The 2019-20 season, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, ended up being the longest in franchise history.
That’s evident by looking back at the 15 burning questions I had about the Vancouver Canucks heading into the season.
Doesn’t it feel like a lifetime ago that Alex Biega was a member of the Canucks? I forgot about that completely until stumbling across this piece that I wrote right before training camp on September 10th, 2019.
I guess time flies
when you’re having fun... in isolation...when your life it turned upside-down by a global pandemic that forced the hockey world to take a 5-month hiatus.
Regardless of how weird this season was, it’s finally reached it’s conclusion for the Canucks. That means, these questions are burning no more.
Well...most of them, at least.
1. How much better will they really be on defence?
Answer: They were arguably worse.
I know that sounds crazy after this team rostered Erik Gudbranson, Michael Del Zotto, Derrick Pouliot and Ben Hutton in 2018-19, but the number suggest that this team was worse.
Corsi Against/60: 58.5 (‘18-19), 59.6 (‘19-20)
Shots Against/60: 31.6 (‘18-19), 33.1 (‘19-20)
Scoring Chances Against/60: 29.2 (‘18-19), 29.9 (‘19-20)
That’s sort of mind-boggling considering that the Canucks were decisively better this season overall. However, as the numbers would suggest, a lot that was because of a dangerous offence and two extremely competent goaltenders.
Going into 2020-21, the defence will once again need to be improved.
2. Just how good can Quinn Hughes be?
Answer: Really fucking good.
Quinn Hughes was the first rookie defenceman in 27 years to top 50 points. He was also the Canucks best defenceman at both ends of the ice, and his playmaking ability is already at an elite level.
It’s too bad that the shortened season meant he couldn’t chase these records I previously highlighted, but it was an incredible season from Hughes nonetheless.
The questions going forward now are...how much better can he get, and how many Norris Trophies will he win?
3. How will Jim Benning solve his cap conundrum?
Answer: To be determined.
When this question was posed during training camp last year, Brock Boeser was still an unsigned RFA (feels like a lifetime ago, right?), and Benning had $4.15 under the cap to get him signed.
Of course, he was able to sign Boeser by trading Alex Biega, putting Antoine Roussel on IR, and waiving Nikolay Goldobin and Sven Baertschi.
So in fairness, Benning did solve a temporary cap conundrum before the puck dropped on the season. However, he arguably has to perform even tougher cap gymnastics this offseason.
Better start stretching.
4. Which vets will get the ax before the regular season starts?
Answer: Well, the three guys I mentioned above.
The Biega trade was somewhat expected after the arrival of Hughes, and to a lesser extent, Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg. The waiving of Goldobin, and especially Baertschi, were less expected decisions, but it’s hard to argue that those moves didn’t work out, since it allowed them to sign Boeser.
Now, if only they could move out Baertschi’s cap hit, which is another case of poorly-allocated cap dollars in Vancouver.
5. Can Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser stay healthy?
Answer: Yes...and no.
Elias Pettersson missed only one game for the Canucks this season — a regular season contest against the Minnesota Wild.
Brock Boeser on the other hand was bit by the injury bug once again. He missed 12 games due to a rib cartilage fracture, returning for one contest before the shutdown.
You could say that Boeser has made small progress in terms of staying healthy. He missed 20 games as a rookie, and 13 games as a sophomore. However, injuries have been part of his story during his first three years in the NHL.
6. Will Horvat take another step with better linemates?
Answer: For the sixth straight season, Horvat improved his points-per-game total.
Now, was that because of better linemates, or because he was one of the NHL’s most prolific goal scorers on the power play?
The power play jolt was big for Horvat, since his 12 power play goals were tied for 6th best in the league. However at even-strength, Horvat’s 0.37 goals-per-60 at even-strength was the worst total of his career. His even-strength scoring rate was still a respectable 1.65 points-per-60, with the 25-year-old posting career-best assist and primary assist rates at evens.
For one of the first times in his Canucks career, Horvat played with a reliable winger in Tanner Pearson. The former Los Angeles Kings forward has fit in seamlessly with the Canucks captain since the end of the 2018-19 season. While Pearson is a streaky player, he still finished the season 21 goals and 45 points in 69 games. He also helped Bo shutdown the opposition’s best line all season long.
7. What’s the best way to use J.T. Miller?
Answer: Stapled alongside Elias Pettersson.
The general consensus was that J.T. Miller was going to answer the above question by sliding in on the wing alongside Horvat. Instead, he play on Pettersson’s wing, while taking the majority of the face-offs as well.
My pre-training camp suggestion was that perhaps Miller could solidify the third-line center role. In theory it’s still an interesting idea considering how weak the Canucks bottom-six is, but it’s also laughable because Miller and Pettersson have formed one of the most dangerous duos in hockey.
8. Can Nikolay Goldobin finally become a top-six winger?
Answer: Yes...in the AHL!
After a mediocre training camp, Goldobin was banished to the AHL, where he was one of the top scorers in that league. He played one NHL in ‘19-20 game as a call-up where he was invisible. Goldobin has since signed CSKA Moscow of the KHL.
9. Will Adam Gaudette become the team’s third line centre?
Answer: You’re darn right.
In his sophomore season, Gaudette took a step forward by scoring 12 goals and posting 33 points. Over a full 82 games, he was on pace for 16 goals and 45 points.
His even-strength scoring numbers were solid as well, as Gaudette’s 1.84 points-per-60 is a solid second-line rate.
That being said, Gaudette’s defensive game leaves something to be desired. Among all Canucks regular forwards, only Beagle, Tyler Motte and Antoine Roussel were on the ice for a higher rate of shots against. That doesn’t reflect fondly on Gaudette (or Roussel), who both received a much heavier dose of offensive zone starts.
10. How will the Canucks glass figurine quartet of Baertschi, Edler, Tanev and Sutter hold up?
Answer: Did Chris Tanev actually play all 69 games, or was that just a mirage?
It’s hard to believe that Tanev, who, throughout his 10-year NHL career has surpassed 70 just once, suited up for every single Canucks game this season.
Edler was briefly bit by the injury bug through parts of November and December. He missed 10 games in total during the season. It’s also worth mentioning that Edler didn’t miss a single playoff game after suffering a brutal skate cut to the ear against St. Louis.
The 2019 offseason gifted us with this little feature about how Brandon Sutter was doing Pilates to improve his health. It didn’t make a difference on the injury front, as the veteran missed 25 games due to groin and lower body issues.
Even during the Canucks pre-bubble hockey training camp, Sutter was deemed “unfit to play” before ultimately returning in the playoffs.
Thankfully for Baertschi, he seemed to put the concussions behind him. Unfortunately for him, most of the season was spent in the American League.
11. How can the Canucks get some juice out of their second power play unit?
Answer: With improved depth, the Canucks had more talent on the second unit.
For years we saw guys like Sutter, Markus Granlund and Ben Hutton flounder on the second unit.
This season, Gaudette ended up having a positive impact on the second unit with 12 power play points, while other depth guys like Pearson (10 points) and Jake Virtanen (9 points) were also able to cash in with the man advantage.
The biggest difference might have been having Edler and Tyler Myers taking turns anchoring that second unit. While Hughes’ time on the second unit didn’t last more than a couple of weeks, Edler and Myers spearheaded the second unit with seven power play points each in limited minutes.
Myers actually ranked fourth on the Canucks with six primary power play assists, which trailed only Hughes (12), Pettersson (9) and Miller (8).
12. Was Markstrom’s stellar season an aberration or a step forward?
Answer: One Markstrom-sized step forward.
Hey, the dude has some freakishly-long legs.
Markstrom was deservedly the Canucks MVP this season. There were a barrage of reasons why he should have received more love for the Vezina. But, when one of the brightest minds in goalie analytics touts Markstrom as the Vezina favourite, you should listen.
Markstrom would be my pick for Vezina as of today. EXP Goals (Ranks #1). SV% Differential (Ranks #2). The kicker for me is he’s playing 9th most difficult environment for a Starting Goaltender.— Stephen Valiquette (@VallysView) February 20, 2020
Now, the bigger question is, will Markstrom be a Canuck next season?
13. Is this the year Thatcher Demko establishes himself as a starting goaltender?
Answer: The short answer is no...
However, as we saw in the playoff, it’s still a complicated situation with young(ish) Thatcher. When Markstrom went down with a torn meniscus back in February, Demko was okay in his seven starts. There was a solid 45-save performance against the Islanders right before the shutdown, but there were also games like his performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he let in a couple of softies in a loss.
His performance against Vegas though was one of the best three-game stretches by a rookie goaltender in NHL history. While it’s not wise to make decisions based on a three-game sample size, Demko’s solid rookie season, coupled with a long-run as one of the best goalie prospects in hockey, could mean he’s ready for a starting role in 2020-21.
14. Will Olli Juolevi establish himself as an NHL defenceman?
Answer: Not yet.
However, Juolevi did start to make some noise by sticking around on the Canucks 30-man roster for the NHL playoffs. He then took it a step further by playing in the Canucks final play-in game against Minnesota.
It’s been a rough road for Juolevi with all kind of various injuries and surgeries, but the 22-year-old has made steady progress in the AHL.
Brayden Ursel recently wrote about how Juolevi might finally be ready to push for a roster spot next season. Let’s push this question ahead for a season, just one more time.
15. Have they done enough to make the playoffs?
Answer: Yes...thanks to the shutdown.
Of course, because of the shutdown, the Canucks drew the Minnesota Wild in the play-in, and were able to dispose of them in four games. That led to an impressive showing in the playoffs where they knocked off the defending champion St. Louis Blues, before pushing the Vegas Golden Knights to seven games.
However, it’s easy to forget that the Canucks were 2-5 and not playing all that well before the shutdown. Asking if they even would have made the playoffs in a regular season is a completely fair question.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the Canucks reality, and we were treated to heroic playoff performances from the likes of Pettersson and Hughes instead.
They both flashed some postseason brilliance that we all hope continues in Vancouver for the next decade, or more, to come.