Puck Drop Preview: 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks

2020-21 Vancouver Canucks

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey 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. Make 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks.

2020-21 Vancouver Canucks

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Which is a pleasant surprise for Canucks fans over the past five years, the latter being far more frequent than the former. It was also one of the most eventful offseasons the team has had, with major players moving out at every position. Here’s a closer look at the 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks.

2019-20 Season

The season started with a bang in training camp as Adam Gaudette outplayed NHL veterans Sven Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin, forcing them to the AHL. New arrival Micheal Ferland was disappointing, moving down the lineup as October progressed. His concussion issues returned, and despite repeated rest, he was never able to make a return. The other big deal at forward, J.T. Miller, was above and beyond expectations. He led the team in scoring by season’s end on a top line with *spoiler alert* Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson.
On defence, Quinn Hughes showed he was everything that was reported and then some. The rookie came in second in Calder Trophy voting to the very worthy Cale Makar and formed an effective pair with Chris Tanev all season long. Couldn’t have a year without controversy, and the signing and subsequent play of Tyler Myers fulfilled that obligation. His play wasn’t as bad as some fans insist, but a six million dollar contract carries expectations. It didn’t help that GM Jim Benning described him as “a shutdown guy” which Myers most emphatically is not.
The team remained surprisingly healthy for most of the season, but Brock Boeser going down just as the playoff race was tightening up could have been a disaster. It was salvaged by a trade bringing Tyler Toffoli in. He seamlessly fit into the top line, which made *extra spoiler alert* everyone very happy forever. Anyhow. An injury to team MVP Jacob Markstrom and shaky numbers from ‘Goalie of the Future’ Thatcher Demko made for a tense end to the season when play was suspended.

Playoffs, Playoffs, Everywhere!

Any questions were solved by not just winning a play-in series against the Minnesota Wild, but by beating the reigning Stanley Cup champions and taking the Vegas Golden Knights to seven games before bowing out. The excellent play of the young members of the squad, the revelation of Bo Horvat, and the brilliance of Demko left fans eager to get this year started. After all, what could possibly dampen the spirit of this up-and-coming team? Young stars, solid depth, great playoff experience…

2020 Offseason

…And the salary cap. It doesn’t just return, but returns as a flat cap, changing what was an anchor into the Titanic, post-iceberg.

The Losses

As a result, the team lost their MVP goaltender, who – to be fair – was probably always going to go. Perhaps more concerning was their best defensive defenceman also taking a deal with the Calgary Flames. An oft-injured but versatile middle-six winger joined the exodus to Southern Alberta. Plus their reliable, multi-tool third-pair guy going to the Detroit Red Wings. Oh, and that replacement for Boeser? Toffoli walked, too. And some of these were a direct result of a mad play for Arizona Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson late in the free-agent season.

That’s a lot.

The Gains

The traffic wasn’t all one-way, though. The same cap squeeze that limited Benning’s options gained them Nate Schmidt. 2018 Stanley Cup winner Braden Holtby signed on. Veteran defenceman Travis Hamonic is as close to a Tanev clone in playing style you’ll find in the NHL. And there’s still room for a couple of young players to make the jump to the big club. While no one is likely to have the impact of Pettersson or Hughes, getting continued progress from prospects makes the future bright.

Concern and optimism mark the 2020 Vancouver Canucks offseason – and both are for good reason.

Lineup Projections

Now for the fun bit. As you’ve no doubt noticed, we’re avoiding any Taxi Squad talk in our projections. One late arrival has tossed the team lines into disarray, and another is expected to…

Forwards

J.T. Miller – Elias Pettersson – Brock Boeser

Tanner Pearson – Bo Horvat – Nils Hoglander

Tyler MotteBrandon SutterJake Virtanen

Antoine Roussel – Adam Gaudette – Zack MacEwen

Top Six

It looks like with the shortened season coach Travis Green isn’t going to spend any of it experimenting. The Lotto Line of Miller, Pettersson and Boeser returns and given that it was one of the best in the league last season that’s good news for the Canucks. It’s going to be hard for Miller to recreate his career-high numbers, but he’ll give it a shot. The biggest question mark here is Boeser’s health – he has yet to play a full season. If he does, though, that will end whatever questions remain. All three of these players are top-rate scorers, and they work together very well. More interesting is who comes next.
That the Horvat-Pearson pairing would stay together was a certainty. But the difference is they may well have finally found a permanent third. Hoglander joins the team coming off a high in the SHL, and he could still get bumped once other wingers catch up. But for now, he has fit in seamlessly with the high-energy duo. With word out of camp that Green will play Pettersson fewer protected minutes, this means the second line can get more offensive opportunities. Horvat’s top priority has, until now, been defence and a shut-down role. Some of that burden getting eased can really accelerate their point production.

Bottom Six

For Horvat’s line to take less defensive responsibility, though, the Canucks need more from the bottom of the roster. Sutter, Motte, and Roussel are well used to those demands. MacEwen will take whatever role he’s given and work like a dog to earn it. Gaudette, on the other hand, was one of the most protected forwards in the league last season. He’s been asked to take on more of a checking role, which he’ll need to do if he wants to remain a centre. There’s no way he’s cracking the top two lines otherwise. And Virtanen’s struggles with defence is near-legendary at this point. However, he works very well in an offensive role – it just won’t be available to him. If he wants to stay on the team until an opportunity arises, he needs to round out his game. His speed, size, and shot could be a real advantage on both special teams if he can pull it off.
But, Wait!

That’s right. Notable by their absence are two names: Jay Beagle and Loui Eriksson. Should Hoglander stay in place, Virtanen take to his role and Gaudette play enough defence to take advantage of weaker matchups, this could be the year two of the most expensive players are sidelined for the 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks.

Defence

Alexander Edler – Nate Schmidt

Quinn Hughes – Travis Hamonic

Olli Juolevi – Tyler Myers

Top Four

Two things to note, here: Hamonic doesn’t officially have a contract yet, but that’s just a matter of the season’s start. And whether he and Hughes or Edler and Schmidt are called the top pair is pretty irrelevant. Hamonic is the clear replacement for Tanev, providing a solid footing for Hughes. Expect Myers to take his place should the team fall behind late in games, but mostly it should be Hamonic beside the sophomore.

The addition of Schmidt is a huge gain for the team defence. This can’t be overstated. His speed and puckhandling ability give the Canucks a legitimate puck mover who can carry it out in each pair. It’s safe to predict Edler’s numbers to remain reasonably high despite his age, even if his most common play is getting it to Schmidt. Second assists count more when you get them by moving the puck out of danger. While Schmidt isn’t the best defender in his own end, he’s very good at ensuring it doesn’t remain there long when he does get it.

Bottom Pair

Saying Myers is on the “bottom pair” is a bit misleading. Whichever veteran is assigned to ease the rookie Juolevi into the league will be given the designation. Myers is going to get time with the power play, possibly bumping Edler off that spot. The big defender has some bite in front of the net, which is sorely lacking outside of Jordie Benn who may start as an extra. As much criticism as he received for taking penalties in the playoffs, that is one reason the team got him.

Juolevi is likely going to be protected as much as possible to start the year, but he still has everything the team drafted him for. His presence of mind is perfectly intact, even if his legs have been rebuilt. He’s done well in the AHL, and he should be even better in the more structured NHL. Time will tell, but his time to prove he belongs is now.

Goalies

Braden Holtby – Thatcher Demko

The numbers show that this is going to be a weakness for the 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks. Markstrom was rarely anything short of spectacular over the past two years, and replacing him is a tall order. Holtby had his worst season last year, and Demko’s tepid regular-season numbers are likely closer to his real talent than his blistering-hot playoffs. But those numbers could be lying, and for two reasons.
The Canucks play to their goaltender’s strengths, and that bodes well for a quick learner like Holtby. Of the massive number of shots Markstrom would face, few would be from the most dangerous plays. Working with goalie coach Ian Clark alone will improve Holtby’s results. As for Demko, while his regular-season numbers weren’t very good, his play was improving leading up to the break. He was adjusting, and that showed in the playoffs. It would be crazy to think he’d keep those numbers, but he’ll surely have better results than a .905 save percentage and 3.06 goals against.

Players to Watch

Nils Hoglander

We didn’t expect to be saying this even two weeks ago, but he might be exactly what the Canucks ordered. The only caveat is that the rookie is coming into the season playing high-level professional hockey. Maybe the rest of the team will catch up to him, or he fades as the season grinds on. But right from puck drop, he’s looked like an excellent fit beside Horvat and Pearson. As hesitant as Green is of putting pressure on rookies, he might not have any choice.

There is apparently some debate on a nickname for him. Given how quickly the 5’8″ fireplug can change direction, may I suggest Nils Helicopter?

Nate Schmidt

Another new arrival, another game-changer. Holtby or Hamonic are expected to maintain the level of play of losses on the team – or at least minimize those losses. Schmidt, on the other hand, can completely change how the team plays for his shifts. Having a dangerous offensive defenceman added to a team that loves to play a breakout style will keep opponents on edge the entire game. Easing pressure on stalwart Edler will keep him effective longer and will take some focus away from Hughes. In these empty arenas, don’t just watch for him. “Whoop, whoop!”

Prediction for 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks

Hoo, boy. The North Division is absolute madness to predict outside of the Ottawa Senators finishing last, and even that’s not a given. This is entirely a question of making the playoffs, and in a normal year, it wouldn’t be out of the question for six of the seven teams to make it. If things go right, Vancouver has a legitimate shot to finish first. If they don’t, they could be in seventh place. The first time a North Division was mentioned, we had a prediction: the Canucks would finish in sixth place. But that was before. Now?
We predict the 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks will finish fifth in the North Division, missing the playoffs.

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images


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