The Canucks could use some reinforcements. Brandon Sutter has a groin strain and it’s unclear when he might return. Micheal Ferland has been out since the end of October with a concussion and there’s still no timetable for his return to the lineup. Then there’s Tyler Motte, who has been out since October 25th with a broken foot.
Injuries haven’t entirely been the cause of the Canucks’ slide in November, but they haven’t helped. The Canucks could really use some good news on the injury front, and they got some on Monday. Not only did Jay Beagle return to practice after missing three games with an undisclosed injury, but also Antoine Roussel skated with the team in a regular jersey for the first time this season.
Roussel suffered an ACL tear on an awkward hit in a game against the New York Rangers last March. Two weeks later he had knee surgery that ensured he would be out for several months, including the start of the 2019-20 season. It was the most prudent option, giving him a more definite timeline, as opposed to trying to rehab it without surgery, an option filled with uncertainty.
“Just do it, rather than wait and try to rehab it and then you have to have surgery and you’re not back until February, and then suddenly you’ve missed two years,” said Roussel at the end of last season.
Roussel was already back on the ice during the Canucks’ training camp, but skated separately from the team. It was made clear that this was just part of his recuperation and he was still on track for a return in late November.
Now we’re nearing late November and Roussel’s return appears to be right around the corner. He’s skated with the team in a non-contact jersey for a few practices, but on Monday, he participated fully in practice in a regular jersey. He has now been cleared for contact, even if he’s still on the Injured Reserve.
“It’s awesome to get that first practice under your belt,” said Roussel to reporters after practice. “Feels like training camp a little bit, it’s basically the same drills. I loved it, getting my heart pumping, I’m still short of breath a little bit, but it’s good.”
Roussel will travel with the team on their six-game road trip, which kicks off in a familiar place for the feisty Frenchman: Dallas. Roussel started his NHL career with the Stars, playing six seasons in Dallas. Since coming to the Canucks, however, Roussel has yet to play a game in his former home, as he missed their visit to Dallas last season with his knee injury. Now he’ll miss another one, as he’s not quite ready to get back into the lineup.
“It’s just first practice, so I think I need a couple more, and then we’ll go from there,” he said. “It’s fun to be with the group and be surrounded by the guys and getting chirped a little bit. I’m in a familiar zone here, so I liked it.”
When Roussel does return, the Canucks will have some decisions to make. Will they be difficult decisions? Well, maybe not.
The first issue is that someone will need to be sent down to make room for Roussel on the 23-man roster. The Canucks just called up Tyler Graovac and Zack MacEwen, so they can pretty easily send one of them down. With Beagle returning, they no longer need a centre, and Graovac has played just over eight minutes total across two games, so he would be a likely candidate, but MacEwen hasn’t played at all, so either player would do the trick.
The next question is who would come out of the lineup. Again, there’s an easy answer: Loui Eriksson.
The six-million dollar man has quietly done a whole lot of nothing this season, with no goals, no assists, and just 9 shots in 11 games so far this season, while averaging nine minutes per game. He’s not even playing a significant role on the penalty kill, one of the few remaining strengths of his game. It’s hard to justify taking anyone else out of the lineup ahead of Eriksson. Roussel can also fill in for Eriksson's minutes on the penalty kill, so that's not an issue.
That leaves one final decision: where will Roussel play?
Since he’s missed so much time, the best course of action might be to ease him in on the fourth line, playing with Beagle and Tim Schaller. That will allow Travis Green to limit Roussel’s minutes and gauge whether he’s up to game speed and ready for a bigger opportunity.
Ultimately, however, the goal should be to reunite Roussel with the centre he had the most success with last season: Bo Horvat.
Roussel was Horvat’s best linemate last season. The duo had an impressive 54.1% corsi when on the ice together at 5-on-5 and outscored their opponents 15-to-5. Their hard-nosed, north-south games complemented each other nicely, while Roussel also added an underrated playmaking element to his gritty game.
Given Horvat’s struggles to produce offence at 5-on-5 this season, the return of Roussel could be a godsend. Horvat had more 5-on-5 goals and points while on the ice with Roussel than with any of his other linemates, even though he spent more time with Eriksson, Brock Boeser, and Jake Virtanen.
If all goes well, the return of Roussel could mean more than just a good player getting back in the lineup, but a more effective Horvat as well. Perhaps that will be enough to get the Canucks out of their November slump.