Finally, there’s hope in the market.
Not just, “oh look, this rookie could be really good” kind of hope (although that does exist with Quinn Hughes). We’re talking about real, legitimate playoff aspirations for a team with the third longest playoff drought in hockey.
Elias Pettersson burst onto the scene in 2018-19 as the best rookie in the NHL. He now leads a promising nucleus of young players who now hope to lead the Vancouver Canucks back to the playoffs. Jim Benning did bolster the line-up through signings and trades. Even if there are questions about some of the prices he paid, this team is better on paper than it was last season.
When you miss the playoffs for four straight seasons however, there are bound to be questions about the state of your team. There’s a bunch on my mind that I’ve highlighted below as the Canucks prepare for the puck to drop on the regular season.
1. How much better will they really be on defence?
Addition by subtraction should automatically do Vancouver some good this season. This was a team that gave Derrick Pouliot, Michael Del Zotto, Erik Gudbranson and Ben Hutton significant minutes over the last two seasons.
Regardless of how you feel about Tyler Myers, he’s going to improve the defensive core. Now, he does have warts, but should improve while playing with someone like Quinn Hughes or Jordie Benn, compared to most common partner last season, Dmitri Kulikov.
I’m not a fan of the Tyler Myers signing, but there’s on caveat which might make him more useful than many are leading on.— Trevor Beggs (@TrevBeggs) July 2, 2019
Read about this silver lining in my latest for @nucksmisconduct https://t.co/uZ6NjoOC50
Despite the changes, we’re still talking about a team that gave up the second-most scoring chances in the league last season. They have a big hill to climb just to be middling. Their regular defensive stalwart, Chris Tanev, took a step back last season after a barrage of injuries.
They should be better but there is risk. Alex Edler and Tanev could continue to diminish defensively. If Quinn Hughes gets overwhelmed and Tyler Myers turns out to struggle against top players, then this could still be a bottom-ten defence. Arguably, this is the Canucks biggest question mark heading into the season.
2. Just how good can Quinn Hughes be?
There’s a clear x-factor in determining the strength of this defence, and it’s Quinn Hughes. He’s ready for the NHL and he proved that during his five game audition last season, making moves seldom seen by a defenceman in Vancouver.
He’s going to take risks and he’s probably going to put up points. Is 40 points realistic? That’s the number many will be pointing to based on his potential. Only Dale Tallon (56 in ‘70-71) and Jocelyn Guevremont (51 points in ‘71-72) have surpassed 40 as a rookie defenceman in Canucks history.
The other question is, how good will he be defensively? He looked better than most of the other mediocre defenders we’ve seen in Vancouver recently, but Hughes has been burned by trying to dangle his way out of a situation. His performance might dictate whether the Canucks are middling or playoff-bound.
3. How will Jim Benning solve his cap conundrum?
Benning currently have $4.15 million in cap space with Brock Boeser still in need of a contract.
Benning will likely have to clear $3 million in cap space after signing the Burnsville, Minnesota native, and he can almost make it by sending down any three vets to the minors. The maximum cap relief Benning can get s $1.025 million, which would apply if Tim Schaller and Loui Eriksson were sent packing.
Benning also gets some short term cap relief by putting Antoine Roussel on IR. However, as Harman Dayal pointed out for The Athletic, bonuses for Pettersson and Hughes could cost another $3.7 million.
There’s no easy answer here, and we’re all anxiously awaiting to see how Benning maneuvers his cap kerfuffles.
4. Which vets will get the ax before the regular season starts?
There’s definitely a few guys on the bubble coming into camp. Including Roussel, there are 17 forward sports realistically up for grabs.
If the Canucks decide to keep both Alex Biega and Oscar Fantenburg (and recent history would suggest they might), it would mean only three of six forwards on the bubble (Tim Schaller, Loui Eriksson, Brandon Sutter, Nikolay Goldobin, Adam Gaudette & Tyler Motte) stick around.
Tim Schaller would likely need a miracle camp to earn a spot, and Adam Gaudette likely starts the season in the AHL. Brandon Sutter seems like a pretty safe bet to stick around as well.
That probably leaves Eriksson, Goldobin and Motte fighting for two spots before October 2nd. Will the Canucks bite the bullet and send Eriksson to the minors if his issues persist?
5. Can Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser stay healthy?
I don’t think there’s too much doubt about Pettersson and Boeser producing offence next season. They showed tremendous chemistry last season and will be given every opportunity to score.
The question is, will they stay healthy? Pettersson missed ten games with two injuries last season, and Boeser has missed 33 over two seasons. They drive the Canucks offence, and this team could go south in a hurry if either one of them suffers from injury.
6. Will Horvat take another step with better linemates?
You know the story. Every year, people wonder if Horvat can get to another level and every year, he does.
Horvat is coming off of a 27-goal, 61-point performance while playing in all situations for the Canucks. People were worried about his defensive game, and that even progressed last season.
Those career-best totals came in spite of Travis Green sticking Horvat with a Sea of Granlunds’. Once Boeser paired with Pettersson, the 24-year-old got extended time with guys such as Schaller, Motte, and Granlund, among others.
He showed some chemistry with Tanner Pearson late last season, and could also see time with a healthy Sven Baertschi, J.T. Miller or Micheal Ferland. Could that help Horvat take another step forward this season?
7. What’s the best way to use J.T. Miller?
If the consensus is that Ferland plays with Pettersson and Boeser, most will immediately assume that Miller will slot in on Horvat’s line.
While that’s not a bad suggestion, there should be concern over who plays third-line centre for the Canucks. It should be abundantly clear that this team has not been at it’s best with Sutter and Beagle as the bottom-two centres.
The Canucks would be better off with someone, like Miller, to hold up their third line if Gaudette isn’t ready. How many times have we seen Baertschi and Virtanen get shelled at even-strength playing with Sutter? Someone like Miller could be a breath of fresh air to a third-line that desperately needs to produce more offence.
In Tampa Bay last season, Miller was a third-line, 1st unit power play guy. Could something like that also be beneficial for the Canucks?
8. Can Nikolay Goldobin finally become a top-six winger?
This is the last chance for Nikolay Goldobin. For a couple seasons now, he’s flashed promise, only to fade or enrage his coach for failing to play defence.
If I’m Goldobin, I’d be doing everything in my power to prove that you can be Horvat’s right winger in training camp. Boeser is a lock to play beside Pettersson, and Goldobin needs to play in the top-six. If he fails to cement himself there, he could find himself off this team or out of this league in short order.
9. Will Adam Gaudette become the team’s third line centre?
This is a question to watch more so as the season progresses. Unless he has a monster training camp, Gaudette is likely destined for the Utica Comets’ first line.
Still, at 23-years-old, this is a big season for Gaudette to show that he can develop into a solid third-line centre who provides some offence. He held his own in sheltered minutes last year, but the offence wasn’t there. The Canucks need more from him on both sides of the puck, but they should be patient and take their time with the 2018 Hobey Baker winner.
10. How will the Canucks glass figurine quartet of Baertschi, Edler, Tanev and Sutter hold up?
The health of Edler and Tanev will go a long ways towards answering the first question in this post. While Edler played great when healthy, injuries took a toll on Tanev last season. This defence is average with them and below average if they miss significant time.
Baertschi could be an x-factor for this team. He was on pace for 30 goals last season and 25 the year before over 82 games. The problem is, he can’t stay healthy. If he can pull a Sidney Crosby and come back from his concussions flying, then Canucks likely add another 15 goals to their team.
As for Sutter? Well, that Pilates routine should have him back in game shape, and hopefully he performs well enough to become trade bait.
11. How can the Canucks get some juice out of their second power play unit?
Baertschi might have something to say about this as well. He was the Canucks most productive power play performer other than Pettersson last season. Horvat could find himself on this unit too, depending on how the Canucks want to use Miller and Ferland on the power play.
The second unit should also have better puck movement on defence from either Myers or Edler. Somehow, they need to find a way to score more. This was a bottom ten power play last season, a a big reason was because the second unit scored eight goals last season before Hughes arrived.
12. Was Markstrom’s stellar season an aberration or a step forward?
From December onward, Markstrom was a top-ten goaltender in the NHL. It was a big step forward for him, as for four months, he played rock solid behind a Swiss cheese defence.
In a contract year, can Markstrom pull off a repeat performance. He should face less chances this season, although some goalies are better when facing more shots. He also has a talented back-up breathing down his neck for starts.
13. Is this the year Thatcher Demko establishes himself as a starting goaltender?
We’ve heard Demko’s name for years now, but this will be his first full season as an NHL goaltender. With only ten NHL games under his belt, there’s still much to be answered about how he performs in the world’s best hockey league.
Despite a shaky performance or two, Demko was largely solid during his nine NHL games last season. His .913 save percentage was actually better than Markstrom’s despite the small sample size.
While there’s no rush for Demko to usurp Markstrom by the end of this season, the organization will certainly want to see the San Diego native push the Canucks incumbent netminder for ice time.
14. Will Olli Juolevi establish himself as an NHL defenceman?
Reading the early September headlines about Olli Juolevi felt like deja vu all over again.
After a long road of recovery to get back on the ice, Juolevi was reportedly not 100% coming to camp. That had everyone up in arms for a day or two, but it looks like the 5th overall selection from 2016 will be a full participant in Canucks camp.
The organization has time to be patient, but there’s certainly some cause for concern based on Juolevi’s injury history. He did play well in Utica last season, and a best-case scenario is that he builds on that and forces his way onto the Canucks roster by the end of the season.
15. Have they done enough to make the playoffs?
The biggest question of them all. While Benning and Francesco Aquilini might think they’ve done enough, but oddsmakers and other outlets all have the Canucks on the playoff perimeter.
At BoDog, the Canucks are tied with the Arizona Coyotes with the fourth-worst odds to win the Western Conference. Sports Betting was a bit higher on the Canucks, having them as the 9th best team in the Western Conference, with a predicted 90.5 points.
Then, Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic has the Canucks as the 25th ranked team in the NHL heading into the regular season, giving them only a 25% chance of making the playoffs.
Like many season of late, you’ll hear a bunch of “what-if’s” when talking about the Canucks making the playoffs. It’s no different this year, but what is different is the star power this team can boast up front now with Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat, and Hughes.
If a few more of those “if’s” (defence, goaltending, power play, secondary scoring, etc.) work out, then we’re talking about the Canucks as a playoff team. For now, it’s hard to nitpick with outlets who have the Canucks mising the playoffs for a fifth straight season.