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2021-22 Vancouver Canucks Season Preview

After following up a surprise playoff run in 2020 with a disastrous campaign last season, the Canucks have a different look to start the year. Is it enough to get them back into the post-season?

NHL: OCT 05 Preseason - Kraken at Canucks Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2021-22 Vancouver Canucks Season Preview

2020-21 Record (North Division) 23-29-4 (7th Place)

NEW ADDITIONS: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Jason Dickinson, Tucker Poolman, Jaroslav Halak, Luke Schenn, Brad Hunt, Nic Petan, Phillip Di Guiseppe, Kyle Burroughs, Sheldon Dries, Justin Dowling, Brady Keeper, Chase Wouters, Juho Lamikko, Noah Juulson.

OUT OF THE ORGANIZATION: Alexander Edler, Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Adam Gaudette, Nate Schmidt, Braden Holtby, Jake Virtanen, Jayce Hawryluk, Antoine Roussel, Tyler Graovac, Jimmy Vesey, Travis Boyd, Brogan Rafferty, Jonah Gadjovich, Kole Lind, Marc Michaelis, Olli Juolevi.

Barring even more significant injuries, I don’t think that last season could have gone any worse for the Vancouver Canucks. Coming off a surprise playoff run in that COVID-delayed post-season that saw them take out a favoured Minnesota Wild team in the play-in round, shock the hockey world by eliminating the defending Cup Champion St Louis Blues and take a very good Vegas Golden Knights squad to 7 games, it looked as though the Canucks might be ready to considered a contender again.

So you can understand the frustration when Jim Benning’s summer consisted of moves that did nothing to improve the rather easily identifiable issues facing the team, making some questionable signings and re-signings that pretty much all came back to bite this team on the ass all season long. Jim Benning should have lost his job over this, and truth be told, we’re still not convinced giving him a vote of confidence is the right move here.

But after finishing last in the All-Canadian North Division, there needed to be changes, and as you can see by the list above, GMJB certainly had a busy summer. The biggest move was the blockbuster trade that brought Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland to the Canucks from Phoenix in exchange for three of the worst contracts that the Canucks had: Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Roussel. While OEL’s own deal eliminated much of the salary cap relief the Canucks so desperately needed, it marked the beginning of Benning trying to address the lack of depth in the bottom six and back end. On Monday, the Canucks announced the roster for opening night, so let’s break down who’s made the final cuts, shall we?

FORWARDS

An area where the Canucks struggled last season was offensively. Far too many players on the roster who were simply not capable of contributing on offence, and it looks like they may have done a decent job addressing this. By retooling the bottom 6 with guys who can check and score, it does things like taking pressure off Bo Horvat to focus more on using the 2nd line as an offensive threat. It also, due to the injuries the Canucks are already dealing with, gives them a bit of flexability, allowing for guys like J.T. Miller to slot in at the 3C position, definitely making that line a bit more dangerous.

Elias Pettersson’s season was a microcosm of the frustration the team felt. Injuries and nights where it seemed like he was hitting iron all night long saw his production dip, not worryingly so, but enough that it’s going to motivate him heading into this campaign. Add in that new contract, and EP40 will have to live up to his status as the Canucks #1 forward.

While it shouldn’t shock anyone to see a Lotto Line reunion at some point, Conor Garland is definitely going to get a long look with Pettersson and Brock Boeser (when he returns to the lineup). With Nils Hoglander likely to stick with Bo Horvat given the good chemistry those two have, it means that guys like Vasily Podkolzin, who should be in the lineup on opening night, will start out in a bottom six role, but one that could see him rolling with J.T. Miller and Nic Petan, two veterans who will help the Russian rookie’s transition from the KHL to the NHL.

The bottom six forwards have really been a drain on the Canucks over the past couple years, and this summer Benning completely blew it up, shipping out Beagle, Eriksson, Virtanen and Roussel among others. Jason Dickinson was brought in, and along with the newly-acquired Lammikko, Matthew Highmore, Justin Dowling, Zack MacEwan and 13th forward Vasily Podkolzin should be a little more defensively stable, but the key is can they do what previous bottom sixers couldn’t do and give the Canucks that extra bit of scoring that separates the contenders from the pretenders?

Overall, if the Canucks can somehow buck the trend and stay healthy, this is a group of forwards that should put up buckets of goals. And they’re going to need to, as giving goal support to Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak is one of the most critical keys for success this season.

DEFENCE

While it remains to be seen if the Canucks defence is actually any better than last season, it certainly looks different. The Canucks bringing in Oliver Ekman-Larsson to step into the role formerly occupied by Alexander Edler is a bit perplexing, as it’s a huge gamble given OEL’s age and performance over the past couple seasons.

They also sent disgruntled Dman Nate Schmidt to Winnipeg for a 3rd round pick in the 2022 draft, and signed former Jets free agent Tucker Poolman. Again, this one didn’t seem to make a ton of sense, and his contract could become an issue, but he’s been pairing with Quinn Hughes so far and looking like this could be a combo that works.

The performance of Jack Rathbone in training camp and the exhibition games directly led to the organization finally coming to terms with what many had felt for a while now: Olli Juolevi was not going to work. The fact that they were able to get a depth defenceman with some NHL experience and an AHL prospect born and raised in Abbotsford out of the deal may take a bit of the sting out of all this, but it’s yet another Benning pick that is now out of the organization.

And with the Travis Hamonic situation being best described as ongoing and fluid, it allowed the Canucks to get creative and solidify the opening night lineup. Hamonic has cleared waivers, and will remain there til he’s ready to return to the team, and can practice and play in Abbotsford to get back to NHL game shape.

The final spots are filled with new additions Kyle Burroughs, Brad Hunt (who is stepping into a veteran leadership role quite nicely so far) and Luke Schenn, back after winning a Stanley Cup in Tampa. He’s been paired with Rathbone, and has looked good, helping the young rearguard in what will be his official rookie season after making his debut towards the end of last season.

Let’s be clear: this defence is still far from good enough, and while OEL has been just fine in his preseason performances, and Quinn Hughes is pretty likely not to have a repeat of his dreadful defensive work in his sophomore season, this group of rear guards is going to get exposed by a good number of offensive stars in this league unless they collectively play above expectations. Staying out of the box, and reducing the workload of the goaltenders (two major problem areas last season) will be vital to the Canucks managing to make their way back to the post-season.

GOALTENDING

It might just be the area of strength they can build around. While looking at Thatcher Demko’s numbers from last year may not overwhelm you, he did this battling injuries, COVID and his own team’s inept defence. Demko was absolutely stellar a lot of nights, and with little to no help from his backup last season, kept the Canucks from plummeting further down the standings.

The Canucks hope that what they couldn’t get from Braden Holtby, they will get from Jaroslav Halak. Halak is older, but still capable of turning in solid performances. If he can give the Canucks enough of them and allow them to not have to overwork Demko, it could give them a shot at getting back to the post season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

If the Canucks hope to do anything this season, they’re going to have to be better on special teams than we saw last season. With the PP and PK both finishing below the league average, the moves that Jim Benning made this offseason were designed in part to address this. Bringing in Ekman-Larsson and Garland could see someone like Bo Horvat being shuffled to the 2nd unit, and turn them into a threat, something they definitely weren’t last season.

The penalty killing was a disappointment, especially because the Canucks just seem unable to not take penalties. Getting a little younger and faster as they did in the offseason might help in this area, but the guys doing the penalty killing have to be better than we’ve seen in the preseason, and the addition of Lammikko, who has penalty killing experience might help with this.

THE ONE TO WATCH

Let’s face it, if you don’t realize that Vasily Podkolzin is the most intriguing storyline with the Canucks this season, you haven’t been paying attention. After some impressive performances at the junior level and 3 seasons in the KHL, the youngster taken 10th overall in 2019 is ready to make his NHL debut. While he may not be on the ice for the season opener, Podkolzin has been putting in solid work since his arrival in Vancouver, and his spot on the roster was by no means guaranteed.

Will he be a sensation out of the gate like Elias Pettersson? Probably not. They’re very different stylistically, and Podkolzin’s game will take a little longer to develop in the NHL, but this kid has all of the tools he needs to be the kind of power forward the Canucks have been lacking for ages.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, MAN?

Well, as we’ve seen from a number of stats sites, they’re all pretty certain this fanbase is in for another season of disappointment. And if the Canucks continue to amass injuries to key players the way they have, that could very well be the case. One thing that’s going to help them is playing in a division that has some of the weaker teams in the West. Not giving away points to teams beneath them in the standings will be probably more meaningful in the long run than trying to knock off the Oilers and Golden Knights.

The Canucks are a far better team up front than they were last season, and that could help keep them in games. It’s (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before) the defence that worries me. To a man they’ll need to put in career performances to help carry this team over the top, and with the guys they have right now, I am not terribly confident something like this can happen.

It’s frustrating, because there were so many seasons of inaction and bad moves by Benning, and honestly this summer he did some fine work to try and make this team better. The sad part, is that the Canucks were so broken, it may not be enough to get them back into the playoffs as promised, and save Benning’s job in the process.

With this being the last season of the ridiculous cap recapture penalty on Roberto Luongo’s contract, It will provide a little relief at the end of the season when Canucks address re-signing Brock Boeser and Jack Rathbone. More changes are coming, but for now we can see if all of this adds up to the Canucks being a contender in the Pacific.

PREDICTION TIME

The Canucks are without a doubt stronger up front. The defence still keeps me up at night, though, and in a division with some serious fire power, that could be their downfall. A lot needs to go right for them to finish 3rd in the division (what it will take to make it to the playoffs thanks to a much stronger Central division). So much that it’s pretty unlikely they pull this off. I think they can get close, if they stay healthy, but they’re just not good enough on the back end to keep pace with the big dogs of the Pacific.

What say you, NM faithful? How will the Canucks do this season?

Poll

How will the Vancouver Canucks perform this season?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Win the division in a shocker!
    (8 votes)
  • 11%
    Make the playoffs handily.
    (11 votes)
  • 45%
    Eek their way into the post-season.
    (44 votes)
  • 27%
    Come close, but fail to make the playoffs.
    (26 votes)
  • 7%
    A repeat of last season.
    (7 votes)
96 votes total Vote Now

And for those of you Canucks fans residing outside of Canada, if you haven’t gotten your viewing plans set yet, here’s a chance to get a great deal on ESPN+ and not miss a single moment of Canucks action. Click on this link, and get ready for what we hope will be a fun season of Canucks hockey!