Thursday night’s contest against the Dallas Stars was another day of business as usual for many at Rogers Arena.
Not for Tyler Graovac.
The forward had been called up to the Canucks the previous morning—along with Zack MacEwen—after centres Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle had been felled by injuries.
It wasn’t long after the call-up that Graovac learned he’d be taking the ice Thursday night for his first NHL game in about a year and a half.
“I wasn’t surprised, I was watching Vancouver and saw that Sutsy went down and Beags was kind of battling his injury,” the soft-spoken Brampton, Ontario native told the Straight in the Canucks’ dressing room after the game against Dallas. “I know there’s not a ton of centremen in this organization—we have a couple of wingers playing centre in Utica. So I knew there would be a shot here, which is one of the reasons why I signed here.”
Indeed, the Canucks inked the 26-year-old Graovac to a one-year two-way deal that pays him $700,000 in the NHL and $400,000 when he’s in the AHL with the Utica Comets when the free agent market opened up last July 1.
And while the thinking was that he’d be a good addition in Utica, the Canucks’ lack of organizational depth at centre necessitated the call-up, as Graovac himself predicted. It also obviously didn’t hurt that Canucks coach Travis Green was impressed with how Graovac played during training camp.
“It’s almost a breath of fresh air—it’s been a while since I’ve been called up. It kind of brought back memories from my first call-up,” said Graovac, remembering his days with the Minnesota Wild.
He was first called up from Iowa to the Wild for a three-game stint back in 2014-15. He also played two games the next year for Minnesota while remaining a stalwart in the AHL.
Then came his break, or so he thought.
Graovac spent 52 games with the Wild in 2016-17, scoring nine points and registering a plus-7 rating.
That offseason, he was traded to the Washington Capitals for a fifth-round pick. And he played well enough in training camp to earn a spot on the Capitals’ stacked roster at the beginning of the 2017-2018 season. But it didn’t last.
“I started the year there, and then they went on their Cup run and were healthy and it was tough to get back,” he says, noting that his five games with the Caps were not enough to get a Stanley Cup ring.
“Those ups and downs and watching them win the Cup, and making the team out of camp, it was kind of tough to watch. But I was really happy for them.”
The next season brought a two-way deal with the Calgary Flames, and while Graovac spent the entirety of the campaign in the AHL with the Stockton Heat, he became one of the leaders in Stockton, scoring 50 points in 65 games (good for second on the team).
“There are definitely some emotions from how my past seasons played out that kind of got me to where I am now, to get me back here in the NHL,” he admits. “I brought it to last season when I signed in Calgary and did really well in Stockton, had a full year to develop my game and get confidence. This year I have the mentality to see what I can do, see where it takes me.”
It remains to be seen if the 6’5, 210-pounder can carve out a role for himself with the big club.
That Thursday night proved to be tough. Graovac played just over 50 seconds in the first period (and only 5:31 overall) in the Canucks’ loss to the Stars.
Saturday night against the Colorado Avalanche saw Graovac log even less time on ice at just under three minutes.
And while Graovac admits it can be hard to get your game going in that miniscule amount of time, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the big leagues.
“I’ve played this role before, in Minnesota. Whatever role they want me to play, I’m going to try my best. Sometimes it’s hard to get into it but you just try to make a couple plays. I’m just trying to bring as much as I can.”
So far, he’s enjoying his time in Vancouver, and just hoping that it lasts as long as possible.
“It’s nice to have a loyal organization who talks to you and tells you that you might be the first call-up. I’m very grateful to be a part of it here.”