The Vancouver Canucks pushed in Denver on Wednesday night but struggled to generate Grade-A scoring chances in the third period against a stout Colorado Avalanche side that bested them.
The 5-2 loss was Vancouver’s third regulation defeat in the club’s past four games, the sort of flat stretch that’s been few and far between for one of the NHL’s best stories in the first quarter of the campaign.
For most of this season so far, all the Canucks have done is win. Now that we’re just about 25 percent into the season, The Athletic’s Vancouver bureau figured it’d use the next two days to assess precisely where this club stands, and grade the contributions of every Vancouver regular to this point in the campaign. We’ll start with the forwards today and then grade all of the defensemen and goaltenders on Friday.
Note: Grades are handed out relative to a player’s expectations. If Player X has a better grade than Player Y it doesn’t mean X has been more valuable than Y.
Elias Pettersson: A
2023-24 statistics: 20 GP, 8-20-28
Despite playing through an undisclosed ailment during the first quarter of the campaign, Pettersson remains the straw that stirs the drink for the Canucks up front.
Now saying that might be a bit controversial today than it would’ve been at any other point this season, given that Pettersson is coming off one of his most pedestrian performances of the year in Denver. Through the first 20 games of the campaign, however, Pettersson has been arguably the club’s most effective penalty-killing forward, remains the Canucks player with the most gravity on the man advantage, has drawn penalties at a dizzying rate and has driven play — albeit somewhat less effectively than he historically has, perhaps due to injury — at five-on-five.
By both Net Rating and Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement model, Pettersson has been Vancouver’s most valuable forward this season — and one of the most valuable players in the league:
Any way you slice it, as Pettersson goes, so go the Canucks. He is, simply put, one of the single most effective and complete centremen in hockey.
Ilya Mikheyev: B+
2023-24 statistics: 16 GP, 6-4-10
When a player comes back after an injury as severe as Mikheyev’s ACL tear, it can often take a while to shake off the rust. We haven’t seen the same type of explosive foot speed Mikheyev showed in Toronto, and the coaching staff has been careful to limit his penalty-killing minutes, but his return has otherwise been stronger than expected.
Since drawing back into the lineup, Mikheyev is tied with Quinn Hughes for the team lead with six five-on-five goals. He also leads the club in five-on-five shots and high-danger chances in that span. That’s pretty impressive considering his linemates Pettersson and Kuzmenko have slowed down at even strength lately.
Mikheyev looks confident and assertive with the puck, while even sprinkling in the type of unexpected deke or maneuver to create space that we’ve rarely seen from him previously. His line needs to start generating better five-on-five results but it’s not Mikheyev’s responsibility to be the primary driver of a top-six line. He’s a complementary piece on that line — it’s on his linemates to step up.
Individually, he’s performed about as well as you could have hoped given how long of a layoff he had. As he puts the injury further behind, hopefully he can regain the exhilarating explosiveness that can make him even more effective on the forecheck.
Andrei Kuzmenko: C+
2023-24 statistics: 19 GP, 3-11-14
Kuzmenko remains an absolute game breaker, but it’s been too quiet around him too often this season.
The obvious regression — and Kuzmenko converted shots at a 27 percent clip, a historic rate in his first NHL campaign, which was never going to last — has hit. In fact, it’s gone overboard.
Kuzmenko is shooting 10 percent through his first 19 games (down from 27 percent) with an individual point percentage in the mid-40s, which is down from 70 percent last season (individual point percentage is a measurement of how many goals scored when a player is on the ice they’ve credited with a point on).
Given Kuzmenko’s finishing skill at the net front and his knack for getting his stick on pucks in the blue paint, we’d expect him to convert at a clip north of league average going forward. Given his absurd ability to feather passes through traffic and find open teammates in soft areas of coverage, we’d expect him to be involved on more of the goals scored when he’s on the ice when the sample expands.
Despite there being some noise deflating his individual counting stats, Kuzmenko’s two-way contributions have been a bit uneven this season as well. He’s currently playing fourth-line minutes at five-on-five and ranks 10th among Vancouver forwards who have dressed in at least 10 games by even-strength ice time per game, and it’s clear he’s still working on earning Rick Tocchet’s trust.
Overall, Kuzmenko hasn’t played poorly and he’s still making a handful of plays that are unique and show off his superb skill level, but given his role — on Pettersson’s wing at evens, and on the Canucks’ vaunted first-unit power play — it’s probably fair to note he hasn’t made a full meal of his opportunities through the first quarter of the campaign.
J.T. Miller: A
2023-24 statistics: 20 GP, 13-17-30
Miller has looked like a man on a mission this year. Miller’s 30 points in 20 games have him sitting second in NHL scoring behind only Hughes and his 13 goals are one back of Kyle Connor and Auston Matthews for the league lead. He’s a massive cog for Vancouver’s elite power play because of his dual-threat playmaking and finishing skills, registering the most primary points on the man advantage among the club’s PP1 group.
The rave reviews of Miller’s game have a lot more to do with just offense, however.
After oft-criticized defensive play last year, Miller’s two-way form looks considerably sharper. He’s held up in a shutdown role against opposing top lines, which would have seemed far-fetched a year ago. There are still nights where his line gets caved — the Canucks are getting outshot and outchanced with Miller on the ice this year — but he’s been sturdy and up to the task on most nights. There’s been a significant improvement in his commitment on the backcheck and at cutting down the egregious giveaways that tainted his reputation last year.
Miller has been a monster and his line’s effectiveness in handling the hardest minutes on the team is a major catalyst behind the Canucks’ hot start.
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Brock Boeser: A-
2023-24 statistics: 20 GP, 13-9-22
Boeser is leading all Canucks forwards in five-on-five ice time per game this season and has scored more goals than every single player in the NHL outside of Kyle Conner and Auston Matthews. That’s a dream start for Boeser, who has endured several uneven, rumour-filled campaigns in Vancouver over the past few years.
Although Boeser’s two-way results by the underlying numbers this season have been a bit soft, he’s battling extremely difficult matchups on Miller’s wing and the enhanced maturity and well-roundedness of his overall game has been apparent. The goal totals get the headlines, as they should, but Boeser’s work on the wall, his playmaking and his overall positional intelligence have been key in the Miller line’s success at five-on-five.
It should also be noted that Boeser has eight power-play points, and has been the screener on a large handful of other Vancouver goals scored with the man advantage. Boeser has perhaps been the quickest study and the player most positively impacted by the early success of Vancouver’s movement power-play scheme.
Phil Di Giuseppe: B
2023-24 statistics: 20 GP, 3-5-8
In an ideal situation, Di Giuseppe would be a bottom-six player. There’s a deficit in both his finishing touch and overall ability to drive offence that makes him a less-than-perfect fit for a complementary top-six role.
But in the grand scheme of things, it’s extremely impressive that an AHL/NHL tweener has capably held down a top-six matchup role for a quarter of a season. Eight points in 20 games doesn’t seem that impressive, but it’s solid considering he doesn’t get any power-play time.
The question now is how much longer he can last in this high-profile role.
Di Giuseppe is excellent as the first man in on the forecheck. Early in the season, his work as the F1 was helping Miller’s line control a lot of heavy cycling shifts in the offensive zone. The Canucks’ blue line hasn’t been quite as fast transitioning the puck on exits in recent games though, which is creating fewer opportunities for Di Giuseppe to create havoc on the forecheck. Without a conducive environment to leverage his puck retrieval skills, Di Giuseppe has been fairly quiet and his underlying two-way numbers have slipped. During the last couple of games, we’ve even seen Rick Tocchet give Anthony Beauvillier some shifts on the Miller line in Di Giuseppe’s place.
Dakota Joshua: B-
2023-24 statistics: 19 GP, 2-3-5
It hasn’t been the smoothest ride, but on balance, Joshua has been excellent as a mainstay on Vancouver’s third line.
The hardworking, physical forward is indispensable to Vancouver’s forward group given his unique combination of size and speed relative to his teammates. That has kept him in the lineup despite some pointed commentary from Tocchet about his fitness level during training camp, and his consistency during the season.
For the most part, though, Joshua has taken any pointed criticism of his game in stride and continually improved. Over the past month or so, Joshua and his linemates have provided Vancouver with significant stability on the third line. And although he’s not one of the club’s most frequently used penalty killers, Joshua’s impact in short-handed situations has been exceptional. It might even be an area where the club should strongly consider using him more frequently.
Conor Garland: B-
2023-24 statistics: 20 GP, 2-3-5
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Two goals and five points aren’t enough for a $4.95 million forward. There has to be much more bottom-line production moving forward.
Garland’s overall impact far exceeds what the disappointing point totals give him credit for, though.
Garland has been the play-driving engine for the vastly improved bottom six. The Canucks are throttling teams to the tune of a 60 percent control of shot attempts and outscoring them 8-4 during his five-on-five shifts this season. That underlying profile is the best of any Canucks player.
Vancouver’s feisty undersized winger is setting up a ton of chances but what can a playmaker do when his linemates can’t bury their chances? Clever passes into the slot that would normally turn into assists are instead missed scoring chances by Teddy Blueger and Joshua. Garland needs to do a better job of capitalizing on his own chances too, but he’s a distributor first and foremost, which means he’s at the mercy of his linemates’ finishing to rack up points.
The way Garland’s hounding pucks, winning battles, drawing penalties and pushing the pace is essential for the third line’s current success. He’s one of the few forwards on this team who can legitimately drive even-strength offence and he barely gets scored on defensively, too. He’s a really important piece for this team, even if the point totals don’t reflect that yet.
Pius Suter: B
2023-24 statistics: 15 GP, 4-0-4
Suter’s recent injury absence has been sorely felt, particularly given the way the club’s third-line was beginning to cook prior to his injury.
Although the counting stats have been pedestrian, Suter’s overall two-way intelligence, high motor and honest work rate have made him a helpful supporting contributor to Vancouver’s red-hot start. He’s just played clean, subtly effective hockey over 200 feet on a consistent basis when he’s been in the lineup.
Teddy Blueger: B-
2023-24 statistics: 6 GP, 0-1-1
Blueger doesn’t have the offensive chops to hold down a top-nine role. Blueger’s profile has long indicated he’s best served as a fourth-line centre though, so he doesn’t deserve criticism for being unable to bury some of the glorious looks the third line is generating.
The veteran defensive centre has added value by winning 54.1 percent of his draws and displaying smart positioning and puck support in all three zones. He hasn’t hindered the third line’s ability to control play by any means and has only been tagged for one five-on-five goal against through six contests. That’s good stuff considering how far a player like Blueger can end up behind the eight ball when they miss a solid chunk of games due to injury.
Blueger’s calling card is his penalty-killing ability. It appears that Tocchet is mindful of Blueger’s heavier even-strength workload and is trying not to put too much on his plate until he’s farther removed from that injury because he’s played just 4:19 short-handed through his six games.
Nils Höglander: B+
2023-24 statistics: 18 GP, 6-3-9
The Canucks need to find more opportunity to get Höglander involved.
The waterbug fourth-liner, whom Pettersson has often referred to as a “pint-sized power forward,” has been one of Vancouver’s standouts whenever he’s been in the lineup. While playing a fourth-line role and occasionally finding himself in the press box as a healthy scratch in the early going, Höglander has nonetheless found ways to generate offence and scoring chances on a far more consistent basis than the majority of his teammates.
A historic PDO bender has hidden how much difficulty this Canucks team is having generating really high-quality scoring chances at even strength in the first quarter of the season. As the shooting percentage evens out, the Canucks are going to need to generate more if they’re going to continue winning games at the sort of clip they have to this point. The game in Colorado was a fine example — they simply didn’t test Alexander Georgiev frequently enough when down a goal in the third period.
Höglander may still have a few warts in terms of his overall defensive IQ, but his work rate is standout, and if this club isn’t generating enough quality scoring chances — and they’re not, at the moment — increasing Höglander’s ice time and the quality of his linemates is one of the most straightforward internal solutions at the club’s disposal.
Sam Lafferty: B
2023-24 statistics: 20 GP, 4-5-9
Lafferty’s speed, size and grit have added a unique dimension to the Canucks’ bottom six. He’s combined those tools with an unimpeachable work rate to put pressure on opposing defenders, whether that’s on the forecheck or even rush chances where he attacks the net hard. The Canucks have gained enormously from the four goals and nine points he’s chipped in with as well.
Lafferty’s underlying numbers are a bit soft but it’s worth remembering he’s played a lot of games at centre, whereas last season, he was mostly lining up on the wing.
Jack Studnicka: C+
2023-24 statistics: 5 GP, 1-0-0
Studnicka forced his way into the Vancouver lineup with a stupendous run at training camp, and looked solid and physically assertive while playing both at centre and on the wing in his five appearances this season. Studnicka will surely be back as injuries hit later on in the season and looks the part of a solid depth contributor.
Anthony Beauvillier: C-
2023-24 statistics: 20 GP, 2-6-8
Vancouver’s glut of wingers meant somebody would suffer in terms of opportunity. Beauvillier’s been the odd man out, spending most of the year in a fourth-line role. The 13:30 he’s averaging this season is a far cry from the 16:59 he averaged in 33 games with Vancouver down the stretch.
That reduced usage is justified because he’s been invisible offensively for the most part. Beauvillier’s only two goals were the ninth and 10th tallies in the Canucks’ 10-1 blowout of the Sharks. He has been a lot more noticeable and dangerous during the last 2-3 games and has earned shifts higher up the lineup, but he still can’t buy a bounce right now. Beauvillier has been a streaky player so hopefully the floodgates will open for a hot stretch once one finally goes in.
Beauvillier is reliable defensively (he rarely makes mistakes and is dilligent on the backcheck) and has positive play-driving numbers, but he needs to provide more value considering his $4.15 million cap hit.
(Photo of Andrei Kuzmenko celebrating with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser: Stan Szeto / USA Today)