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Nucks Misconduct’s 2021 Canucks Season Preview

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We’re ready for hockey to come back, already. The question is: Are the Canucks ready to take another step forward?

Vancouver Canucks Training Camp Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

It was a season to remember, that’s for sure. From the pause, and the uncertainty if they could even return, to the bubble, and an unexpected playoff run that reignited the passions of this long-suffering fan base, the 2019-20 NHL season was truly one of a kind. And as players start filtering into the NHL cities to quarantine before the opening of training camps, we find ourselves looking at the Vancouver Canucks with as much uncertainty as we did in the late summer of 2019.

For a team that quite likely would have missed the playoffs had they played out the rest of the season, the Vancouver Canucks made the most of their shot, defeating the Minnesota Wild, and then picking off the defending Stanley Cup Champion St Louis Blues in a series that will go down as one of this franchise’s most entertaining. By the time they ran into the Vegas Golden Knights however, their ticket to the dance had expired, and we got a pretty good idea of where the bar is for this team to improve.

Vancouver Canucks v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Seven
Robin Lehner #90 of the Vegas Golden Knights makes the save on Brock Boeser #6 of the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on September 04, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After a tumultuous offseason that saw a number of players leave (and weirdly, almost all of them are in Calgary), we still might be exactly where we were heading into the last season in that there are far more unanswered questions when it comes to the Canucks than there are answers. There’s also a new one: With the players who have left, and the new ones that have joined the Canucks, did they take a step forward, a step back, or are they treading water?

We’re going to cover the changes, some thoughts on who might be stepping in to fill some of the holes that remain, and as always our writers will offer their thoughts on how they think this season will go down. Some of them are actually serious!

FORWARDS

We knew that changes would be coming, but we really didn’t foresee a) the sheer number and b) that almost all of them would be involving the Calgary Flames. The most glaring departure has to be Tyler Toffoli, who signed for a relatively cheap deal in Montreal. It’s a pretty clear indicator of Canucks cap mismanagement that they weren’t able to get him locked down, even with the other departures. Let’s hope those 9 meetings with the Habs this season don’t come back to haunt them.

So with Toffoli and Josh Leivo gone, that does open the possibility for new faces, but that would require some movement by the Canucks. Right now, they have $0 cap space, but that could change when the status of Micheal Ferland is determined. It is thought they might use any possible LTIR savings from Ferland to pursue another Dman like Travis Hamonic.

Zack MacEwan seems to be likely to remain with the club this season after impressing in limited ice time during callups and the postseason, and there’s always the possibility that the Canucks may try to showcase Sven Baertschi in an effort to deal him later on towards the trade deadline.

Jake Virtanen is going to get a shot at proving he’s ready to be a top 6 player in the organization, but can he bring the intensity and output he needs far more consistently than we’ve seen so far?

Overall, the situation is the same as last year: the Canucks have some outstanding pieces in Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, but they’ll need the other 8 forwards to play a bigger role. With Brandon Sutter, Tanner Pearson, Adam Gaudette and Baertschi all able to head to free agency after this season, maybe we get that.

And let’s not forget wild cards like Nils Hoglander, who has got to be fired up heading into his first NHL training camp.

DEFENCEMEN

The defence is certainly going to look different this year, but is it going to look better? The Canucks said goodbye to Christopher Tanev, Troy Stecher and Oscar Fantenberg, and made a big signing bringing in Nate Schmidt from Vegas in the offseason. Schmidt is a hell of a rearguard and should help temper the loss of Tanev, who ate a ton of tough minutes for the Canucks.

This also means that it may be time for Olli Juolevi to get his chance to justify the Canucks picking him at #5 overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. They’ll also get a good look at Jack Rathbone, and along with Alexander Edler, Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn, could be the starting six for the Canucks. A lot of inexperience tempered with some veterans, and Quinn Hughes leading the way in a season where we should expect to see him expand upon an impressive rookie campaign.

There’s going to be some competition for spots from Jalen Chatfield, Guillaume Brisebois and Brogan Rafferty, and you can be sure at least a couple of them will be on the taxi squad for the season instead of heading to Utica.

GOALIES

Likely the biggest question facing the Canucks is in goal: Is Thatcher Demko ready for the next step? Even though we knew Jacob Markstrom might be leaving at the end of the season, it was still a bit of a shock, especially to see him go where he did and for that kind of a contract. The Canucks wouldn’t have had a sniff at the postseason without Marky last year, and they’re going to have to hope that Demko can continue with the outstanding playoff performance he put in when Markstrom went down to injury, and that new addition Braden Hotlby can recapture some of his brilliance from better days in the Washington Capitals net.

2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five
Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals carries the Stanley Cup in celebration after his team defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 in Game Five of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the T-Mobile Arena on June 7, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A lot of their success is going to be about how the team plays defensively in front of them, and the whole notion that the Canucks can continue to go along playing as poorly as they do in their own end is silly. Demko and Holtby will need to be given the chance to win, but to do that, the team is going to have to give up far fewer shots than they have been over the past 3 seasons.

OTHER STUFF

There was another couple of moves the Canucks made this fall that could have an impact, as they made some coaching changes for this upcoming season. With the departure of Manny Malhotra to Toronto, the team brought Jason King up from Utica to be an assistant to Travis Green. King had spent the last 5 seasons as an assistant down in Utica and is familiar with Green and many of the players in the system.

They also said goodbye to skills coach Glenn Carnegie after 12 years with the team, and have promoted Chris Higgins, who was the Assistant Director of Player Development into Carnegie’s role. The loss of Malhotra stings, as you only need to look to Bo Horvat’s development into one of the NHL’s premier faceoff men under Manny’s watch, but the additions of King and Higgins should be fairly seamless.

San Jose Sharks v Vancouver Canucks
Chris Higgins #20 of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the San Jose Sharks at Rogers Arena March 29, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

The other thing that could have an impact? Injuries. With the Canucks (along with the Flames and Oilers) unable to access their farm teams down in the US, they simply can’t have the kind of injury issues they’ve had over the past few years. Suffice it to say their taxi squad will probably get used more than just about any other in the league this season.

It’s going to be another season of trying to get used to a different kind of hockey than we’re used to. Having to play the other 6 Canadian teams all damn year is not going to be as much fun as you think it is, especially if the Canucks can’t get everything to work the way it needs to for them to be successful. It could be a long (shortened) season and another lottery pick if they don’t. You might just want to stay off Twitter if it looks like that is the reality because there’s a very real possibility this team’s not getting a postseason ticket when the season’s done.

Westy - The offseason for the Canucks was not a disaster, but it was a shit show that had been building over the past couple of seasons. Cap issues and asset management continue to define GMJB’s tenure and this led to no draft picks in the first two rounds to help this team down the road, and then there was the mass exodus to Calgary. The second issue was the fact that the Canadian division for this season is a bad omen for the Nucks, as they have a terrible record against these teams over the past four years.

Now for the good news. There were no major injuries last year that I know of. The team that remains should be ready to go in January. The start/stop of last year was beneficial not only to the older Canuck players but should help the younger guys as they continue to progress. Secondly, Nate Schmidt is an upgrade on Tanev and Stetcher. Of course one of the guys in Utica will have to step up, which was the plan all along, right? Third, Braden Holtby is the goalie that makes a great partner for Demko. He can steal a game and we all like to talk about mentoring....he will do that as well. Fourth, Pods is nearly on his way, as he is getting treated like crap by his KHL team. Of course, now the Canucks organization has to find a way to make him happy and productive.....which they have had trouble with the last time a Russian came to town.

Back to the bad news. The Nucks will struggle this year if they can’t get a third line to either play great defense or score some goals. I’m not asking for both, just one or the other. They are a bubble team again this year. It comes down to games 51-56 to know their fate.

Rob - The year of the coronavirus was a major step forward for the Canucks’ Jim Benning Era. The young Core Four transformed from a bunch of peach fuzz youngsters into playoffs’ seasoned veterans. At the very end, the Fab Four added a fifth member in Thatcher Demko. They won two playoffs rounds for only the fourth time in franchise history.

Genius Man Jim had some tough offseason decisions to make. Choosing means you have to keep someone over someone else. But this offseason was always first going to be about upgrading a defence corps that overall was average at best.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson was first on GMJB’s radar. When that attempt to improve the back end failed, he moved on to his next target and snared Nate Schmidt. With Quinn Hughes and Schmidt as your top pairing and Alex Edler and Tyler Myers as your second pairing, the Canucks have the best top-four D-men in the Canada North Division now.

With the top four set Chris Tanev, was redundant unless he was willing to become a low paid third pairing rearguard. With his declining play and brittle body, it would have been a bad idea to try and match Calgary’s offer.

Troy Stecher was like that lovable teddy bear with one ear torn off that a child doesn’t want to give up but eventually forgets about as he becomes a teenager. As a third-pairing defenceman, he was overpriced, even on the lesser contract, Detroit gave him in the end.

It was time to open up at least a couple of spots in your D group for either AHL proven defenders or rookie pro hotshots on Entry-Level Contracts to play in the show. The chosen ones will fill slots 6 through 10 on the roster and taxi squad. The Canucks may still bring in an upgrade over Jordie Benn for the third D right side but it will be someone like Travis Hamonic or Sami Vatanen, who are both better than Troy Stecher, likely at current Troy Stecher money though.

The next choice had to be made now. Who was your number one goalie going forward? It was a tough call but I think choosing Demko was the right one. With visions of Sergei Bobrovsky sinking in Florida in his head and 6-by-6 Loui in his memory, I think GMJB agreed with me.

Tyler Toffoli really is the only player that I am upset about letting getaway. But with Nils Hoglander arriving now and Vasily Podkolzin arriving soon, it probably didn’t make sense to sign him long term in the end.

The Vancouver Canucks will win the Canada North Division. Book it, Danno.

Noah Strang - The Canucks enter the 2020-21 NHL season ready to compete in the all-Canadian division which features many teams that they have struggled against in recent years. With plenty of significant contributors departing in free agency, they’re going to need another step forward from the young core to make up for the lethargic depth pieces.

Still, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about a step forward, including the acquisition of defensemen Nate Schmidt during the offseason. Adding him to a defence core that already features Quinn Hughes means that the Canucks will have the luxury of having an elite puck-mover on the ice for large portions of every game.

Vancouver Canucks v New York Islanders
Quinn Hughes #43 of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates his game winning goal in overtime against the New York Islanders at Barclays Center on February 01, 2020 in New York City.
Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Considering that young defenders Olli Juolevi and Jack Rathbone are also known for being able to spring forwards with long outlet passes, and both have a shot at making the team, the Canucks are going to be able to score goals, their success will depend on how strong they are at preventing them.

Newcomer Braden Holtby will be splitting starts with Thatcher Demko and the two have big shoes to fill considering how dominant Jacob Markstrom was last season. Demko impressed during the playoffs and Holtby has a great resume but it’s still to be seen if they can make superhuman saves night after night as Markstrom did.

Overall, there’s plenty to look forward to for this team not only this year but in the next couple. The Canadian division is going to be a bloodbath and I’m 100% ready for it.

jimmi - I can’t believe we get to hockey so soon. Feels like last season dragged on through the summer and into autumn.

Feel really good about the 2020-2021 Nucks season. Not just because the Nucks have already side-stepped the normal November slump and pre-Xmas dip. But because this limited exhibition series of 56 42 36 games means we can keep Gumby on the ice. However, I’m struggling to embrace cheering for the Calgary Canucks. Predict it’s a struggle I will fail at. Yay!

The good news is... the Nucks are better on the backend, the frontend and probably on the sides as well. Will that be enough to overcome the traditional Nucks disadvantage against other Canadian teams?

Yes, yes it will. Tradition has no place in the new Covidian hockey arena. Only room for gaudy advertisements and sponsor’s LED helmet stickers.

And the Nucks as the Canadian champs. Definitely room for that. Go Coconuts!

Beggsy - You have to love the balance here at Nucks Misconduct.

If you’ve kept up with this entire read, you’ve probably endured a roller coaster of emotions. First off, Kent tells us that the Canucks might struggle to make the playoffs. Then, Westy slaps us with some cold hard truth by saying that Canucks are a bubble team.

Suddenly, Rob comes firing in with the “Canucks are winning the Division take” (love it). Noah shows us some optimism, and even the Cynic himself hypes us up.

So...should I be the middle of the road guy?

2020 NHL Draft - Round 2-7
Assistant general manager John Weisbrod of the Vancouver Canucks sits at the draft table during the rounds 2-7 of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft at Bell MTS Place on October 07, 2020 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The 2020 NHL Draft was held virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Photo by Paul Albi/NHLI via Getty Images

Our writers have highlighted the reality for the Canucks this season. There’s promise based on the Canucks current core, coupled with the fact that there’s (hopefully) a second wave of prospects and young players who can take a step forward.

You also can’t ignore the fact that the Canucks got weaker on paper during the offseason. They’re also playing in a tougher division compared to the pancake Pacific.

This is all to say that I cannot wait to watch the Canucks and the rest of the North Division battle it out this season. It’s going to be a hell of a ride, and I can honestly see any range of scenarios, from the Canucks missing the playoffs to winning the division.

For the record...I have no firm grasp on what’s going to happen, but here’s my prediction for the North Division standings that I gave to our SB Nation NHL brethren at Copper and Blue.

  1. Calgary Flames
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Vancouver Canucks
  4. Montreal Canadiens
  5. Edmonton Oilers
  6. Winnipeg Jets
  7. Ottawa Senators

How about a little Leafs vs. Canucks match-up in the First Round. Anyone?

Markus - I’m not sure I have any scolding hot takes for the upcoming year. I think there are a lot of question marks and some big opportunities for some players.

Jake Virtanen will obviously have the spotlight on him. This, frankly, is probably his last chance of ever becoming a true impact player. He’ll have every opportunity in the world to have the 2RW spot, and if he blows it, that’s probably a final dagger in his hopes of being a regular top-six forward. My high hopes aren’t super high, but I’ll be watching him closely.

I also think the 2020-21 campaign will be a big one for Adam Gaudette. I’ll be watching his defensive game pretty intensely. The offensive capabilities are there, no doubt. If he can become more well-rounded, it will be a massive boon for the Canucks’ bottom-six.

Obviously, the big guns will be at the front of our minds, but there are a couple I’ll be watching in particular. How does Brock Boeser do this year? After some trade speculation, I’ll be fascinated to see how he does and how the fanbase responds if he continues down a more all-round path as opposed to the pure scorer he looked like early in his career. I also think whether J.T. Miller is truly a point-a-game player is a big and open question. If he is — and he just might be! — that’s massive. If he’s not, they’ll need to make that production up elsewhere, and I’m not entirely convinced they have the horses to do that.

On defence, I think Olli Juolevi will have a good camp and establish himself as a steady bottom pair presence. Certainly, I think he’ll be better than Fantenberg and Benn last year and given all he’s been through, I hope I’m proven right.

And finally, while some seem to think the net is an open competition, I think it’s Thatcher Demko’s crease to lose, while others seem to think it’s Braden Holtby’s. I like Holtby and view him as a fine 1B option, but I predict by the end of the year people will 1. realize that Holtby is not the same goalie he was a few years back, and 2. that Demko is, at the very least, an NHL-level starter, if not necessarily a workhorse.

Bailey - I’ve started to get pretty optimistic about this year’s Canucks after really not being the day that half the team bolted to Calgary.

Today’s news that Travis Hamonic is joining the team on a PTO is much bigger than many will make of it (if he makes the team, which by all accounts, he should). Hamonic is a solid 3rd-pairing option on any NHL team, and certainly an upgrade over Jordie Benn and the recent departure, Oscar Fantenberg.

In fact, if the signing works out the additions of Nate Schmidt and Hamonic are in my opinion an upgrade over Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher. Add that to the seemingly limitless improvement of Quinn Hughes and this D-corps suddenly isn’t looking too shabby.

Upfront it’s essentially the same crew returning minus Tyler Toffoli and Josh Leivo - who were injured or not a part of the roster for sizable portions of last season. While they’re big losses for sure, this team has played well without them. Just like Hughes, the ceiling of Pettersson seems almost limitless as he should move into the NHL’s elite soon.

In my view, there are two X-factors that will determine offensive depth. If Brock Boeser can fulfill his near point-per-game potential and Jake Virtanen can become that reliable second-liner that he’s shown flashes of, this offensive unit can become even more dynamic than the one that scored the 8th most goals out of any team last season.

Lastly, in goal, I’d expect Travis Green to platoon the duo of Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby, with Demko probably getting the preferential big-game starts.

This should be a solid playoff team now. The all-Canadian North Division has the makings of a bloodbath, but as long as the Canucks can play their game and avoid getting dragged down into the mud, we’ll be seeing more summer hockey this year. Prediction: 2nd in the North.

Nick — I’ve been pretty clear with what I want from the Canucks in the 2021 season.

I want, no I need, the Canucks to be the team to deliver the Leafs its annual first-round playoffs exit. To that end, I have the Canucks finishing 4th in the division above Montreal, Winnipeg, and Ottawa. I have the Leafs first — they’re still a good regular season team, and Edmonton and Calgary right behind them. I’m not as high on the Flames as Beggsy. To me, the Flames season will come down much more to how Gaudreau, Monahan, Lindholm and the like bounce back more than the new editions.

But enough of those copycats. I’m typing this on the first day of training camp, and it looks like Nils Hoglander is getting a shot on the right-wing of Horvat’s line. That’s an interesting development because that screams to me Travis Green is looking to move Horvat away from a matchup role and into a more scoring role with the bottom two lines looking to tread water. That would mean Sutter and Beagle as the 3rd and 4th line centre, so don’t expect much offence from those lines.

On the blueline, I agree with Bailey that the Hamonic signing on a “PTO” is a great addition. He will help on the penalty kill and avoid a disaster scenario when Jordie Benn has to play significant minutes due to injury. The defence is at best as good as last year, and the goalie platoon system is a good bet this season considering the compressed schedule.

Overall, to automatically say the Canucks will regress is to disrespect the impact players like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes can have. If they can reach an even higher level, they can paper over some of the depth concerns of this team.