesday deadline (2 p.m. Pacific) to submit National Hockey League rosters. And while coach Willie Desjardins wouldn’t tip his hand Monday about his 23-man formation, he did drop some hints.
Sending impressive defenceman Troy Stecher to the Utica Comets on Monday was about convenience and a more veteran presence. Stecher doesn’t require waivers and the Canucks don’t have to expose Alex Biega — if they choose to keep fewer than eight blue-liners. It’s also about controlling the development of the diminutive Stecher, who outplayed the 26-year-old Philip Larsen in the pre-season.
Allowing Stecher to get his regular-season baptism at the American Hockey League level affords the 22-year-old Richmond native time to transition more methodically, rather than being immersed in a schedule that will see the Canucks start by playing nine games in 15 days and 12 games in 22 days.
Not that it was a slam-dunk. Stecher made the decision harder because he played with an edge, defended well, moved the puck smartly and has an infectious personality.
“He had good camp, did everything we asked and it surprised me how well he played,” said Desjardins. “I knew he could play in the NHL, but I didn’t know he’d be this close right away. But the biggest thing, is you try to set guys up to succeed. We have a heavy schedule to start and I don’t know if that would be setting him up to succeed. He’s used to two (college) games and a week off.
“If things go south on him early, maybe it affects him for a while. We’ll see him up here again.”
That leaves expected pairings of Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, Ben Hutton and Erik Gubranson, Luca Sbisa and Larsen, with Nikita Tryamkin and Biega as extras. And while convincing Tryamkin that he’s better learning at this level than bolting back to the KHL because of his European out clause, the challenges on the back end aren’t as big as those up front.
Winger Anton Rodin was being looked upon to help kick-start an anemic offence, but the Swedish Elite League most valuable player looks like a candidate for the long-term injury reserve list. With swelling and strength issues in his knee from a freak January skate laceration — it required tendon surgery and shut him down for eight months — back-to-back pre-season games last week only heightened health concerns.
Rodin had two goals and three assists in five pre-season games. He has been shut down and going on the long-term injury reserve list means he wouldn’t be available for 10 games or 24 days. But the condensed schedule would help him gain full strength and return Nov. 3 at Ottawa during six-game road trip.
“That (LTIR) is a consideration and I feel there’s no reason bringing him back until he’s 100 per cent,” said Desjardins. “He’s a quick player and didn’t show it in camp and you have to wonder about his leg. It’s one thing to say it may have felt good, but it’s another when you don’t have the jump.”
Jake Virtanen suffered a shoulder bruise in San Jose on Sept. 27 and scored once in three pre-season games. Consistency of effort has always been his challenge, but he could bring needed size, speed, skill and youth to the roster.
“He’s kind of unique,” said Desjardins. “But on the other hand, you look at most players and going through the American League helps them. A lot will be based on what’s best for Jake. He’s a key guy and we expect him to play a key role down the road.”
Getting the best out of free-agent acquisition Loui Eriksson and a healthy Brandon Sutter are musts. A career season for Jannik Hansen and breakout seasons for Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi should prop up the 27th-ranked offence and 29th-rated power play. But it’s going to take more than that.
“We need to be quicker and we’ve got to find ways,” acknowledged Desjardins.
There are waiver-wire considerations and whether professional tryout candidates Tuomo Ruutu, 33, and Jack Skille, 29, have done enough to beat roster odds. Desjardins said both can play in the NHL, but it’s always about the fit with PTOs. However, if Virtanen goes to Utica, there’s room for Skille or Ruutu.
The trickle-down effect is really about who deserves to play on opening night and who might need a motivational nudge by being the 13th forward. Is that Alex Burrows or Emerson Etem?
“Burrows has done enough,” said Desjardins. “You forget. He’s a top-four guy on our penalty kill and that’s critical. And when we were up a goal last year, who did we play in the last minute? And who would we play this year? He’s still pretty high up on that list and can still give you something valuable.
“Etem has the speed and can push the pace, but I also see him as a top-12 guy. I want a 13th forward who’s good defensively, won’t get scored on and won’t disrupt team by complaining he’s the 13th guy.”