Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue the series with the Vancouver Canucks.
Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Vancouver Canucks
After a disastrous 2013-14 campaign, 2014-15 was all about change in Vancouver. With a new president of hockey operations (franchise icon Trevor Linden), a new general manager (former Bruins AGM Jim Benning), a new head coach (Willie Desjardins), a new top line winger (Radim Vrbata), a new second line center (Nick Bonino) and a new starting goaltender (Ryan Miller), it’s no wonder the club’s slogan last year was “Change is Coming.”
Despite many observers determining the franchise was on a downward trend (and it was), the veteran club was able to take a huge step forward in terms of on ice results, finishing 2nd in the Pacific Division and 5th in the Western Conference with a 48-29-5 record and 101 points.
Many players were able to find individual success as well. Daniel and Henrik Sedin again led the way with 76 and 73 points, respectively, to both finish top-ten in NHL scoring. Vrbata, their new triggerman, proved to be one of the shrewdest free agent signings of the previous summer, as he scored a career-high 63 points and netted his second 30-goal season. Rookie Bo Horvat became the first Canuck to make the club full time as a teenager since Ryan Kesler and acquitted himself quite well with more ice time and responsibility as the season went on, ultimately finishing with a promising 13 goals and 25 points in 68 games.
However, against the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs, the Canucks weren’t able to contend with Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau while also struggling to find the back of the net themselves, as they fell to the Flames in six games.
Change was the theme of the 2014-15 season, and that theme continued after the club’s first round loss at the hands of the Flames. Benning was active at the draft, trading fan favorite Eddie Lack to the Carolina Hurricanes for a two draft picks. Part of that was facilitated by a need to add another pick (the Canucks had just one choice in the first 114 selections), while the potential to avoid another goaltending controversy similar to what the club saw at the end of the Roberto Luongo era also played a factor. It was a move that drew a great amount of ire from the Vancouver fanbase, as not only was Lack adored by the fans, he was a younger and cheaper goaltender still on the upswing of his career when compared to Miller. Later in the summer when it was revealed the Miller could have just as easily been traded, fans became even more irate.
At the draft, the Canucks picked scoring winger Brock Boeser out of the USHL at 23rd overall. Expectations are high for Boeser, and he will be given lots of time to percolate in the NCAA before he suits up for the Canucks.
Just prior to free agency, the Canucks made another move to disassemble a huge piece of their core, sending 10-year veteran Kevin Bieksa to the Anaheim Ducks for a 2nd round draft pick in 2016. Bieksa was a key member of the Canucks blueline for a decade, but declining numbers and performance made it unlikely he would sign a new contract with the club next summer, so Benning decided to move him while he still had some value.
The next day Benning shipped out the underwhelming Zack Kassian to the Montreal Canadiens for Brandon Prust, officially ending the debate over who won the Cody Hodgson trade (answer: nobody). Kassian has great power forward potential, but an occasionally poor attitude, inconsistency, and a bad back spelled his doom in Vancouver.
With little room to spend, the Canucks were relatively quiet in free agency, with former Bruins defensive defenseman Matt Bartkowski being the most high-profile name among six signings who will most likely spend their seasons with the Utica Comets in the AHL.
With the team looking pretty much set for next year, Benning surprised the hockey world by trading Bonino (along with Adam Clendening and the 2nd rounder acquried in the Bieksa deal) after just one season with the club to the Pittsburgh Penguins for center Brandon Sutter and a 3rd round pick.
2015-16 Opening Day Lineup
Daniel Sedin – Henrik Sedin – Radim Vrbata
Sven Baertschi – Brandon Sutter – Alexandre Burrows
Chris Higgins – Bo Horvat – Jannik Hansen
Brandon Prust – Linden Vey – Derek Dorsett
The top line is essentially set, though Burrows and Vrbata could seamlessly swap places if more scoring is needed on the second line. Sutter is now the de facto second line center, and Baertschi will likely be given a chance in the top-six, as the Canucks hope he can be a valuable scorer for the club moving forward. Horvat and Hansen had great chemistry together as a pair with speed that could also score, while Higgins will line up on their left side (a role occupied by Kenins last season, though Higgins likely slides into that spot by virtue of being a veteran, as well as the promotion of Baertschi).
Alex Edler – Chris Tanev
Dan Hamhuis – Yannick Weber
Matt Bartkowski – Frank Corrado
Edler and Tanev formed one of the best duos in the NHL last season, and there’s no way those two will be split up barring injury. Hamhuis and Weber likewise played the majority of last season together, and they form a solid second pair with both puck moving ability and good defensive play. Bartkowski seems to have the inside track on the 5th spot, leaving the club’s six defenseman slot open to a fight between Corrado and Sbisa. Likely we’ll see both for long stretches of the season, as the club believes both are important parts of the team’s future.
Miller will again take the reigns, and the Canucks are hoping he can bounce back after an underwhelming first season in Vancouver. The real interesting story here is Markstrom, who the Canucks felt strongly enough about to give up Lack.
As it stands now, the Canucks lineup is still veteran-heavy, but the team is hoping to integrate a number of young players into the roster over the next couple of years. That may start as soon as this year, and Canucks brass hasn’t been shy to say they will make room for a rookie. With forwards Jake Virtanen, Nicklas Jensen, Hunter Shinkaruk, Alexandre Grenier and Brendan Gaunce all knocking on the door, a good training camp by any or all of them may force Benning’s hand.
Players to Watch
Daniel and Henrik Sedin
The Twins have carried the Canucks on their back for the better part of the last decade. They led the team to the Stanley Cup Final, and led the league in scoring. We know what the Sedins were – namely two of the most proficient scorers in the post-2005 lockout era – but the question is now what they will become. How many points do a 35-year-old Daniel and Henrik put up? The Sedins saw a huge dip in production during the 2013-14 season before once again being the among the league’s leaders last year, but which is a true indicator of their offensive abilities at this stage of their careers? How much are the Sedins going to be able to produce during their twilight years? The answer could very well dictate the club’s success (or lack thereof) over the next few seasons.
Sutter has a very large task ahead of him by replacing Bonino, who himself had the large task of replacing Kesler (funnily enough, Sutter was considered a prime target when Kesler trade talks first came up two years ago). The Canucks are apparently quite high on Sutter, calling him a “foundational piece” and signing him to a 5-year, $21.875 million contract shortly after they acquired him. Can a 26-year-old who’s eclipsed 20 goals just twice and 40 points just once still emerge as a top two-way second line center that can also produce? The battle for ice time between Sutter and Horvat will also be incredibly interesting to watch.
The Canucks have invested much in the 25-year-old Markstrom with the hope that he could replace Miller at some point in the next two seasons and become the stable starting goaltender they hoped he would be when they acquired him in the Luongo deal. It’s hard to remember now that Markstrom was once considered among the top goalie prospects in the world, because his NHL results (3.19 GAA and .896 SV% in 50 games) have been mediocre. If Miller goes down to injury again, the crease will be entirely Markstrom’s, and how he plays this season may not only dictate where his career goes from here, but also where the Canucks franchise goes, especially with a barren goaltending prospect cupboard and 2014 36th overall pick Thatcher Demko a long way off.
On the Rise
While Horvat’s offensive numbers don’t immediately jump off the page, 25 points in 68 games was a very respectable number of a 19-year-old playing only 12:15 a night. Lauded for his two-way play, Horvat struggled at times during the year on the defensive side of the puck, but became more responsible seemingly with every game. Also, his 51.4 faceoff percentage was tops among Canucks centers last year. In his sophomore year Horvat is likely to see an increase in icetime, and very likely an increase in scoring production as well. 20 goals and 40 points is not out of reach for Horvat.
Virtanen might not make the Canucks out of camp, in fact it’s very unlikely, but the Canucks 2014 6th overall pick figures to be a valuable piece of the new core that Benning and Linden are trying to usher in. Virtanen plays a tough game full of energy and can be an imposing presence on the wing. He also is an incredibly quick skater who already possesses an NHL-level shot. As with all prospects, he will have to work on his defensive play (as well as his penchant for taking penalties), but it wont’ be long before we see Virtanen making his mark in the NHL.
On the Decline
Last year Miller, who was brought in to replace franchise netminder Luongo, posted his worst save percentage since the 2007-08 season (discounting his brief sojourn in St. Louis) and struggled with injuries and inconsistency through only 45 games. At 35 years old, how can we expect any better from Miller moving forward? The Canucks are banking on Miller being competent enough for long enough to allow Markstrom to successfully transition to a quality starting goaltender – but is that worth $6 million a year for two more years? Yes, the former Vezina winner does have the ability to rebound, but it’s clear Miller is firmly on the decline.
Probably because he still plays with the energy and enthusiasm of a junior, it’s easy to forget that Burrows is already 34 years old. Riding shotgun to the Sedins for most of his career, Burrows (an undrafted ECHL success story) managed four consecutive seasons of at least 26 goals (topping out at 35 goals and 67 points in 2009-10) with the twins. Unfortunately he’s seen his production take a tumble since then, and though last year was considered a bounce back season, he managed only 18 goals and 33 points in 70 games. Injuries and inconsistency seem to be catching up to him, whether he lines up with the Sedins (something he did less often last year with the addition of Vrbata) or not. He’s still an elite-level possession player and penalty killer with great speed, but his scoring, ice time and prominence on this club are slowly declining.
2015-16 Season Predictions
It’s difficult to come to a concrete conclusion of what to make of this year’s edition of the Canucks. It’s an odd mix of veterans who are nearing if not already on the decline, a group of players in their “prime” years who aren’t prime time players, and a number of youngsters who are simply too inexperienced to make much of an impact yet. On paper, that looks like a combination for a team that will miss the playoffs handily. However, we were saying that last season as well, and the team managed to pull through to a respectable finish.
Last year’s club had little problems scoring, finishing 8th in the NHL with 236 goals, but five of the club’s top six scorers last year where 30 or over, and the only one who wasn’t (Bonino) has left the club. It seems unlikely the team can continue counting on the Sedins, Vrbata, Higgins and Burrows to carry the load, and the effect of that is going to be felt this season.
So with the offense likely to take a step back, that puts even more onus on a shaky defense that allowed 2.68 goals per game last season, the 12th most in the NHL. Much of that will fall on the back of the Edler-Tanev/Hamhuis-Weber pairings, but it all starts and ends in the crease.
Benning has been both lauded and lynched for the moves he’s made since taking up residence in the GM’s office at Rogers Arena, but the decision to keep Markstrom (and Miller) over Lack is by far his riskiest. The results of that decision will be felt as immediately as this season, when an aging Miller and an unproven Markstrom will be tasked with carrying the Canucks to the playoffs, in line with ownership’s mandate to keep the team competitive while they bring in young talent – a mandate Benning is desperately trying to execute.
If the team can manage to come together once again, get the bulk of their offense from their veterans, timely scoring from the bottom six, solid defense from their top two pairs, and goaltending competent enough to overcome any shortcomings, the Canucks are destined for another playoff appearance and likely another first round exit. However, that’s a very unstable balance of things that need to go right, and should the Canucks take a tumble, which is more likely than not, expect the team to sell veterans such as Vrbata, Burrows, Higgins and Hamhuis in an attempt to acquire assets and take a bigger step forward in their “retool” next summer.