Welcome to the latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. Each day, we will take a look at a new team and examine three of their potential breakout or bounce-back players. These players have the chance to make a serious difference with their teams this upcoming season. These players can be new faces or familiar ones looking to have a strong return to form. Each day we will be looking at a different team! Today we will take a look at the potential 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks key players.
2020-21 Vancouver Canucks Candidates
Breakout: Jake Virtanen
Yeah, yeah: Obvious Writer Picks the Obvious. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t going to be a big year for Jake Virtanen. His 18 goals and 18 assists in just 69 games last season is part of an ongoing career arc. The overall shape of that arc will be determined this year. There is forward talent coming in over the next couple of years, and Virtanen isn’t going to be guaranteed a spot on the team even if he does show improvement. He has skills to bring to bear, so this isn’t some forlorn hope. He’s at his best playing a simplified game: up and down the wing, knocking opponents off the puck, unleashing a surprisingly good shot. Which is Tyler Motte‘s skill set.
Motte’s fine, a definite NHLer, but the 24-year old sixth-overall pick can be so much more. To stick on the first line he needs to do more. He’s not very good at predicting breakouts or seeing developing plays, so it’s probably not going to be a case of suddenly being a well-rounded player. One thing he could work on his backchecking, disrupting puck carriers heading the other way. His offensive skills are – or can be – good enough that he doesn’t need a miracle. If he takes another step in his offence and gets just a bit better on defence, that may be enough. A lot of teams would be very happy with a 60-point player who is… adequate… on defence.
Complicating things further for him? The other players. Without improving his defensive awareness, Virtanen is basically giving himself one chance in the top-6. Given the role Bo Horvat plays against their opponent’s players, the Canucks can’t afford a liability on the second line. So for Jake, he either uses his size, speed, and nasty wrist shot beside Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller or he boosts the bottom-6 again with second-unit power-play time as a bonus. It’s very easy to picture him losing out to prospects Kole Lind or Vasili Podkolzin as soon as later this year. Whether that happens or not is up to him.
Bounce-Back: Brock Boeser
Surprised? Don’t be. Brock Boeser is primed to bounce back for the Vancouver Canucks in the 2020-21 season. To begin with, a shooting percentage of 9.5% is ridiculously low for him. If there was a challenge for shooters standing in the slot against NHL goaltenders, Boeser would be Vancouver’s choice. No one else on the team leaves goalies waving at nothing like he does. Add to that his new job spending ice time with the phenomenally dangerous Elias Pettersson, and you understand if he gets twice as many assists as goals last season. Mostly that just proves he’s no fool. The Lotto Line (6-40-9 for non-Canadians) was one of the most dangerous in the league all last season.
However, this doesn’t mean he hasn’t had his struggles in his first three full NHL seasons. A scorer is relied on to score, and a mere 16 in 57 games is disappointing. Especially as it follows seasons of 29 and 26 goals in 62 and 69 games respectively. Whispers of diminishing returns were already creeping in last year, and rumours of possible trades followed. If the team did decide to move him, it would be because of his injury history, not his skills. Boeser has yet to play a full year, and that raises concerns. Injuries to his back and wrist are never great to have, but especially hazardous to a shooter.
Add the unpredictability of his father Duke’s health, and you’ve got a young man who frankly put an impressive career so far. Having a contract that jumps up to $7.5 million next year only adds to the risk involved in keeping Boeser, but will also make him hard to move. He’ll need more than one great season to get a qualifying offer at that level, and that starts this year.
Bounce-Back: Braden Holtby
Replacing the team’s MVP after they’ve reached the playoffs for the first time in five years? And he was the key in replacing their previous MVP? With the implication that you’re to mentor a superstar in the making? AND that you’re expansion draft bait? AND you’ve just left the only NHL team you’ve known in a ten-year career?
In addition to all those pressures is actually playing the game – and there are plenty of questions there, too. Yes, he gives the 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks their first Stanley Cup-winning goalie in 50 years. That’s great. He got all 16 wins for the Washington Capitals, too. But his win came three years ago, and his record since hasn’t been exemplary. In fact, it could be argued that last season was his worst in the league, with a sub-.900 save percentage and goals-against over 3.00. The Jennings and Vezina winner was mentioned for another award, but getting votes for the Lady Byng is hardly what gets a goalie hired.
All that being said, though, and there is reason to believe he’ll bounce back. His second-worst season was the one he took the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup win. He joins a team with the near-legendary goalie coach Ian Clark. The Canucks allow plenty of shots, certainly, but also work to limit those shots to the ones their goalies are most likely to stop. And, ironically, Holtby’s bad numbers last year will reduce expectations on him personally. This may be the first time a goalie mentor is brought in with less pressure than his supposed disciple.