The Vancouver Canucks opened their 2021 training camp in Abbotsford on Thursday. And this will take some getting used to after the last two camps — there's no need to rush to judgement!
We're not looking at jumping into games after a week of on-ice sessions. Yes, the first-preseason games are on Sunday in Spokane and then back in Abbotsford on Monday, but then they'll get another three days to work on systems and try out combinations before their next game action, on Friday, October 1.
I made my first-ever visit to the Abbotsford Centre on Thursday, to take in the action. I love the optimism of training camp and the chance to see new faces.
Players were divided into two groups on Thursday. Each session lasted about 1:45, with a break of about 15 minutes to re-flood the ice midway through.
Here's how the lines and pairings shook out for both groups:
In the words of coach Travis Green, here's how the sessions are structured:
"We usually start the first part of practice with five or six quick drills that get the heart rate going a little bit, get their legs going. Then, we go into some structure stuff. Especially the second half of our practice, we're working on D-zone coverage and certain parts of our game that we want to make sure we're better at this year. And there's a skating test at the end."
That 'skating test,' of course, draws the most attention. It's riveting to watch, and it's easy to jump to conclusions when you've got players lined up against each other.
In his Day 1 breakdown at The Athletic
, Thomas Drance and Harman Dayal
break down the structure of the drill in detail.
Each Group is divided into four sub-groups of five or six players. Those groups take turns skating four laps of the ice, with the goal of completing all four laps within 40 seconds or less. They get time to recover and bring their heart-rate down while the other three groups do their thing — roughly two minutes. And repeat. Four rounds in total.
Around these parts, Troy Stecher became notorious for losing his breakfast after these skates on more than one occasion. Conor Garland assumed that role on Thursday, while Olli Juolevi and Oliver Ekman-Larsson also struggled noticeably.
While Travis Green acknowledged that "We do it for a reason," Henrik Sedin told The Athletic
that the skates need to be considered within the context of the full day's workout.
“It’s so tough, there’s a lot of talk about who didn’t skate well, but it’s all the new guys,” Sedin said on Thursday. “If you’ve never done the skate before, you’re in trouble, it doesn’t matter what shape you’re in. If you’ve done it before, you know how to pace yourself a bit better during practice. For me, it was no surprise, you saw the guys who had a tough time and it was the new guys.”
Speaking of Ekman-Larsson specifically, “He did three ones really easily and then the fourth one, he didn’t, but he’s a new guy, he’s never skated it before, you saw all the other guys that are new and they were struggling too,” said Sedin. “I know fans and media are going to pick up on it and talk about it for a week, but there’s really nothing to talk about.”
I can vouch for the fact that OEL was pretty quick to come out and speak with the media after his session, smiling and looking no worse for wear.
"It was a tough one, but we knew that coming in, right?" he mused, when asked for his first impressions of the session. "And I mean, I haven't been doing a lot of 40s on the ice before this, but it was a good practice. I think it was a good good pace and the guys were working really hard. So that's all we were looking for."
Ekman-Larsson was paired with another newcomer, Tucker Poolman — who acquitted himself just fine in the skate, for whatever that's worth.
A lot has been made about the big-ticket offer that Poolman received from Vancouver — four years at a cap hit of $2.5 million per season. I asked him what he liked about the idea of joining the Canucks.
"I liked the team," he said. "The last two years, two years before, they had a good run in the bubble. They've got a lot of good guys here and they brought in a lot of new guys as well.
"It's a beautiful city as well. I know Brock from college a little bit, we played two years in college together. So this combination, all that made it attractive."
As far as the opportunity to return to a more normal day-to-day hockey life this season, "Yeah that'll be welcomed," he smiled. "I mean, even already, like, today, on day one, just walking around feels a little more normal for us since we're vaccinated. In the locker room, there's no masks, which is the protocol for the players at least. It just feels better. You're doing a little bit more and it just makes it easier to get to know guys a little easier."
I didn't pay too much attention to Ekman-Larsson's work-rate before his skating session, but I will say that I thought both Juolevi and Garland put in big efforts during their drills. Juolevi spent quite a bit of time doing one-on-ones against Vasily Podkolzin — and that, very clearly, was no easy task. As advertised, Podkolzin is a high-energy machine at all times, and I don't think the talk of his leadership qualities has been overstated, either.
Garland, of course, has defied the odds and turned himself into a top-six forward through hard work. His intensity was also noticeable during his drills — and his line combination with J.T. Miller and Podkolzin was very intriguing. That trio seems like it would be a complete pain in the butt to play against.
On a more positive note — standouts during the skating drill included Nils Hoglander, Will Lockwood and Jack Rathbone. The Rathbone/Luke Schenn pairing also looked strong during the drills, and Schenn showed quite well during the skate for a new guy. I liked him when he was with Vancouver briefly in 2019, and he made a positive first impression again on Thursday.
Closing things out — after the introductory presser at Rogers Arena on Wednesday, the Canucks announced that they'd signed veteran winger Alex Chiasson to a professional tryout contract. The 30-year-old was on the ice with Group B on Thursday, physically impressive with his big 6'4" frame and looking like a guy who has been there before.
As expected, Brandon Sutter, Tyler Motte and Justin Bailey were absent from the on-ice session, and Travis Hamonic was also missing despite Jim Benning's assurances on Wednesday that he'd be there.
And...still no news on contracts for Pettersson and Hughes.
Looks like the Groups are unchanged for Friday, which includes the first scrimmage of camp.
I'll be back out in Abbotsford for Day 3 on Saturday.