Paper Feature: The biggest battle at Canucks camp could be for second-line centre

Will the Canucks go with top prospect Elias Pettersson or a veteran?

Pass it to Bulis

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After Daniel and Henrik Sedin retired last season, the Canucks didn’t attempt to replace them in free agency. There are a couple reasons for that. First, the Sedins are irreplaceable. And second, the Canucks believe that the prospects and young players in their organization have what it takes to step into top-six roles.

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Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser emerged last season to take over from the Sedins on the first line, but that still leaves a significant hole on the second line. That’s particularly true at centre. While the Canucks have a lot of options on the wing, they still lack depth down the middle.

That means one of the most significant battles at training camp this year will be for second-line centre. Let’s take a look at the top candidates for the role.

Elias Pettersson

The Canucks’ top prospect should be in the lineup opening night, but will it be at centre? In the SHL last season, Elias Pettersson mostly played right wing. Even at the World Junior Championships for Team Sweden, Pettersson was on the wing.

The Canucks firmly believe that he’ll be a centre in the NHL, however, and have wasted no time putting him in that role heading into this season. At the Young Stars prospect tournament in Penticton, Pettersson centred the top line between Jonathan Dahlen and Kole Lind. In the preseason, with veterans in the mix, Pettersson is expected to again play at centre.

That doesn’t mean that Pettersson will centre the second line in the regular season, however. At least, not right away. While Pettersson’s skill set suggests he’ll be a great centre eventually, he will still face a significant learning curve.

It was already evident at the Young Stars tournament. Pettersson struggled in puck battles down low and looked uncertain in the faceoff circle. Those are areas where he can improve, particularly with a mentor like Manny Malhotra on the coaching staff, but could keep him on the wing to start the season.

Brandon Sutter

When the Canucks signed Jay Beagle, Jim Benning suggested that Beagle taking on checking-line duties could free up Brandon Sutter to play higher up the lineup. Sutter already played big minutes last season as the team’s checking-line centre, so moving up could only mean one thing: a more offensive role on the second line.

There are some clear arguments in favour of Sutter on the second-line: he’ll help support the rookie Pettersson with his two-way game and has a couple 20+ goal seasons under his belt.

The argument against, however, is equally clear: Sutter is not a playmaker, has generally been a drag on his linemates offensive production throughout his career, and plays a north-south game that is unlikely to mesh well with Pettersson’s style.

Sam Gagner

Apart from Sutter, the Canucks do have one other veteran forward that can slot in at centre. Sam Gagner has plenty of offensive ability, consistently putting up 40-point seasons throughout his career, and has the creativity and playmaking to complement Pettersson. Gagner’s versatility is also appealing, as he can easily pivot back to right wing if and when Pettersson is ready to play at centre or could even switch back and forth within a game.

The issue with Gagner is that he’s weak defensively and isn’t great at faceoffs either, so wouldn’t be much of an upgrade on Pettersson in that role.

Adam Gaudette

Finally, there’s the wild card: Pettersson’s fellow rookie, Adam Gaudette. Gaudette is a long shot to even make the team out of training camp and is more likely to start the season in the AHL with the Utica Comets. With that said, Gaudette is one of the few centres in the Canucks’ prospect pool with legitimate top-six potential.

Don’t bet on Gaudette starting the season as a second-line centre, but don’t count it out entirely. A few injuries and a stellar preseason performance from Gaudette could lead to the Canucks putting together a second line of rookies to play a sheltered, offensive role.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

A tap of the stick to the Canucks’ prospects, who dominated the Winnipeg Jets’ prospects at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton. Elias Pettersson and Jonathan Dahlen stole the show, but Petrus Palmu, Jonah Gadjovich, and Adam Gaudette also stood out.

I’m dropping the gloves with the Montreal Canadiens. Not for trading Max Pacioretty, though that was certainly a messy situation. No, I’m dropping the gloves because they traded Pacioretty after midnight on a Sunday. Their poor fans had to wake up Monday morning to the news that their captain had been traded after they went to sleep. It could be worse, of course; they could be Senators fans.

Big Numbers

5 - Jonathan Dahlen led the Young Stars tournament in scoring with five points in two games. An overstuffed left wing could keep Dahlen in Utica to start the season, but don’t expect that to last long.

40.6 - When Elias Pettersson did take faceoffs in the SHL last season, he struggled, going 54-for-133 for a 40.6% faceoff percentage.

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