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Canucks’ roster comes into focus as regular season draws closer

VANCOUVER — Dress rehearsals in the National Hockey League are an oxymoron because nobody wears their actual costumes. All we get are practice jerseys.

But the Vancouver Canucks players who filled those ubiquitous blue and white smocks on Friday will be largely the same group of performers who open the regular season next Wednesday in Edmonton.

With Saturday’s simulated game and two more practice days remaining in training camp, coach Travis Green pooled his top 23 players into a single group for practice at Rogers Arena.

We can report that Elias Pettersson has squeaked on to the roster for a third straight year. Slightly more unexpected – at least until camp began on Monday – is that another dynamic, skilled Swede, 20-year-old second-round pick Nils Hoglander, will also be in the lineup in Edmonton for his NHL debut.

The five-foot-eight winger is the biggest story of training camp, earning the top-six forward spot created by the free-agent exit of Tyler Toffoli. Hoglander has barricaded himself inside the second line, beside captain Bo Horvat and winger Tanner Pearson.

“We’ve waited probably as long as I’ve wanted to,” Green said of getting down to an NHL lineup halfway through camp. “We debated doing it right from the beginning, to be honest. We’ve only got four days, counting today, before we play a game. I think it’s important to get that group together.

“You’ll probably see a couple of changes throughout the next few days but we don’t have a lot of time, so those guys need to be dialed in with their details and their work. The best players going against the best players gets them a lot better prepared for Game 1.”

THE LINEUP

Forward lines

J.T. Miller-Elias Pettersson-Brock Boeser

Tanner Pearson-Bo Horvat-Nils Hoglander

Antoine Roussel-Adam Gaudette-Jake Virtanen

Tyler Motte-Jay Beagle-Brandon Sutter

Defence pairings

Alex Edler-Nate Schmidt

Quinn Hughes-Jordie Benn

Olli Juolevi-Tyler Myers

Goalies

Braden Holtby, Thatcher Demko

Extra skaters

Loui Eriksson, Zack MacEwen, Brogan Rafferty

THE FINE PRINT

Benn’s lineup spot is likely temporary because Travis Hamonic, who is in camp on a professional tryout but has the framework for a one-year contract with the Canucks, ends his travel quarantine on Sunday and is expected to partner with Hughes as Chris Tanev’s replacement. Benn would be the seventh defenceman.

When Hamonic returns, the Canucks’ “lineup” will have one too many skaters. Assuming Green wants to keep eight defencemen, another forward, possibly $36-million-man Loui Eriksson, will be moved to the six-man taxi squad.

HOGLANDER WITH A D?

One of the fascinating aspects of Hoglander’s deployment with Horvat is that playing with the two-way centre generally means difficult matchups and tough minutes defensively. Hoglander’s strength is his speedy, creative offensive game. He exudes confidence with the puck. But how will he handle the defensive half of the ice against much bigger, more experienced NHL players?

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say (I wonder) how he is going to handle that,” Green said. “That’s part of the big adjustment for rookie players in the NHL — your attention to detail. Even strength, going up against better players? Yeah, we’re going to have to figure it out if he’s ready for that or not.

“We’re just taking it day by day with him, trying to teach him. Today’s practice was a lot of different systems work that he probably hadn’t done yet. We don’t have exhibition games, so we’re going to make these decisions on the fly.”

Hoglander looks much more comfortable on the ice than he does on Zoom calls, but said Friday that he likes the smaller NHL rink compared to the international-size sheets back home. His quickness to pucks and agility in tight spaces translates well to North American hockey.

“Of course, I’m nervous a little bit but. . . when I play my best hockey, that’s when I have my confidence,” Hoglander, who turned 20 just three weeks ago, told reporters. “I still have that (confidence) in this camp.”

Horvat said: “I think he’s just a smart player and his work ethic, I think, is the biggest thing I’ve noticed. Does he have skill and speed? Sure. But I think his smarts and his willingness to get places, and do the dirty work, too, I think is a testament to his personality, his character. I think he’s going to handle himself really well.”

GOALIE TIPOFF

Braden Holtby had the “home” goal, typically the domain of the Canucks’ starting goalie. The former Washington Capital also had his sharpest day of camp on Friday, and has been a little better than incumbent backup Thatcher Demko. You may have heard this before, but both goalies will play a lot in this condensed season. The Canucks open with back-to-back games against the Oilers, so each will play next week.

BLUE-LINE WRINKLE

The biggest surprise in the sneak-peek at the Canucks lineup is that Brogan Rafferty replaced Jalen Chatfield as the first-alternate at right defence.

Chatfield, who spent the last three seasons in the American Hockey League, had skated with Hughes until Friday and appeared to be headed to a depth role in the NHL lineup. Rafferty, who at 25 is a year older but has played just one season of pro hockey, is coming off an excellent year with the Utica Comets, with whom he had 45 points in 57 games. He is known for his offensive ability, but said Friday he sees an opportunity on the defensive side of the puck.

“Obviously, with the departures that the Canucks have had on the blue line there, there’s a lot of minutes open,” Rafferty, a former free agent out of Quinnipiac University, explained. “A lot of heavy minutes, the penalty kill, playing against the top lines on other teams. I’m aware of that and speaking with the staff here, and just kind of reflecting on my own game. I’d like to be hard to play against in my own zone.”

SNEAKY PETE

Practice ended with a robust, three-aside game, the intensity of which was characterized by Pettersson nearly amputating the legs of opponent Adam Gaudette.

“He was holding my stick and I got heated up and took a five-minute major for kicking,” Pettersson explained.

It looked like slashing.

“There was some of that, too,” he added. “I just got mad. Those drills, everyone gets fired up. After the play, we kind of got together and said ‘nice battle’ and we were friends again.”

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