Hockey

Vancouver Canucks Season Preview

Vancouver Canucks
(Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Vancouver Canucks had a tumultuous 2021 season, underwhelming in the one-off North Division and missing the playoffs by a mile. Further, the Canucks dealt with the worst outbreak of Covid-19 the league had seen. The 2021-2022 season, however, offers hope.

General Manager Jim Benning had a busy off-season. Gone are the bloated depth contracts of Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Loui Eriksson. Also leaving town was long-time defensive stalwart Alexander Edler, as well as last year’s off-season addition Nate Schmidt. In net, the Canucks saw enough of Braden Holtby, buying out the last year of his contract.

To off-set the subtractions, Benning made a couple of nice additions. Coming over from Arizona is scoring winger Conor Garland, as well as former Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Also added was depth center Jason Dickinson and journeyman goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The most important off-season move for Benning, of course, was getting franchise cornerstones Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes signed to contracts before the start of the season.

Will this all be enough to get the Canucks out of the league basement  and into the playoffs? Let’s take a closer look as we continue Championship Sports Media’s team by team NHL season preview series!

The Forwards

According to capfriendly.com, the forward lines project as follows:

JT Miller- Elias Pettersson- Brock Boeser

Tanner Pearson- Bo Horvat- Conor Garland

Nils Hoglander- Jason Dickinson- Vasily Podkolzin

Phillip Di Giuseppe- Justin Dowling- Matthew Highmore

The top two lines are loaded with proven NHL production. Elias Pettersson is one of the best young centers in the game, and is looking to recover from an injury plagued season. JT Miller and Brock Boeser are great linemates for Pettersson, as they are elite scoring wingers. I expect big things for this line. They are the key to Vancouver’s success.

Adding Conor Garland was a great move by Benning. He gives the Canucks the legit secondary scoring threat they have been lacking. If Tanner Pearson can retain the scoring touch he had in the 2019-2020 season (45 points in 69 games), the second line will be a match-up nightmare for opposing teams.

I like what the Canucks have in the bottom six. Hoglander had a productive first season in the NHL last year, albeit a shortened one. If Pearson struggles early, look for Hoglander to  take his spot on the second line. Podkolzin makes his long-awaited arrival to North America after being the 10th overall pick in the 2019 draft. He is an exciting physical player with a high compete level, and I think he will fit in nicely with Vancouver’s bottom 6. Jason Dickinson comes over from Dallas to lock down the third-line center spot. He provides defensive responsibility and some decent offensive production, which is exactly what is needed from a third line center. Brandon Sutter and Tyler Motte will most likely start the season on IR, but will bolster the fourth line when they return.

The Defense

According to capfriendly.com. The defensive pairings project as follows:

Quinn Hughes- Tyler Myers

Oliver Ekman-Larsson- Tucker Poolman

Olli Juolevi- Luke Schenn

This is where things get dicey. Quinn Hughes is an elite offensive defenseman who is young and exciting, but beyond him there is a lot of age and question marks on this D-corps. Tyler Myers is massive (6’8, 230 lbs), but his best hockey is likely behind him. He would be a bottom-pairing defenseman on most teams, but he is essentially forced into a top-pair role on the Canucks with Travis Hamonic’s status for the season still in limbo. Hamonic has yet to decide if he will play this season, or opt out for personal reasons.

This isn’t the Oliver Ekman-Larsson of old. His play has been steadily declining over the past couple years, though he has been on some tough Arizona teams. It will be interesting to see if he can regain some of his high-end play, but the $8.25 million cap hit for the next 6 years makes him an expensive experiment. Poolman, a relatively unproven player at the NHL level, joins Ekman-Larsson on the second pairing.

The third pairing will be an interesting one to watch. Nailing down the left spot is Juolevi, the fifth overall pick from 2016. He has good size (6’2), and offensive upside. He’s looking to make an impact in his first full season in the NHL. The competition to join him on the third pair has three contestants. Cap Friendly has veteran Luke Schenn slotted to take that spot. But the Canucks would love to see young prospect Jack Rathbone win the spot. He is another young puck-mover with high-end skating. His development and eventual ascension to the NHL is key for the future of the Canucks. Also vying for the spot is veteran Brad Hunt. Coming over from Minnesota, Hunt provides solid, though unexciting, defensive play.

The Goalies

According to capfriendly.com, the goaltending duo projects as:

Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak

Demko had a solid showing in a weird 2021 season, finishing with a .915 save percentage and 2.85 goals against. Those numbers are even more impressive given the Canucks’ defensive shortcomings. Replacing Braden Holtby is the always-solid Jaroslav Halak. Halak is a great option to come in and share the load with Demko, and can definitely carry a starter’s load in case of injury. Michael DiPietro will carry the load in the AHL, and provides hope for future goaltending depth.

The Bottom Line

This is a huge year for the Vancouver Canucks. After this season, their cap situation is going to make it tough to add pieces around Pettersson and Hughes to stay in the top portion of the league and take the next steps to being Cup contenders. The Canucks are going to have to hand out big contracts to Brock Boeser next year, Bo Horvat the year after, and then Pettersson’s contract will be up again in 2024. With Myers’ and Ekman-Larsson’s huge cap hits on the books for the long term, the ability to re-sign important players as well as add pieces to improve will be challenging to say the least.

But the cap problems are for another time. As far as this season goes, if the defensive corps can provide solid play and the goaltending can keep them in games, the Vancouver Canucks are absolutely a playoff team. However, barring some playoff magic, I do not see Vancouver as a serious Cup contender.

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