Let's face facts. The 2015/16 season was a disaster on many, many levels and most Canucks fans want to forget we ever had to watch the team struggle so badly. However it is a new season, a new beginning, with new additions to the team (and management) to excite and surprise us, and a whole new set of questions awaiting the team.
Who will lead the team in scoring? How much of the goaltending workload will Ryan Miller shoulder? How will Bo Horvat, Ben Hutton and Sven Baertschi fare? While those questions are likely fairly easy to answer, this Canucks team has some very clear outstanding issues it needs to resolve: lack of scoring depth, lack of a shutdown line and a D that lacks snarl, skill and scoring. Let's take a look at how Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins have tackled those issues - and what we can expect from this Canucks team in the coming season.
BIG QUESTION 1: CAN WILDCARD SIGNINGS ANTON RODIN AND PHILIP LARSEN CONTRIBUTE A BIG ENOUGH IMPROVEMENT IN SCORING?
Pre-season generally gives you a good indication of a player's desire and chemistry with potential line-mates. In this regard, Anton Rodin looks like he is ready for the challenge of NHL hockey. His 2 goals and 3 assists paces the Canucks in pre-season scoring, and he has shown his determination and willingness to get into scoring positions:
Just look at the positional sense. He instinctively knew to keep himself in the open ice, and the smart play by Troy Stecher allowed him the easy finish for the eventual GWG. It's the kind of play you'd expect from the 2011-era Sedins/Burrows line.
Now this one I really loved. Follow his movement off the puck. Horvat picks it up and starts the rush; Rodin moves inside Bo, goes to the net, wins a battle in the corner, goes to the net, and when the puck comes to him, he puts it away. He worked really hard for that goal - and if he can keep that intensity up, we finally have ourselves the player we hoped for when Mike Gillis drafted Rodin #53 in the 2009 draft.
Rodin is ready.
As for Larsen, it's been a mixed pre-season for him. Coming into camp we knew very little about him; we vaguely remembered his 125 NHL games for the Stars and Oilers, and some questioned the sense in trading a late round draft pick for a player who appeared to be an Oilers reject, on D no less.
However, answers are there to be found: he was developing well in Dallas before his one season in Edmonton, during which he was pretty much the Oilers' best D before he moved to the KHL. Since then, he's continued to improve, and posted 11-25-36 with a +9 with Jokerit in the KHL last season. He is expected to be a puck-moving, offensive D who can hold his own defensively.
The pre-season however has seen his grip on a third pairing spot seemingly slip through his fingers - not due to his own poor play, but due to the emergence of fellow new recruit Troy Stecher. StecherMania is growing daily, thanks in large part to the 1G+2A in three games posted by the former NCAA star. Larsen may have been a solid +1 in his three games, but no points on the board has seen excitement in him wane. Even Jim Benning, when talking about Larsen, ends up talking about Stecher. And word is spreading throughout the league:
The question here has actually become: does Philip Larsen even make the Canucks team? In all honesty, the only way he doesn't is if Troy Stecher takes his place. Either way, that third pairing is going to have a scoring threat that Canucks third pairings haven't had since 2011. We're in a good place.
BIG QUESTION 2: WILL THE RETURN OF A FULLY-HEALTHY BRANDON SUTTER GIVE THE CANUCKS A MORE BALANCED TOP 9?
When Jim Benning traded Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening and a 2nd round pick for Sutter and a 3rd round pick last summer, Canucks fans were mixed in their response. When Benning then signed Sutter to a 5-year, $4.375m AAV contract without even seeing him play in a Canucks jersey, labelling Sutter a 'foundational' player, even more Canucks fans turned on the new recruit. A horrible season then saw Sutter limited to just 20 games, bouncing across the top three lines, from center to wing, posting 5 goals and 4 assists. When his season was ended in February, the already-slim hopes of seeing the Canucks in the playoffs evaporated.
As the new season approaches, expectation in Sutter is at an all-time low. That is just what he needs, particularly as he has only suited up for one pre-season game to date. I doubt there is a single Canucks fan out there who would bet even $5 on Sutter playing the full 82 games this season - but this team needs him to. He did little to inspire confidence in his pre-season debut against the Coyotes, with 21:09 of ice time (a full 5:00 on the PP), and just the one shot on his score card. He needs to get up to speed quickly if this team is to have any chance of success.
However - and this may be a big however - a fit Sutter gives the Canucks a solid 2/3C, allowing Henrik Sedin to take more OZ starts, and the huge pressure on Bo Horvat to both score goals and stop them at the other end to be relieved. In an ideal world, Sutter is the Canucks' 3C, playing the shutdown role the Manny Malhotra's line did to such good effect in 2011 and contributing around 40pts. With Sutter should be Alex Burrows (if he can keep up), and Jannik Hansen, who is as reliable a 3rd liner as you're going to find in the NHL. This will allow Baertschi-Horvat-Rodin to concentrate on scoring more than backchecking, the Sedins to kick back and put up another 60pt season each, and Sutter to carve out his niche on this team for the next five years.
The answer to this question is yes - but only for as long as Sutter stays healthy. We simply don't have the depth to replace him.
BIG QUESTION 3: CAN THE CANUCKS' D CUT DOWN ON THE MISTAKES, AS WELL AS INCREASE PRODUCTION?
When I came up with this third question, StecherMania was yet to be born; Luca Sbisa was our #5 D; and Nikita Tryamkin was perceived as a cross between Zdeno Chara and Zangief from Street Fighter. Fast forward two weeks, and the competition on the Canucks' D is as fierce as it has been for years.
Four players are absolutely nailed on certs: Alex Edler with Chris Tanev, and Ben Hutton with Erik Gudbranson. Both pairings will be solid in their own end, with scoring potential at the other - although nothing more than 30pts each from Edler and Hutton. This team lacks a Karlsson, a Burns, a Subban; if this D corps is to contribute offensively, it is going to be by committee. Or with a shed-ton of goals like this:
The last four spots on D are anyone's guess, and this is Benning and Desjardins' hardest decision coming into the season. The candidates are: the afore-mentioned Philip Larsen, Luca Sbisa, Nikita Tryamkin, Andrey Pedan, Alex Biega and Troy Stecher. It will be four from those six, and only one of those players (Stecher) is waiver-exempt. That means that at least one NHL-calibre player is going to be exposed to waivers (likely Biega).
How the final D pairing shakes out is anyone's guess, but if I were to hedge my bets - today - I would estimate that Sbisa-Stecher will form the 3rd pairing for Game 1, with Tryamkin-Larsen scratched. Biega will be waived, along with Andrey Pedan, who is sadly a non-factor with Sbisa and Tryamkin around.
Now that that is settled, how will that D improve on last season? Well, it's fair to say that an 82-game Edler-Tanev pairing will shut down at least 3/4 more goals than last season; the Hutton-Gudbranson pairing will also shore up the D, as Gudbranson is a hulking, physical presence who plays a no-nonsense game. Those two pairings alone should see an improvement on last season.
The key for me is the third pairing. Last season we saw the likes of Matt Bartkowski, Alex Biega and Yannick Weber all play significant minutes. All are okay players, but nothing more than okay. Putting together Sbisa - on a limited role to play hard-hitting hockey - alongside the pocket dynamo Troy Stecher, could see the Canucks not only hold their ground in the DZ, but put up a few points at the other end.
All this is conjecture - so much can, and will, change before the season begins - but there can surely be very little doubt that this D is much-improved on the 2015/16 offering. We will concede less goals, and score more. Just you wait and see.
We'd love to hear from everyone out there - regular posters, first-time posters, occasional posters, lurkers, you name it! Get on here and let us know what you think about the Canucks' chances this season. Go Canucks Go!