If the Vancouver Canucks are allowed one New Year’s Resolution, it should be to halt the train of mediocrity.
Heck, saying the Jim Benning era was “mediocre” is probably too kind, considering that Vancouver ranked 26th overall in the NHL during his tenure.
But hey, it’s a New Year, and the feelings around this team are improving.
An 8-0-1 run shouldn’t have anyone thinking this team is a Stanley Cup contender, but if they can make the playoffs after a brutal 8-15-2 start, that should be considered a minor miracle.
So, what will we learn about this club in 2022? Here are the seven biggest questions facing the club in the early stages of the new year.
1. Who will be the next GM of the Canucks?
After Jim Rutherford was hired as President of Hockey Operations last month, he mentioned that there were 40 people he was considering for the open GM position.
According to Frank Seravalli from Daily Faceoff, that list is reportedly down to five candidates.
The front-runner for the job is still 47-year-old Swede Patrik Allvin, who worked under Rutherford during their time in Pittsburgh. He’s currently an Assistant GM with the Pens.
When Rutherford was first hired, Marc Bergevin was considered the favourite according to Odds Shark. Based on Rutherford’s recent comments to the media, he won’t be hiring a former NHL GM. The new GM will be taking on the role for the first role, working under Rutherford’s mentorship.
That makes Chris MacFarland, AGM of the Colorado Avalanche, another potential candidate. Elliotte Friedman recently mentioned that Scott Mellanby, who worked with the Canucks under Mike Gillis, is still in the running for the job as well.
2. How close are the Canucks to contending for a Cup?
It’s been nearly a decade since the Vancouver Canucks were considered Stanley Cup contenders. How much longer until they can enter that conversation again?
Once the new management team is in place, this is the #1 question that they need to answer.
Based on the underlying numbers, the Canucks place in the standings as a bubble team accurately reflects their true talent level.
The core is seemingly in place, unless you have doubts about Elias Pettersson’s ability as a first-line centre.
Now, it’s about tinkering around the edges to build a perennial winner.
According to Rutherford, that may take time.
“I don’t believe it has to be a rebuild.” Rutherford said in an interview with Postmedia. “But certainly the team has to be transitioned into a stronger team to be a regular playoff team,” he said.
“How we’ll look at this in the future is we won’t trade high picks. Anytime we’re making a deal it’s for younger players and we’ll try to bring this team, really make it stronger over the next couple of years, to where it can start to be a regular playoff team.”
3. Will Elias Pettersson rediscover his form?
The great disappearing act of Elias Pettersson has to be one of the greatest mysteries from the tail end of 2021.
With 17 points in 34 games, Pettersson sits 188th overall in the scoring race.
“I think overall, he’s not the player he once was a few years ago,” Rutherford said recently on Sportsnet 650.
During his first three seasons. His 153 points rank 55th in the NHL.
His lack of production at even-strength specifically is even more shocking. Pettersson has just 0.65 points-per-60 at 5-on-5, which is far below the rate of even a fourth-line player. That total ranks 406th among 447 regular NHL forwards this season.
To be honest, it’s impressive that the Canucks are sniffing at a playoff spot while their supposed franchise player is mired in the worst funk of his career.
Based on what we’ve seen previously, he’s just too talented to let this continue.
But, until he rediscovers his game, this will be one of the biggest questions facing the Canucks.
4. What changes will be made to the defence?
Recently, the stellar play of Thatcher Demko and a rejuvenated Tyler Myers have helped cover up some of the flaws on this Canucks blueline.
I’m sure that isn’t fooling Rutherford into believing this is a Stanley Cup calibre defence.
Quinn Hughes is elite, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been spectacular defensively despite his offence completely drying up.
Aside from that, the right side of the defence is still a mess, Travis Hamonic and Tucker Poolman are still eating up $5.5 million in cap space. The Myers contract, unless he does the impossible and continues his top-pair form, is still an issue.
If the Canucks are looking to elevate from bubble playoff team to Stanley Cup contender, they likely need to make some upgrades on defence.
Rutherford initially did a solid job in Pittsburgh of trading for defenders like Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz at a low acquisition cost. Those blueliners played varying roles in Pittsburgh’s back-to-back Stanley Cup wins.
The former Pens GM also acquired John Marino in a minor trade with the Oilers in 2019. Marino went from an unheralded sixth-round pick to a top-four defenceman.
Some kind of tinkering around the edges needs to be done in Vancouver, especially since they’re pressed up against the cap for the foreseeable future.
5. What will happen with the Canucks’ two key RFAs?
The Canucks are pressed up against the cap already for the 2022-23 season. According to CapFriendly, the Canucks already have 17 players under contract, leaving them $15.3 million in cap space.
If the Canucks do decide to qualify their main RFA, Brock Boeser, that would eat up almost half of that cap space. His qualifying offer is $7.5 million. His cap hit would likely surpass that number if he signs a long-term deal.
The other key RFA the Canucks need to sign is Jack Rathbone.
His future with the team is intriguing, mainly because the Canucks left-side already boasts two similarly-skilled defenders in Hughes and Ekman-Larsson.
Rathbone has shown he’s already too talented for the AHL, posted 15 points in his first 15 minor-league contests. It will be interesting to see if he does lock down that third left-side spot in the near future, or if he’s dangled as a trade chip.
6. Who is the long-term answer as the Canucks’ third-line centre?
Coming into season, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Jason Dickinson would be the Canucks third line centre.
I pointed out some trepadations about this idea in the summer. Namely, it was the fact that Dickinson wasn’t the Dallas Stars’ top checking centre. That responsibility belonged to Radek Faksa. The fact that he wasn’t routinely out against the other team’s top lines argubly inflated his stellar defensive analytics.
Still, I don’t think anyone predicted he would be this ineffective.
The fact that he’s not even a centre puts this question back at the forefront.
There was rightly some hesitation about putting JT Miller at centre — his reckless defensive play being one of the top reasons to keep him on the wing — but he’s looked great there so far under Bruce Boudreau.
The simplest answer here is that Miller, Pettersson and Horvat all continue to lineup at centre. If that’s not the long-term answer, then the Canucks will likely be looking at free agency or the trade market in 2022.
For the record, one of Rutherford’s trades that helped solidify the third-line centre spot in Pittsburgh en route to their two Stanley Cups was trading Brandon Sutter for Nick Bonino.
7. Will the Canucks make the playoffs?
Although the odds are stacked against them, this will be the #1 question on the minds of most fans for the early part of 2022.
According to MoneyPuck, the Canucks playoff odds have jumped from 7.4% to 16.1% in the time since Jim Benning and Travis Green were fired.
Regardless, how the Canucks perform during a brutal 10-game stretch in January will likely decide their fate.
If they can escape from those 10 games with a .500 record, it should be considered a win. Even if they’re able to accomplish that, they need to be one of the best teams in hockey over the final three months of the season.
So, the question is, do you believe?