The Vancouver Canucks offseason is off to a much earlier start than was hoped for in September. And it was set off with a win in the league’s newest location, the tiny-but-oddly-powerful Mullett Arena.*
Two Seasons, One Team
It’s not just about the Canucks season and their all-too-restful Canucks offseason. The year itself was split into two halves, dramatically delineated.
The very opening of the season was going to be rough. A five-game road trip from Edmonton to Washington to Minnesota isn’t how anyone wants to start the year. But one, maybe two wins would have been nice. Instead, the Canucks managed zero wins and two points.
Indeed, the theme of the trip was “Tropical Cruise Gone Terribly Wrong!” with the Canucks blowing leads in every one of their opening road trip games. Multiple-goal leads in their first four. They finally broke that pattern by not having a lead at all in their first two home games. Yay?
As the year stretched on, it was a given that Boudreau wasn’t getting extended at the end of 2022-23. After all, it took until Game 68 before the team won while scoring fewer than three goals. That ain’t great.
Rick Tocchet was obviously their pick from the start, especially when Jim Rutherford was expressing disappointment that Boudreau was still with the team. Bit of a hint, there. Still, bringing him in as an immediate replacement mid-season was a surprise. Surely this, of all years, was the one to let the team hit bottom?
Apparently not. The improved team pulled themselves out of the bottom ten just in time for the entry draft. Timing, in comedy, is everything.
Add the not-terribly-smooth handling of captain Bo Horvat‘s negotiations and the year just gets stranger. It became increasingly clear the new group had no interest in re-signing him, but they waited for… what?
The deal eventually made was a decent one, eventually ending in Horvat and the 2023 18th and 43rd overall picks leaving town. In return, the Canucks got Filip Hronek, Aatu Räty, Anthony Beauvillier, and the 2023 105th overall pick.
The Canucks offseason includes naming a new team captain to replace Horvat, and who that is will speak volumes about future plans. One of the most outspoken and driven guys is J.T. Miller, but right now our money’s on Quinn Hughes.
They might wait a year before naming a replacement, but it’s doubtful they’d do that if they’re looking to make the playoffs. Going captainless is a move a rebuilding team does, and we all know how the Canucks owners feel about that.
Thatcher Demko is absolutely vital to the Canucks success. We knew it before, and we know it doubly now. A nightmare start of 15 games with just three wins ran to three absent months. His return at the end of February coincided with the team’s resurgence, unsurprisingly.
Demko won 11 of his last 17 games – and that “17 games” is a story in itself. Tocchet took advantage of his star goaltender as soon as he could, and Demko rewarded him for it. If there was any question about his health, they are more than answered. He even got his first assist of the season in Anaheim.
He is the best contract on the team, with three seasons remaining at just $5 million per. Whenever the next Canucks postseason happens – if Demko is still in town – they have a chance of winning any round.
The real interest is in who else might be sharing that net. Spencer Martin was a bit of a roll of the dice, but not a bad risk for the cost. The assumption was that Demko would be the goaltender opponents would fear and Martin would be the understudy. And it worked fine, to start.
Martin’s time with Demko gave him nine starts, going 6-2-1 and a .902 save percentage. Good enough as a backup, but given the starter’s role made Martin the person of interest for opposing shooters. He kept the team afloat through December with a 5-4-0 record, but he was found out soon enough.
Once the calendar flipped, Martin sank rapidly. He played nine more games before being sent down to Abbotsford, going 0-9-0 and never reaching a .900 save percentage in any game.
The suddenly-signed Collin Delia, brought in as an additional cushion, did his job well enough to outlast Martin in Vancouver. He moved to back up Martin when Demko was injured and remained after he came back. He was acceptable, getting eight wins in his 17 games since January 1st.
Mostly, Delia did his job – letting the latest Goalie of the Future Arturs Silovs remain in Abbotsford. Silovs did get five starts in Vancouver, but his year is all about being the starter at the pro level. That’s still on track, and Martin is the odds-on favourite to be back in Vancouver behind Demko next season.
Are We There Yet?
A lot has been made of cap limits driving the Canucks offseason moves this year. For good reason: as of the last day of the 2022-23 season, Vancouver has approximately $86 million in commitments for 2023-24. That’s already over the cap with a 20-man roster.
In short? Folks gotta go.
There’s plenty of time to break down individual performances and the many, many options the Canucks have. Big dates ahead are the entry draft lottery on May 8th and free agency kicking in on July 1st. For the Canucks specifically, Tyler Myers‘ bonus payment is due September 1st, so a whole lot of conversation around him will be happening all Summer long.
There are surprisingly few actually disastrous contracts among the Canucks forwards. Brock Boeser‘s is possibly the worst, but not because of a lack of talent. He has two years remaining on his $6.5 million, but with 18 goals and 55 points, he fell one point short of his career high. If Vancouver wants to move him, they will likely need to retain some salary to get the best return.
That repeats itself through the front group. Conor Garland and newcomer Anthony Beauvillier are likely the first that come to mind as forwards paid a bit more than their production. It’s hard to judge Ilya Mikheyev based on his injured play this year, and who knows what will happen for the terribly unlucky Tanner Pearson.
If he recovers fully, Pearson will likely fall into the “slightly overpaid” category but is still a useful player.
Injuries again have played a major role here, and the Canucks offseason needs to consider them. Some depth players have done well under harsh circumstances, but that’s only reassuring if the first six are solid. And really, they aren’t.
Tucker Poolman has been gone for the year and may be at the end of his career. Travis Dermott has played all of 28 games with Vancouver since coming over last March – how he fits is still an unknown. Filip Hronek‘s brief stay was tantalizing, but just four games long.
And there’s going to be the Oliver Ekman-Larsson question hanging about until it’s resolved, one way or another. He’s the one guy on the team it would make sense to buy out, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.
This is an interesting bunch. Prospect Jack Rathbone is under serious pressure now with Akito Hirose and Cole McWard signed and Filip Johansson arriving from Sweden for the AHL playoffs. And that’s just on defence.
Up front, there is a pileup of young replacements hunting down an NHL spot. The college-age signees have a step on the younger players, but both of them are going to pressure the veterans. Conversely, older signees have less time to prove themselves as anything more than AHL roster-fillers. Räty will get more leeway than the three-year-older Aidan McDonough, even if McDonough gets called up first.
Canucks Offseason Preoccupation
The season may be over, but the work has just begun. Hopefully, the AHL Canucks will give management a longer look at the playoffs this year. Maybe there will be signs of a breakout player rather than just reliable callups. Hopes are high for Nils Höglander and Vasily Podkolzin, and lord knows everyone wants Jett Woo to keep up his recent improved play.
But the more interesting questions are more immediate. The salary cap remains a top priority, even above the growing prospect list. What makes the team unpredictable – owners wanting quick results – is going to keep us talking all Summer long.
See you all at the draft lottery.
*Seriously, did you know the Coyotes finished with a 21-15-5 record at home?
Main photo by: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports