Our Vancouver Canucks 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
After the 2017-2018 season, Henrik and Daniel Sedin retired after playing 17 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, the twins hung ‘em up. With them gone, this was a team looking for a new identity going into the 2018-2019 season. The Canucks were a fun team to watch and drew in a lot of viewers league wide. This is weird, given their two best players had just retired. The reason? Rookie sensation Elias Pettersson made his debut. He had been lighting up the Swedish league, setting records and scoring a lot of points, and there was a lot of hype about him playing in the NHL. It was unknown how he would adjust to the North American game. The team soon had their answer, as Pettersson looked ready to go from the get go. He scored a goal on his first shot, and later added an assist in his opening game. He won the Rookie of the Month for October, and never looked back, eventually winning the Calder trophy for Rookie of the Year. Pettersson had 28 goals, 38 assists in 71 games. He missed some time from getting manhandled by Mike Matheson on the Florida Panthers. Matheson got a two game suspension, but this sparked some debate as to if Pettersson was too fragile to play in the league. Pettersson appears to have bulked up this offseason, so I think he’ll be just fine.
Brock Boeser was another reason the team was fun to watch. His chemistry with Pettersson was great. Injuries have plagued the 22 year old winger so far in his career, and last year he only played 66 games. He had 26 goals and 59 points. The Canucks need both Boeser and Pettersson to stay healthy all season, but injuries have hit the Canucks franchise very hard overall.
Another winger, Sven Baertschi missed 56 games last season with a concussion. It was so bad that he was doubtful to ever play again at some points. He’s never played a full season since being drafted in 2011, as he’s experienced a lot of setbacks with injuries. If he can play additional games this season, and avoid head injuries, Baertschi will be an important part of the Canucks top nine forwards.
One player who played all 82 games, was Bo Horvat. Actually, Horvat was the only player on the team to play all 82 games, which is brutal. The team really faced some adversity last season. The good news is that Bo has really come into his own as a two way centre, and provides a lot of the heart and soul to the team. If you are going to have one skater be healthy for every game, Horvat is a solid choice. Everyone is expecting Horvat to be named captain this season, now that the Sedin’s retirement is one whole season removed. He wore an alternate letter the last few seasons, but he should be making the jump to captain very soon, and what better time than for opening night of the team’s 50th season.
Jacob Markstrom had a great season for the Canucks in net. He had a career high number of starts with 60, and posted a goals against average of 2.66 and a save percentage of .912. Markstrom was outstanding, especially considering some of the defense he had in front of him. Anders Nilsson was less than great with Vancouver last season, with a 3.09 goals against average and a.885 save percentage in 12 games. He was dealt out in January to the Ottawa Senators with Darren Archibald in exchange for goaltender Mike McKenna and Tom Pyatt. The plan was to have McKenna backup Markstrom for a game and then send him down through waivers in order for prospect Thatcher Demko to come back up. As it turned out, McKenna was actually picked up off waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers, who had their own goalie issues last season. This could not have come at a worse time. The Canucks AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets had two goalies out with injury. They had to bring up an ECHL goalie, Ivan Kulbakov to play in the AHL. Kulbakov had no contract with the Canucks. What this eventually led to was a situation where Demko was injured in warmups and the team had no AHL goalie on an NHL contract. They had to emergency call up 19 year old Michael DiPietro from the OHL. Dipietro played a single game against one of the league’s highest scoring teams, the San Jose Sharks. He got no support on defense, and let in seven goals with a .708 save percentage. Not exactly the dream start to the NHL. Still, he stepped in when he needed to and played despite not being prepared.
On the backend, the defense managed pretty well all season, but definitely had their issues. Namely, Erik Gudbranson and Derrick Pouliot . The two were very poor defensively for the Canucks and were cursed out by fans all season. Management dealt away Gudbranson to the Penguins at the trade deadline and acquired winger Tanner Pearson. This was a win-win trade in my opinion. Gudbranson actually improved his defensive numbers in Pittsburgh. Pearson, who only got 14 points in 44 games with Pittsburgh, went on a tear in Vancouver, getting 12 points in 19 games. He slotted into the top six on Vancouver and will probably stay there this season. Pouliout was not given a qualifying offer as his contract expired, which meant he walked in free agency. Vancouver’s defense will be better off without the two.
The team finished 35-36-11 with 81 points, good for fifth in the Pacific Division. The offense struggled, and the club was bottom 10 for goals scored. On the backend, they were alright and placed in the middle of the league for goals scored against. With the injuries to their top six last year, that isn’t surprising, but they do need to get some more scoring going in order to become competitive. The defense and goaltending can only do so much and if they aren’t getting run support, the team won’t win games. Management looked to address some of these concerns in the off season.
Before the Canucks could get through the off season, they were hit with some bad news. Former Canuck goaltender Roberto Luongo retired this off season, and due to a cap recapture penalty clause in the collective agreement, the Canucks will be forced to pay about $3 million in cap hit for the next three seasons. The Canucks benefitted from some clever contract structuring during Luongo’s time with the team that saved them about $9 million, so now, that money is being spread across the rest of Luongo’s remaining years on contract. While this will hinder Vancouver’s cap, the penalty per year could have been a lot worse if Luongo waited a season or two to retire. The penalty won’t kill the Canucks either, as they still had the cap space available to make some moves this offseason.
General Manager Jim Benning did in fact make some moves this summer, and because of them, the Canucks will have a very different top six this year.
He acquired forward J.T. Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for a third-round pick and a conditional first-round pick. The first is a 2020 first, unless the Canucks do not make playoffs, in which case it becomes a 2021 pick. This is a good move, as the Canucks struggled offensively, and J.T. Miller can play on the top two forward lines. J.T. Miller has averaged 20 goals and 51 points in his last four seasons. He’s played on a very deep Tampa Bay Lightning team the past and can definitely benefit from increased ice time and responsibility on this Vancouver Canucks roster. He plays with an edge, and that will endear him to Canucks fans that criticized Erik Gudbranson for not stepping up for the young forwards on the team. Miller will play wing alongside Pettersson or Horvat.
On the free agent front, the Canucks targeted left winger Michael Ferland, who is best known amongst Canucks fans for running wild on the Flames in the Canucks last playoff series in 2015. The Canucks signed him to a very good contract of $3.5 million annually for four years. Ferland, like J.T. Miller can immediately play in the top six. The addition of those two will inject some physicality into the top two lines, something which has been sorely lacking. The forwards on the team have been getting literally thrown around, and adding the tough players could do a lot to help prevent additional injuries. Team toughness could be a huge shift in how the Canucks play hockey. The Washington Capitals and St.Louis Blues have shown that a tough, durable team can get a lot done in the playoffs. The team cannot afford to have Pettersson or Boeser miss significant time this year if they want to be in the playoff race, and if they do make it to playoffs, they will be targeted very heavily by opponents. Ferland plays a great playoff hockey game, and could look out for his linemates. He could see some time with Petterson and Boeser on the top line, or play with Horvat on line two.
After a Calder trophy winning season, Petterson will only continue to become a top tier set up player. He’s added some muscle this offseason, so should be stronger on the puck and harder to handle for defenders. He’ll be sure to feed Brock Boeser some slick passes on the top line, and could benefit from a gritty puck retriever type player like Miller or Ferland.
Bo Horvat, although not the most high skill player on the team, is the future captain of the club. He plays some huge minutes for the club and can be relied upon by Coach Green in any situation. He’s had his share of linemates. Last season he had already played significant time with 12 different wingers by February. If Green can find Horvat some consistent linemates the team will be better off for it. It would help if there would be less injuries, but having some legitimate top six additions in Miller and Ferland should do the trick. Markus Granlund left the team this off season, so he is no longer an option, but the other winger on Horvat’s line could still be a multitude of players. Do we see highly skilled forward Nikolay Goldobin get more time on line two? He’s got some kinks in his game to work on, but he could get an opportunity on line two. I think it is most likely Tanner Pearson’s spot to lose. He looked sharp in his brief stint with the club at the tail end of the season and if he can maintain his place, he could be very productive with Horvat. Another horse in the race is Sven Baertschi. He has played top six, but with the amount of time he missed who knows what kind of skill level he’ll be at. Can he play a full season? Perhaps he can with some added grit with Miller or Ferland on his line.
If the team with the most fourth liners won the cup, the Canucks would have a great shot at winning. The bottom six is a huge log jam and is anyone’s guess at this point. On centre the Canucks have Brandon Suter, Jay Beagle, Tim Schaller and Adam Gaudette to choose from. Sutter and Beagle will have the third and fourth line centre jobs secured. Their contracts of $4.375 million and $3 million respectively make them some expensive defensive specialists. They can win draws and kill penalties, but they will not be doing a lot of scoring out there. Having Sutter pencilled in as the third line centre is rough, because it will limit the team’s ability to have a scoring third line. Sutter was rumoured to be trade bait all summer and is still with the team. If he was being shopped, there was limited interest. The team will have to try and offload one of those centres at salary retained to try and free up some room for younger players. Tim Schaller might not even make the team this year and is sitting at $1.9 million too.
On the wing’s the logjam is more apparent. Some of those centres might fight for a spot in the wings, but there are still plenty of natural wingers to contend with. Loui Eriksson adds to the Canucks cap woes as a $6 million per season defensively reponsibile, penalty killer. He’s on contract until 2021-2022 also, which is upsetting. Sven Baertschi might have to drop down to line three just because there’s no room for him in the top six, and if Sutter is his centreman, it will be a massive mismatch of playing styles. Young players who have not, or may never hit their potential such as Jake Virtanen and Nikolay Goldobin will likely compete for the third line spot also. Virtanen should be a lock for the third line. He’s got a slight scoring touch, and can sometimes put on a level of elite talent, but has not been able to put it all together so far in his career. He has seemingly developed nicely into a power forward with a good shot. If Green can somehow turn the third line into a scoring line, Virtanen will be the trigger man. If not, he can still perform well in a tenacious forechecker big winger role. He’s got to be more consistent in his game though. If he can piece it all together, he could really break out.
The Canucks have Leafs roster sacrifice Josh Leivo to fit in somewhere too. They also have pest Antoine Roussel, who actually fit in extremely well in Vancouver with 31 points in 65 games. He missed time with injury but set a career high in points. It would not be surprising to see him anywhere in the lineup, considering the energy he can bring.
Some quick maths shows us that this is too many wingers for the bottom six. The team also has some depth call ups like AHL legend Reid Boucher and Tyler Graovac available. Coach Green will have his work cut out for him drawing up the roster this season.
Benning looked to Bolster the defence by adding offensive minded defenseman Tyler Myers as a free agent. Myers signed a five year $6 million average annual value contract, which is a definite overpay. I’m not certain that a defenseman like Myers is what the Canucks needed, and it will be interesting to see how he fits in. Myers plays a risky game, often times pinching from the point and losing his positioning. He’s got a long reach but doesn’t play as defensively sound as a player like Zdeno Chara. He’ll jump into the play often and provide some offense though, which is something the Canucks do need more of. The 6’8” right hander will most likely see most of his ice time paired up with defensively sound, long time Canuck Alex Edler. It might take time for the two to develop chemistry.
Edler signed a two year $6 million extension this summer, making him equally paid as Myers. Edler has been a staple of the team for a long time, and is now the longest tenured Canuck. The Swedish defenseman has battled some significant back injuries, and missed some time last season. Can he continue to play long minutes for the team? I think he will continue, but another good alternative is to bump Chris Tanev up to the top pairing, which would be completely acceptable. Tanev plays a safer defense game and could balance out Myers’ offensive instincts. Tanev has been trade bait for a long time on the Canucks, but he has been getting injured a lot. Since joining the league in 2010, he has never been able to play a full season.
The team traded away Erik Gudbranson at the deadline last season, and allowed, Luke Schenn, Ben Hutton and Derrick Pouliout to leave as free agents. With effectively half of the defense core leaving, there will be increased opportunity or more consistent games for a few players.
Richmond native Troy Stecher will be on third pairing as a right handed defenseman. I do not foresee him surpassing Myers and Tanev on the right side, but if injuries occur, he may have to step up. He will probably see most of his time with Victoria B.C. native Jordie Benn, who signed a two year deal with the club this summer for $2 million annually. Benn can provide some solid defense and some work on the penalty kill. He actually played quite well in Montreal and should be a consistent stay at home guy for the Canucks.
The most exciting part of the Canucks blueline, is when and where Quinn Hughes will fit in. The 19 year old defenseman played in just five games last season, but turned a lot of heads. He earned three points in those games and looked very sharp. He got one assist in his first game, and played in overtime with Boeser and Pettersson and showed just how bright the future is for the Canucks. Can Hughes slot in as a second pairing defenseman this year? He showed some great confidence with the puck in the offensive zone, but the big question will be if he can he be defensively responsible enough to play top four minutes.
Beyond these six, the team has some depth options with Alex Biega or newcomer Oscar Fantenberg. A question on Canucks fans minds must be what is going on with defensive prospect Olli Juolevi. He’s had multiple seasons now cut short by injury. He played just 18 games in the AHL last season, but earned 13 points. His potential really remains to be seen. Will he ever make a push to make the team and get out of bust territory? Who knows at this point. With Hughes coming up, fans should be happy that one prospect looks great, because with their cap as it is, they may not be able to accommodate too many pay raises down the road.
Markstrom was great last season and should be consistent again for the Canucks this season. With the Anders Nilsson trade, Thatcher Demko is now the de facto number two guy.
Zane McIntyre comes over from Boston this year. The 27 year old has never made a start in the NHL and at this point will provide some AHL depth. Hopefully this will allow the team to avoid a situation like last season, having to emergency call up a junior goalie.
Exciting prospect Michael DiPietro will gain some experience in the AHL after he was thrown to the wolves in the NHL last season. Now, the team will do well to keep him in the minors for a while longer to develop his game at the pro level.
Vancouver Canucks 2019-2020 Season Prediction
4th-6th Pacific Division
The Canucks are still a couple pieces away from being at the top of their division. Their top six will provide all the offense of this team, unless a dramatic shift can occur in lines three and four. Although they have signed everyone they need to, they still may have to move the third line centreman Brandon Sutter. They should create a more offensively minded third line. The addition of J.T. Miller and Michael Ferland will add some much needed physicality to the Canucks, and will hopefully prevent a lot of the injuries the Canucks seem to be prone to. Overall Vancouver did get better. They are set to be a bubble team this season, but if things go their way, and they do not face the same injury trouble, they could very well compete for a playoff spot.