VANCOUVER — There'll be some glaring absences as the Vancouver Canucks return to the ice this week.
Though general manager Jim Benning bolstered his roster with a flurry of moves over the off-season, he has yet to sign restricted free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, two of the team's most promising young stars.
Negotiations have been ongoing all summer, Benning said, but the pair are unlikely to be present when the Canucks open training camp in Abbotsford, B.C., on Thursday.
“I’m disappointed that they’re not going to be here for the start of camp. But we’re going to continue talking to (their agents) and try to get something figured out here as soon as we can," the GM told reporters Wednesday.
“I don’t think we’re that far apart. But these are complex and unique deals. These are two good, young players who are an important part of our group so we’re going to continue to work with (their agents) until we get something finished.”
Right-winger Brock Boeser has been reaching out to his friends and teammates every few days to see how they're doing.
“It obviously sucks but it’s part of the process. It’s all about finding a fair deal for both sides and obviously I think we all know they all want to be here and be here for a while," he said. "I’m not too worried about it. I think they’ll be here soon and I think they’ll be ready to go when they get here.”
Boeser knows better than most what it's like to miss camp. Prolonged contract talks kept him sidelined in September 2019.
“I didn’t like that feeling of sitting out and not being there with the guys," he recalled Wednesday, adding that the feelings grew when he started seeing video of his teammates skating together and playing pre-season games.
"It got a little bit more urgent and obviously a deal can come fast when both sides start to agree on some terms.”
Boeser ultimately signed a three-year, US$17.63 million deal. Last season, he lead Vancouver in scoring with 49 points (23 goals, 26 assists) in 56 regular season games.
Despite his performance, the Canucks finished the pandemic-condensed campaign last in the all-Canadian North Division with a 23-29-4 record.
The club was also rocked by a COVID-19 outbreak in late March, with 21 players and four coaching staff testing positive for the virus. Several players experienced symptoms ranging from extreme fatigue and fever to chills and shortness of breath. Loved ones also fell ill, including wives and children. Vancouver had several games postponed and didn’t play for more than three weeks.
The team had already suffered a number of injuries by the time the virus swept through the locker room, including to Pettersson, who hyperextended his wrist in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and was limited to just 26 games.
The 22-year-old Swedish centre still managed 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) but was well off the 66 points he tallied in each of his first two years in the league.
Hughes, a 21-year-old defenceman, put up 41 points (three goals, 38 assists) in 56 regular-season games last year but struggled in his own zone at times.
Pettersson and Hughes have been key pieces for the Canucks over the past three seasons, but head coach Travis Green doesn't expect their absences to have much of an effect on training camp.
They pair will, however, miss out on crucial development time, he said.
"I’m disappointed they’re not here, obviously, as a coach," Green said. "We’ve got a lot of new bodies on our team. I think being two big pieces of our team, it’s important they’re here. And being two younger players, training camp is a big part of working on certain parts of your game.”
A few other Canucks will also miss the beginning of training camp.
Centre Tyler Motte is still rehabbing after having surgery for an upper-body injury over the summer, and right-winger Justin Bailey remains in Buffalo, N.Y., after testing positive for COVID-19 en route to Vancouver. Veteran forward Brandon Sutter is "dealing with some fatigue," Benning said, and may not be available to start camp as he undergoes further tests.
Meanwhile, several players are preparing for their first camp with the Canucks.
The Arizona Coyotes dealt defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and winger Connor Garland to Vancouver in exchange for a first-round pick July's NHL entry draft. The deal also sent veteran forwards Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson and Antoine Roussel to the Coyotes, plus Vancouver's second-round pick in 2022 and its seventh-round selection in 2023.
Ekman-Larsson said he's looking forward to a "fresh start" in Vancouver.
“I believe that we have a chance to win here. Super excited," the 30-year-old former Coyotes captain said Wednesday.
Originally picked sixth overall in the 2009 draft, Ekman-Larsson played 11 seasons in Arizona, but saw his point total drop to just 24 (three goals, 21 assists) in 46 games last season.
He believes, though, that he can regain his former form in Vancouver.
“I feel like I haven’t been that bad," the blue liner said. “I really feel comfortable here. I’ve only been here for a week, but I think a fresh start is going to be great for me.”
Vancouver also added to its depth over the off-season, bringing in forward Jason Dickinson (Dallas Stars), defencemen Tucker Poolman (Winnipeg Jets) and Brad Hunt (Minnesota Wild), and goaltender Jaroslav Halak (Boston Bruins).
The additions prove that the Canucks' front office is committed to icing a solid team, said forward J.T. Miller.
“It’s a lot of new faces, but we still have to have the expectation to play to get back in the playoffs and be very competitive," he said, noting that jobs will be up for grabs at training camp this week.
"The internal competition, there’s nothing that lights a fire under a guy like trying to earn a spot. You’re going to get the best out of guys. … It’s a great problem to have.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press