Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Vancouver Canucks.
2021-22 Vancouver Canucks
Optimism? Here? But, oddly enough, here indeed there is optimism. Some of it may be based on the Great Scouring that happened in the offseason, some on the recent re-signing of their stars. And some will be from a feeling that this year can’t be any worse than the last…
In so many ways, the 2020-21 season was a disaster. Massive upheaval as they lost all their free agents. A late start for one of their key acquisitions and the time it took for him to gel. Another one never quite fitting in as hoped. A devastating bout of COVID-19 tearing through the dressing room. A season-ending injury to their best forward. Their new backup goalie not quite performing as hoped. That last isn’t normally fatal to a team, but in a compressed season, it was.
The long and short of it is that the team finished at the bottom of the North Division standings. They weren’t irredeemably bad, but lordy they weren’t good. Except for Nils Höglander. The great rookie streak continues!
Unlike other offseasons, this was a year of action. Given how long general manager Jim Benning hangs on to his projects, the number of moves was shocking. Out went loads of inefficient contracts. Braden Holtby was bought out, as was Jake Virtanen. In came Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tucker Poolman on defence. In came Conor Garland and Jason Dickinson up front. A new veteran goaltender was brought in to buy Mike DiPietro some AHL time. And the long-anticipated arrival of Vasily Podkolzin has happened.
The lineup hasn’t quite been locked down, but it’s close. With Brandon Sutter having a relapse from his bout with illness last season, Tyler Motte being injured, and Travis Hamonic not in town yet, there is more opportunity than expected – at least to start the year. The few spots that were available even with a full lineup are still undecided, too.
This lineup is loaded with caveats right now, and not just in the bottom six. Dowling and Petan have done well enough to at least sub in for the missing Sutter and Motte. Chaisson has fit in well enough to get a more regular role, though that might be as the 13th forward. Boeser is currently sitting out nursing a mild injury and may miss as much as the opening week. For now, it looks like Chiasson has that spot and will drop down later. One thing the 2021-22 Vancouver Canucks are is deeper than they’ve been in years. But it’s not perfect.
The hardest thing to predict so far has been penalty killing. Coach Travis Green likes to have his penalty killers on the third and fourth lines, keeping their energy for when it’s needed. With both Sutter and Motte out – their two top killers – those slots are empty. That opens the door for Dowling and leaves Chiasson a bit of a question mark for now. There is still an outside shot for rookie William Lockwood because of it, but his waiver-exempt status makes him more likely to start in Abbotsford.
It’s hard to describe a clear top and bottom six yet. One might emerge as the year progresses, but there is still some drama yet to go. Once Pettersson was lost, Miller was moved to centre. It’s not his strongest position, but he does have enough skill to drive a line of his own. There is absolutely a chance that he and Garland switch positions, bumping Dickinson to the wing. Ideally, this sets up three scoring lines and let the opposition coach worry about stopping them.
Coach Green loves his line blender, and fans will see it come out on more than one occasion. Garland is very much skilled enough to play beside Pettersson and Boeser if it comes to that. There was early speculation he could be paired with Horvat and Pearson moved to a matchup line with Dickinson, but so far in the preseason, the TanBoNi* line(tm) has been a lock. But with Horvat no longer burdened with matching opponent’s best lines, a more talented offensive presence can work there. Guessing who goes where – even at this late date – is a challenge. It gets no easier on the defence.
Hoo boy. The easy assumption, and the one most frequently made, was that Hamonic was Hughes’ partner in the top pair. With Hamonic gone temporarily, both Poolman and newly returned Luke Schenn have both played beside Hughes. Neither has looked terribly out of place, but Poolman has the higher skill. You may have noticed Schenn in the “spares” category when Hamonic returns. That’s not the player you want with your best defenceman, but the options are limited.
Brad Hunt has been everything advertised since he was signed, and that reliable, veteran presence may even have him in the lineup. He is probably best used wearing a letter in Abbotsford. Who else? Hughes has played with Myers a fair amount, but that was when the team needed a goal late and was willing to forgo defence. So with a single preseason game to go, the 2021-22 Vancouver Canucks have a completely unknown top-four combination.
Judging by preseason play alone, it should be Rathbone’s spot to lose. He’s still a bit mistake-prone, but his skill is undeniable. He is a spirited attacker and has good vision for passes with an NHL-level shot. His chief rival here is Juolevi, who is a better defender – or at least his mind is. Juolevi might be reaching the end of his chances after a series of injuries limited his mobility. His skating was never his strong suit, but it was good enough. Now he still thinks a smart game and his passes out of the zone are strong, but he has difficulty turning and can get burned with quick East-West entries.
That being said, Juolevi has NHL-level skills. Whether the team wants to protect him enough to use them remains to be seen. He might well work with Myers, who loves going on the attack but is quite the adventure in his own end. Plus he is not waiver-exempt, so the Canucks risk losing him if he’s sent to Abbotsford. They already lost one prospect this week. Losing another – especially one as controversial as Juolevi’s fifth-overall selection – won’t go over well.
Starting a season without a goalie controversy in Vancouver feels… odd. But of all positions, this is their most settled. Halak is coming in as the backup for unquestioned starter Demko. It’s as simple as that. DiPietro gets his time in the AHL to make up for last season, hopefully taking Halak’s spot next season. And Atrurs Silovs is available should an emergency happen along the line while Spencer Martin holds the fort in Abbotsford. Perfect!
Now the fans just hope that Halak regains his form from two years ago, and not repeat last season’s .905 save percentage. Just like they hoped from the last guy they had backing up Demko. How’d that go, anyway?
Players to Watch
Too obvious? Too bad. The Canucks defence is, on paper, their weakest point. Ekman-Larsson’s play has diminished over the past few seasons, to the point where the Arizona Coyotes moved him out as a too-expensive long-term contract. For Vancouver, the risk he won’t live up to his $7.26 million salary for its entire length is very high. But the circumstances between Arizona and Vancouver are radically different. They don’t need him to be their star. The 2021-22 Vancouver Canucks are on the rise rather than treading water. And his chances of returning to the playoffs may be enough to rejuvenate his career.
Will the move work? We put him in this category for a reason.
If you needed one player to score while standing in front of the net and your house was riding on it, you’d choose Boeser. He bounced back from an absurdly low – for him – 9.5 percent shooting in 2019-20 back above 16 percent last year. He’s healthy, he’s happy, he’s got his brilliant centre back, and he’s in the final year of his contract. Boeser’s play away from the puck has improved every season but was most noticeable in 2020-21. He’s added markedly improved play on the boards and fluidity to his attack, and it’s a blast to watch.
With all that comes a price. Literally. His base salary is $7.5 million this year, and his qualifying offer has to be the same. With big deals for Pettersson and Horvat coming up in the near future, how much skill can the Canucks afford? And for how long? Should the then-25 year old ask for an eight-year deal, it’s going to be a tough call. And he’ll do his best this year to make the decision as hard for the team as possible. Should be fun!
The Pacific Division is a wild one. Every team has flaws, and any could collapse under them. Last season’s results are hard to merit given the radically different structure the teams were in. But that the Canucks have improved their talent is obvious. On paper, their weakness is at the blue line. But their strength at forward should compensate, and their goaltending likewise is a strength. Even calling the defence a weakness ignores the fact that this season, at least, it is led by two very capable players who could well pick up 50 points apiece.
Our guess is that they’re in the 2021-22 playoffs, though it’s close. The 2021-22 Vancouver Canucks will finish third in the Pacific Division.
*Rhymes with “Zamboni”