Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-18, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-18 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-18 Vancouver Canucks.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks’ 2016-17 performance was underwhelming to say the least. The team finished 29th overall in league standings, second to only the historically bad Colorado Avalanche. The team finished 29th on the power play, and 28th in penalty kill efficiency. Additionally, they finished 29th in goals for, and 25th in goals against.
Indeed, the team’s low-pace style of hockey didn’t lend itself to viewer entertainment, either. That being said, the Canucks boasted a handful of young stars who showed they could be pieces to build around, including Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, Troy Stecher, and in the later parts of the season, Brock Boeser. It’s this young talent that is fueling hope for the 2017-18 campaign, and that will make the upcoming season worth watching for many fans.
However, the youngsters weren’t enough to make the past season worth watching, as the now-fired Willie Desjardins failed to adapt, and refused to make any sort of notable changes. This meant that many Canucks supporters were stuck watching the likes of Jayson Megna and Michael Chaput play in a top-six capacity for much of the season, which made for a frustrating viewing experience.
The Vancouver Canucks made a significant splash this season, signing a number of notable free agents. They signed forward Sam Gagner to a three-year deal worth $3.15 million annually, as well as defenceman Michael Del Zotto to a two-year, $6 million contract. Additionally, the team added Both are expected to enhance the power play, and overall offensive game of the Canucks. This comes in addition to a one-year signing of Thomas Vanek for $2 million.
Additional signings include Swedish defender Phillip Holm out of Europe, depth forward Alex Burmistrov to a one-year deal, and goaltender Anders Nilsson for three years. While all were allegedly signed as depth, but could wind up taking on bigger roles as the season progresses.
Of course, the organization also fired head coach Desjardins, as well as assistant coaches Doug Lidster and Perry Pearn. As a result, they hired former Utica Comets coach Travis Green, and took on Nolan Baumgartner, Green’s assistant, with the big club. Ex-forward Manny Malhotra and former assistant coach Newell Brown were brought on board in the same capacity.
At the draft, the team selected Swedish forward Elias Pettersson with the sixth overall pick. Further down, the organization picked up forward Kole Lind (33rd), winger Jonah Gadjovich (55th), goaltender Michael DiPietro (64th), defenceman Jack Rathbone (95th), defender Kristoffer Gunnarsson (135th), winger Petrus Palmu (181st) and defenceman Matt Brassard (188th). It was an off-season of change in Vancouver, and one that may bode well for their future, and for the present.
Sven Baertschi – Bo Horvat – Brock Boeser
Alexander Edler – Troy Stecher
Ben Hutton – Christopher Tanev
Michael Del Zotto – Erik Gudbranson
Players to Watch
Since arriving in Vancouver as the centrepiece of the Roberto Luongo trade in 2014, Jacob Markstrom has been unable to set himself apart as the Canucks’ starter. The argument could be made that the 27-year-old should have been handed the reigns last season, but injuries kept him sidelined, meaning Ryan Miller was never usurped as the starter. However, despite the signing of Anders Nilsson, it appears as though he will finally get that chance. Markstrom, once regarded as the best goaltending prospect in hockey, posted a 2.63 GAA in 2016-17, as well as a respectable .910 save percentage. While hardly remarkable, the numbers do suggest that Markstrom may well prove capable of holding down the crease in a full-time manner. However, it is certainly possible that should he falter, Nilsson could seize the opportunity and take over as the starting netminder. For the sake of his future with the Canucks, and future as a number one goaltender, Markstrom must start strong, and remain consistent as the schedule progresses.
The Erik Gudbranson trade, which involved Jared McCann and a second round pick being sent to the Florida Panthers, has been much maligned by Canucks supporters, and with good reason. In a world of advanced analytics and puck movement, the acquisition of Gudbranson is one that made little sense in the context of exchanging younger assets. However, the 25-year-old didn’t have a chance to prove Benning’s doubters wrong, playing in just 30 games due to injuries. In limited time, he failed to impress, and thus was brought back on a short one-year, $3.5 million contract. Now having been surpassed by the likes of Stecher and arguably the newly-signed Del Zotto, Gudbranson will have a chance to prove himself, an cash in on a bigger contract with Vancouver. Should he fail to do so, the former third overall pick may find himself on the market come the trade deadline. It appears as if 2017-18 will be a make or break year for Gudbranson’s career, and at the very least, as a member of the Canucks.
After signing a six-year, $36 million contract with the Canucks in the summer of 2016, Loui Eriksson vastly underwhelmed in his first campaign with the team. In 64 games, the 32-year-old put up just 11 goals and 24 points, the worst points per game rate of his career. Heading into 2017-18, it will be very difficult for Eriksson to not improve on that underwhelming pace, and amelioration will be crucial should the team hold hope of improvement. Should Eriksson fail to build off a horrendous first season, talks of a buyout will certainly sweep the city, specifically if the club continues to move in a youthful direction. If he bounces back, he could turn into a valuable trade, or on-ice asset for the team.
On the Rise
Fresh off a six-year, $33 million deal and a season in which he led the Canucks in goals (20) and points (50), Horvat appears poised to take the next step in his development. The team’s only All-Star representative last season, it seems reasonable to assume that the 22-year-old will take over as the number one centre, taking over from captain Henrik Sedin. It’s also conceivable that Horvat will receive an increase in power play time, while he seems poised to build on his defensive game as well. Horvat, the 9th overall pick in 2013, is perhaps the most offensively gifted player on the Canucks’ roster, and seems well on his way to only increasing his stock.
Stecher emerged as a surprise in the last pre-season, after being signed as a college free agent the year previous. He demonstrated a strong transition game, and an ability to create plays offensively that few, if any other Canucks blue liners boast. He continued that demonstration throughout the season, leading the defense in points (with 24) and showing the capacity to effectively move the puck, as well as get shots on net. This season, the 23-year-old from Richmond, B.C. looks to progress even further. Under a new head coach in Travis Green, Stecher looks to get more power play time, and play alongside more offensively gifted players. This should lead to a rise in production, while he’ll also have the opportunity to play big defensive minutes against quality opposition. Look for a continued upward trend in Stecher’s offensive, as well as overall game.
Jim Benning was the subject of widespread criticism upon trading then-prospect Hunter Shinkaruk to the Calgary Flames for forward Markus Granlund. In the eyes of many, it was the swap of a high-potential prospect in exchange for a forward who had yet to develop into a full time NHLer after being drafted in the second round of 2011. In analyzing the move in the present, it appears to be a win for the organization. Granlund scored a career high 19 goals and 32 points, which in turn more than doubled his career goal and point totals. He demonstrated a strong two-way ability, while boasting a consistent an effective goal-scoring ability. Now that the Canucks have a known offensive commodity, he may be given more opportunity on the man advantage, and perhaps a spot alongside the Sedin twins. After a slow start to his career, it appears as though Granlund is on the upswing, and may develop into an integral part of the Canucks’ offence moving forward.
On the Decline
Henrik and Daniel Sedin
After a resurgent 73-point campaign in 2014-15, and a subsequent decline to 55 in 2015-16, Henrik Sedin continued that downward trend to 51 this past season. Similarly, Daniel Sedin saw a slip from 76, to 61, and then to 44 in his most recent campaign. While it seems conceivable that their production could at least hold steady – aided by an enhanced power play – but it seems the two have settled in as second line players. With the rise of Horvat, it isn’t necessary for the pair of 36-year-olds to lead the forward core in ice time anymore, and paired with their natural regression, it is realistic to assume their numbers won’t grow substantially from this point onward.
For a number of years, Alex Edler has been the core of the Canucks’ blue line, and has rounded into an extremely effective shutdown blue liner. His veteran presence was integral in the development of Stecher last season. However, with the rise of Stecher, along with Ben Hutton, and the acquisition of Del Zotto, Edler’s role may be somewhat minimized this coming season. It won’t be as necessary for Edler to shoulder all the essential minutes form the back end, and considering he’s on the wrong side of 30 at this point of his career, it’s the logical move. Additionally, Edler has moved from a 30-40 point lock, to the 20-point range offensively, and it seems unlikely that he will be given more offensive opportunity in the future. Thus, it is safe to assume that we will see a drop off in Edler’s game, perhaps an all fronts.
Former head coach Willie Desjardins drew the ire of many Canucks fans last season with his excessive reliance on Brandon Sutter as an all situations player. Used a go-to power play member, Sutter was ineffective in that role, and, despite offensive numbers (34 points) among the best in his career, he did so in minutes that warranted higher. Indeed, this is not necessarily Sutter’s fault, but he should prepare for a sharp drop-off moving into the next season. Many new acquisitions and young up-and-comers will take over that valuable time, and it would not be entirely surprising to see Sutter relegated to a defensive specialist role. While still a relatively young 28, Sutter’s chances for offence will be far more limited than in the past seasons with the Canucks.
While key additions may help the team in their present form, it doesn’t appear as if they’ll make any major strides in the standings. While growth is certainly possible with some key bounce back and breakout performances, the safe bet would be for stagnation, if not regression.
That said, the entertainment factor should rise, with the likes of Boeser and Horvat making for a much more youthful and watchable hockey club. The expected result should still be towards the bottom of the league standings, likely in the bottom five and possibly grouped in as one of the NHL’s three worst. However, what’s important isn’t the standings for the Canucks this season, but how their young core progresses. In that sense, it should be an entertaining season for Canucks fans.
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