Puck Drop Preview: 2022-23 Vancouver Canucks

Last Word On Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2022-23 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2022-23 Vancouver Canucks.

2022-23 Vancouver Canucks

Fifty-two years of not quite making it has left the Canucks with a diverse bunch of fans unified through cynicism. Having the only NHL team to reach the Stanley Cup Final three times and losing all of them – twice in Game Seven – doesn’t sow the seeds of hope. And yet if The Sandman teaches us anything, there is nothing in the universe harder to kill. We’re not saying it’s entirely unjustified for Canucks fans to have some optimism. But we also don’t need to remind them to be suspicious of it.

2021-22 Season

The year began with a six-game road trip. It was a reasonably successful one, finishing 3-2-1. Looking closer, though, it was a red flag: only one of the six teams finished the season anywhere near .500, with the Edmonton Oilers alone finishing in the playoffs at 104 points. The seven-game homestand that followed was even worse, providing just two wins. Slow starts, blown leads when they could get back into games, and 3-4 goal losses were regular events with less than a third of the season played. That was enough.
After just 25 games, the team went through a massive overhaul at the coaching and administration levels. General Manager Jim Benning was finally relieved from his duties after years of desperate, “all-in” efforts to make the playoffs. Coach Travis Green, given a new contract that May, was also out. Coming in was Bruce Boudreau, widely considered a “player’s coach” who can get the most out of star players. Jim Rutherford was brought in to completely rebuild the white-collar side of the business. The end result, on the ice, anyway, was spectacular.

The Boudreau Era kicked off with a seven-game win streak, with points in nine in a row. The Canucks 8-15-2 start ended at 40-30-12. They missed the playoffs, but by just six points – far less than could be reasonably expected. And they only had one free agent of concern in Brock Boeser.

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2022 Offseason

The Vancouver Canucks charged into the offseason with promise and hope. Canucks fans had an uncommonly optimistic Summer, with smiles fading slightly as fiscal reality raised its head. “Bruce, There It Is” turned into “Bruce Wasn’t Our First Choice Anyway” as Boudreau tried – and failed – to get an extension. Difficulty signing Boeser and getting extensions done for J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat kept the sun from shining too brightly on the coast. As of this writing, Horvat still isn’t signed and the two sides are distinctly cool toward each other.
The overhaul off the ice hasn’t been mirrored by one on it, so justifiable doubts remain. There have been some changes, though, and not just cosmetic ones. Landing Andrei Kuzmenko was a major coup, and the bet that Ilya Mikheyev will bring some scoring isn’t a bad one. Curtis Lazar and Dakota Joshua are the definitions of low-risk improvements, and probably the only ones to play regularly. The biggest roll of the dice the team has taken is probably at the backup goaltending position.

Lineup Projections

Forwards

Tanner Pearson – J.T. Miller – Brock Boeser

Ilya Mikheyev – Elias Pettersson – Andrei Kuzmenko

Vasily Podkolzin – Bo Horvat – Conor Garland

Jason Dickinson –  Curtis Lazar – Nils Höglander

Top Six

Shall we simply consider a Boeser injury as “the usual” at this point? The injuries he gets aren’t typically repeatable ones. He has had recurring joint injuries or concussions, for instance. That being said, expect the threesome anchored by Miller to control a lot of the play when they are out there. Boeser has arguably the team’s best shot, but his ability on the boards remains underrated – he can hold and fetch. Pearson can easily hit career highs by passing the puck to either linemate. Opponents have plenty to worry about here.

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It feels odd to call any line with Pettersson on it a “second” line, but starting the year with two unknowns does it. Kuzmenko isn’t the fleetest of feet, but the puck moves faster than any player. His passes are NHL-level and he knows how to change the angle of his shot on the fly. Mikheyev is one of the fastest players in the league, and he’ll get plenty of opportunities to take passes from the other two. Even if his shot percentage drops, which is not unlikely after last season’s 14.3%, he’ll get some fantastic chances.

Bottom Six

A Podkolzin – Horvat – Garland line just seems like a nightmare to deal with. Podkolzin’s most endearing trait is just how much he hates anyone on the opposing team having the puck. He has a very good defensive sensibility and finished the 2021-22 season on a tear, scoring four goals and nine points in 13 April games. Add Garland’s endless battery and Horvat’s sniping and this is a third line in name only. Even if their focus is limiting scoring chances, there is enough talent to outscore whoever they are set against. All three players are going to see power-play time, too.

Some might be surprised to see Höglander on the fourth line, but this is the best spot for him – for now. He has boundless energy and is surprisingly hard to get off the puck. That is just what you want on a fourth line. He might not live up to the scoring he showed as a rookie, but if he wants to gain his coaches’ trust, taking a year to focus on a control game isn’t a step backwards. Adding the hard-working Lazar specifically for this spot is a fine example of choosing the right player for the right price.

Dakota Joshua brings an unmistakable physical presence to the team but is probably the odd man out when Brock Boeser returns. Dickinson is pushing to rebound from a miserable 2021-22 season, and between his contract and overall skill he’ll get that chance. Still, Joshua’s not a bad option to turn to if needed.

Defence

Quinn HughesLuke Schenn

Oliver Ekman-LarssonTyler Myers

Jack RathboneTucker Poolman

Top Four / Bottom Pair

There’s no hiding from the fact that the 2022-23 Vancouver Canucks biggest problem is defence. It got no easier with Travis Dermott‘s mysterious injury keeping him off the ice since late September. Add Poolman being an unknown and a rusty one at that, and the entire defence is obscured by fog. After a pre-season of experiments with pairing combinations and moving players’ sides, the safe bet is probably the safe bet.
The top two pairs did reasonably well last season, though if the team wants to release the best of Hughes, Schenn is far from the ideal partner. But a pre-concussion Poolman was even worse, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back to full speed for a while yet. The team wants more offence from Ekman-Larsson, but his best fit is working with Myers to shut down opposition chances. They did reasonably well, but it’s nowhere near his full potential.
Rathbone is ready for the NHL but should be a little sheltered yet. A pairing with Schenn would be perfect, but that leaves the question of Hughes’ partner. Kyle Burroughs is certainly an option, as is Christian Wolanin though Wolanin is left-handed. Vancouver’s issue is having five third-pair capable defencemen but a giant gap beside Hughes. It’s not a problem they can solve with greater numbers.
One sure thing, one question mark. For the 2022-23 Vancouver Canucks to have a successful year Martin needs to come through. He doesn’t have to be as ludicrously good as last year’s .950 save percentage, but having average numbers should work. Despite being a 2013 draft pick, Martin has played all of nine NHL games. The Canucks decided this was one spot they’d save money instead of trying another older veteran for the third year running. It could work, but shooters are going to have a book on Martin now.
Even more pressure is on Demko’s shoulders, but he’s a proven commodity now. The challenge is limiting his starts enough to keep him rested for a playoff appearance – if they can afford to.

Players to Watch

Andrei Kuzmenko

Landing Kuzmenko was a major get for Vancouver, but it was with the understanding that he would get plenty of opportunity to set up his next contract here. A spot beside Pettersson is certainly that, and he looks comfortable there in the preseason. If that comfort remains all season long, the team is going to be in a very interesting spot come the trade deadline. Would they move him on, or make him part of the future?

Brock Boeser

Given his personal trials over the years, how Boeser responds this season will determine a lot of Vancouver’s success. Given the makeup of the team, it’s clear the best plan is to outscore opponents and Boeser’s first 30+ goal season would go a long way to that end. No one on the team is under more pressure than Boudreau, but Boeser may be the most-watched player this season.

Prediction for 2022-23 Vancouver Canucks

The 2022-23 Vancouver Canucks need a lot to go right to claim one of the top three spots in the Pacific. On the other hand, that’s the right division to be in for it. The two Alberta teams seem a lock, but everyone else has questions in vital spots or will settle for a building year. In the mud pit that is the Western Conference, the Canucks are in the fight for a wild card slot. We think they make it.