The Vancouver Canucks returned to prominence in a big way in the 2019-20 season.
After a top-three finish in the Pacific Division, the Canucks went on to do some yeoman’s work in the postseason, knocking out the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round in four games before upsetting the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinal.
They even took the heavily-favored Vegas Golden Knights all the way to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinal, putting the rest of the league on notice that they have once again become a threat in the Western Conference.
However, it’s been a suspect offseason for the Canucks as they not only lost significant assets but also didn’t gain many. On paper, it appears to have been a disappointing offseason on the behalf of Jim Benning, but of course, offseason winners and losers don’t determine how the games end up throughout the season.
With that in mind, let’s go ahead and look into the 2020-21 Vancouver Canucks, their season preview and odds before making some predictions on how this thing should shake out moving forward.
*Odds courtesy of MyBookie
**Salary cap figures courtesy of CapFriendly
***Advanced metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
2020-21 Vancouver Canucks Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 36-27-6 (3rd in Pacific Division)
- Key Additions: D Nate Schmidt, G Braden Holtby
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $0 (Currently $1,501,878 over the cap)
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +1800
- 2021 Western Conference Odds: +1100
There certainly wasn’t much wrong with this Canucks offense last season as the young guns erupted.
The Canucks ranked eighth while averaging 3.25 goals per game on the season while their power play checked in at fourth at an excellent 24.2% clip, ranking behind only the Oilers, Bruins and Blues in that department.
The team’s future certainly arrived with authority at the offensive end last season. Elias Pettersson notched 27 goals and 66 points on the season across 68 games, Quinn Hughes wasted no time in showing off his skill with 53 points in 68 games and if weren’t for Colorado’s Cale Makar, Hughes would have won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 13, 2019
Brock Boeser notched 16 goals and 45 points in his 57 games and captain Bo Horvat has 22 goals and 53 points across his 69 games of work.
While we knew these youngster have monster upside, the single-biggest surprise on the Canucks’ offense last season was J.T. Miller. Many questioned Benning’s decision to part with a first-round pick for Millers from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the draft, only to see Miller lead the Canucks with 72 points while tying Pettersson for a team-high 27 goals.
It’s not that Miller wasn’t a good player, it’s that his previous career-high in points was 56 in 82 games from the 2016-17 season. He’s been an above-average producer in his career with a 0.61 point-per-game pace but notched a 1.04 mark in his first season with the Canucks.
Another pleasant surprise was the production of veteran winger Tanner Pearson. Pearson tallied just nine goals and 15 points across 61 games between the L.A. Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018-19, but was moved to the Canucks where he tallied nine goals and 12 points in 19 games. That production continued the following season with Tanner picking up 21 goals and 45 points while holding down the second-line left wing spot alongside Horvat. It certainly appears he’s found a fit on that line in Vancouver.
Despite the offensive output, the Canucks went out and traded for former King Tyler Toffoli, and the most was an excellent fit. Toffoli tallied six goals and 10 points in as many regular-season games with the Canucks before adding two goals and four points in seven postseason games, missing time with injury.
Despite the excellent production while filling the right wing spot on the top line alongside Pettersson, the Canucks decided not to re-sign Toffoli before he landed with the Montreal Canadiens on what seems like a massive bargain at just $4.25M over four years.
The good news is that perhaps Jake Virtanen is finally making good on the prospect hype. Virtanen notched 18 goals and 36 points across 69 games last season and is in line for a top-six role on the right side, either with Pettersson or Horvat, but likely the former as head coach Travis Green has shown a preference of playing Boeser with Horvat on the second line along with Pearson.
The team even got some excellent production from the bottom six. Adam Gaudette tallied 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games and Josh Leivo had a solid seven goals and 19 points in 36 games, although he too departed in free agency and signed with the rival Flames, a theme you will see throughout this piece as a major storyline of this Canucks offseason.
Nonetheless, with the young guns just scratching the surface and Miller and Pearson fitting in nicely on the left side with their new team, the Canucks should bring a potent offense to the table once again in 2020-21.
The Canucks blueline saw some turnover heading into last season as they brought in veteran Tyler Myers in free agency while Quinn Hughes graduated to the group on a full-time basis.
This year’s version of that top six will see more turnover.
The team expects prospect Olli Juolevi to join the group on a full-time basis next year while the team acquired Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for a third-round draft pick.
The team is also without a couple of key pieces from last year’s group. Top-four blueliner Chris Tanev also departed in free agency, signing with the Calgary Flames on the open market. The also saw Troy Stecher depart the club via free agency as he signed with the Detroit Red Wings.
The loss of Tanev is a big one. He’s been a top-four mainstay for the last several seasons and despite issues stay healthy in that time, his skill set is a valued one in this league as evidenced by four-year, $18M deal he landed with the Flames on the open market.
While we aren’t here to second guess any GM’s moves, you have to wonder why Benning was willing to acquire Schmidt and his much larger $5.9M cap hit rather than retain Tanev, or even Toffoli, before they tested the free-agent waters. Schmidt is a quality player, but that’s a substantial commitment over the next five seasons.
The top four now contains Hughes, Schmidt, veteran Alexander Edler and Myers. That’s a quality group, no doubt. The problem could be on the bottom pair where Juolevi and Jordie Benn are projected to start the season. Benn struggled with the Montreal Canadiens in 2018-19 before the Canucks signed him prior to last season, but he skated just 16:17 per night in 44 games of action. He’s a fringe sixth defenseman, at best, and not the most reliable of partner for a rookie in Juolevi.
The FIRST CAREER GOAL for Quinn Hughes! @Canucks
💻: https://t.co/oWNXV3W6Fd pic.twitter.com/vLYrkzjr2I
— #ThankYouDoc (@NHLonNBCSports) October 10, 2019
Keep in mind Edler is as injury prone as any defensemen in the league, and this Canucks top six can ill-afford a long-term injury to any member of this blueline after finishing in three-way tie for 19th with 3.10 goals against per game last season when the group was far deeper.
At 5v5, the Canucks also ranked 29th in terms of shots against per 60 minutes, 30th in scoring chances against/60 and 20th in high-danger chances against/60. This didn’t appear to be a group that could afford any regression, and it’s a stretch to believe this group is constructed to out-perform last year’s version of the Canucks’ blueline.
Like the offense and defense, the Canucks’ goaltending situation was hurt by free agency.
Indeed, No.1 netminder Jacob Markstrom, who broke out with a career-year last season, departed in free agency and landed with… the Calgary Flames.
Markstrom worked to a 2.75 GAA last but also worked to a career-high .918 Sv% while started 43 of the team’s 69 games. He missed time away from the team due to the passing of his father back in Sweden and was also injured as well or he would have ranked among the top of the league in games played to be sure.
His leaving isn’t not important. Ask any Canuck from last season and they will tell you that Markstrom was the team’s MVP. Despite the team giving up the second-most scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5v5 last season, they managed to tie for 19th in team defense thanks to a .919 Sv% at 5v5 action that Markstrom had a lot to do with.
The decision to allow Markstrom to walk and hand the keys to 24-year-old Thatcher Demko is partly due to the financials and salary cap, but also the Seattle expansion draft next offseason where the team could only protect one of Markstrom or Demko should the team have retained the former.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 17, 2019
Demko was decent-at-best last season, posting a 3.06 GAA and .905 Sv% in his 27 appearances. As a result, the Canucks 5v5 defense has much more to do with the work of Markstrom rather than Demko.
Now, the Canucks did address the goaltending issue by bringing in veteran Braden Holtby to share the crease with Demko, so the entire burden is not on the young netminder.
While Holtby has been a long-tenured No.1 in this league, but he’s struggled in each of the last three regular seasons and posting a career-worst 3.11 GAA and .897 Sv% last season – numbers far worse than the 2.53 GAA and .916 Sv% he owns for his career.
Now, the Canucks can protect Demko and expose Holtby to the Kraken next offseason, but Seattle is likely to pass on Holtby given his recent body of work, unless the still-31-year-old can return to form in his first season with the Canucks.
For now, the goaltending picture in Vancouver is a big question work. When you add in more question marks on the blueline and it’s difficult to see the Canucks’ surface defensive numbers improving next season.
2020-21 Vancouver Canucks Predictions
There’s no doubt Vancouver sports one of the better young offenses the NHL has to offer. They were lethal on the power play and they are strong down the middle with Pettersson and Horvat both worthy of No.1 center roles.
Scoring on the flanks doesn’t appear to be an issue, either, as Miller and Boeser can take care of those duties while Pearson has fit in quite well in his time with the Canucks to this point.
The question marks are just everywhere else.
I’m certainly not convinced this group of defenders is any better than last year’s version. Schmidt is a fine addition, but he doesn’t offset the loss of Tanev and the bottom pair of Juolevi and Benn will struggle. That duo is going to have to play some seriously sheltered minutes next season while the top four will all need to be logging a minimum of 20-21 minutes a night for this group to have any success. In a condensed schedule, that’s asking a lot.
Can Hughes repeat his dynamite rookie year? Is Myers still in his prime and can Edler stay healthy? It’s a stretch to believe the answer to all three of those questions are yes.
And then comes the goaltending situation. A near 50/50 timeshare seems likely, barring health, but Demko and Holtby were both subpar netminders last season and while there’s always a chance at improvement, it’s far from guaranteed and losing your clear-cut No.1 and best player from last season – to a division rival, no less – adds to the sting of what appears to be significant regression on the back end.
The fact that the trade for Schmidt hindered their ability to retain Markstrom, Tanev or Toffoli is awfully questionable to this writer. The Canucks probably out-performed last season to begin with and this roster seems like a shell of what the Canucks used last season to upset the Blues in round one and nearly the Golden Knights in round two.
It’s clear I’m quite pessimistic on these Canucks. If there’s one thing working in their favor it’s the lack of consistent competition in both their Pacific Division but also the Western Conference. The Pacific has three teams in the Ducks, Kings and Sharks who are near-certain non-contenders.
Add in what is certainly a weakened Central Division relative to years past, and the west is certainly an inferior conference to the east heading towards next season.
Even still, I have this Canucks team on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. There’s nothing about this back end that spells success barring lights-out performances from the Demko-Holtby tandem in goal. I have the Canucks finishing as low as fifth in the Pacific behind the likes of the Golden Knights, Oilers, Flames and perhaps even the Arizona Coyotes.
READ: 2020-21 St. Louis Blues Season Preview, Odds & Predictions