Puck Drop Preview: 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks

22019-20 Vancouver Canucks
GLENDALE, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 28: Alex Biega #55 (C) of the Vancouver Canucks talks with teammates Bo Horvat #53, Brock Boeser #6 and Nikolay Goldobin #77 during the second period of the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on February 28, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, where Last Word on Hockey 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 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Our series continues with the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks.

The 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks is the most exciting version of the team since their 2011 Stanley Cup run. There’s been a huge change over in defence; new high-end forwards have been signed instead of the usual handful bottom-six hopefuls; and there is a young potential star starting at forward, at defence, and in goal.

This is a seismic change.

2018-19 Vancouver Canucks Season

Fans came out of the 2018-19 pre-season with mixed emotions, and for good reason. There was a great rookie coming, a brilliant goal scorer discovered, and a veteran goalie who finally proved up to be the starter over a full season. On the other hand, it was the first year without captain Henrik Sedin and his brother Daniel Sedin on the top line. It was one more challenge for a team that was hard-pressed to score. The defence, likewise, was unchanged from a shaky bunch that was heavily criticized the previous year.

A Good Start

With an 8-5 victory over Boston on November 8th, the year was off to a 10-7 start. Sure, five of those losses were by three or more goals, and five of the wins were by a single marker. But all wins count at the end of the year, right? Elias Pettersson was proving himself with point-per-game production. Brock Boeser was aiming at a 35-goal sophomore season. Bo Horvat was leading a young bunch of forwards, flourishing with hard minutes and challenging match-ups.

That there’s called “foreshadowing” folks.

The stretch of modest success was followed by a 1-11 streak going into December. The Canucks were outscored 27-46 with one shootout loss. The defence proved so unreliable that Alexander Edler was regularly playing over 24 minutes a night. Injuries suddenly mounted, including to top forwards Boeser and Pettersson. Edler broke down. Brandon Sutter‘s horrible injury history with Vancouver continued, and Sven Baertschi‘s concussion issues continued to plague him.

When a team with paper-thin depth loses that many top players, they get burned. And not just their skaters: when Anders Nilsson was traded away for Mike McKenna, they did not expect McKenna to be snatched off waivers by the Philidelphia Flyers. Then Demko, the newly-promoted backup to Markstrom, was injured and the Canucks were left with Richard Bachman. Green trusted Bachman so little that he started a single game, and that only after Markstrom was clearly exhausted. Bachman did poorly enough that OHL star Michael Dipietro came in for one game. He was promptly shelled by San Jose for seven goals.

Benning did some course correction after it became clear this wasn’t a team that would push for the playoffs.

2019-20 Pre-Season

During the 2018-19 season, it looked like Benning was intent on correcting deals and trades that hadn’t worked out for him. Two players were traded (Michael Del Zotto, Sam Gagner) for returns left unsigned (Luke Schenn) or bought out (Ryan Spooner). An unhappy Jonathan Dahlen was moved for younger prospect Linus Karlsson. Critical lightning rod Erik Gudbranson brought back Tanner Pearson. The deals weren’t Earth-shaking, but Benning’s fans could point to them as proof he was unafraid to fix his mistakes.

He then entered this off-season on the final year of his contract, and his deals showed it.

The first big move was a trade for forward J.T. Miller in exchange for two draft picks (1st and 3rd) and AHL goalie Marek Mazanec. He’d be joined up front by free agent signing Micheal Ferland, so two veteran wingers who add a very physical element to the team were brought in.

Major changes were made for the blue line as well. The offensive-minded Tyler Myers was given a five-year deal to improve the Canuck transition game. Jordie Benn adds some snarl to the bottom pair, replacing Schenn. Oscar Fantenberg is an insurance marker on the right side. Edler is back on a two-year contract, and anticipation is high for Quinn Hughes‘ first year in the NHL.

Reliable RFA defenceman Ben Hutton was released for budget reasons, and forward Markus Granlund was passed by the new signings.

2019-20 Preview

This is a season of question marks. The moves Benning made aren’t ones by a GM continuing the slow growth of his team. He, and ownership, clearly feel there is an opportunity to make the playoffs this year. Few prognosticators agree.

The Forwards

Micheal Ferland – Elias Pettersson – Brock Boeser

J.T. Miller – Bo Horvat – Tanner Pearson

Sven Baertschi – Brandon Sutter – Jake Virtanen

Josh LeivoJay BeagleTyler Motte

Extra: Antoine Roussel

Pettersson and Boeser are an obvious pairing as two of Vancouver’s most creative talents. Ferland plays the role that Alex Burrows did in skating with the Sedins, for the same reason. He gives them a net-front presence and the puck retriever they sorely lacked last year.

Horvat and Pearson worked very well as a pair at the end of 2018-19, and will likely stay together. Pearson is the trigger man on this line, with Miller and Horvat both happy to play in the dirty areas of the ice. Baertschi has also played well with Horvat and may take this spot based on past success.

Miller’s versatility may bump him down to the third line, as Baertschi’s not particularly well suited for bottom-six work. All three of these players have a reasonably good shot, and Sutter and Virtanen have quite good speed as well. It’s a line that could work, whose biggest challenge is staying healthy.

Vancouver’s lack of skilled forwards put Leivo on the top line last season as often as not. That changes this year, as his defensive awareness gets better use with Beagle and Motte. Ideally, this line can hold the puck in the opponent’s zone, worrying the defence until the more talented forwards arrive.

Roussel is going to start the year on injured reserve. His December return will force some shuffling among forwards, as he was surprisingly effective with a wide variety of linemates. Last season, that was most often with Sutter and Virtanen in a fast and agitating line that had some finish. The same line seems his most likely destination.

Wild Cards

Nikolay GoldobinLoui ErikssonTim Schaller

That Goldobin has NHL-level offence is unquestioned; whether he can round out his defensive game isn’t. He’s something of a throwback to 1980s hockey, enjoying a wide-open game without tight-checking or defensive responsibility. This hasn’t endeared him to coach Green, which has cost him ice time in the past and will again. The question with Goldobin is what to do with him if he doesn’t break into the top-six.

What can be said about Loui Eriksson that hasn’t been already? A good defensive player on a horrible contract that the team is trying to move. Basically a mirror image of Goldobin.

Schaller is a failed free-agent signing, brought in to provide impact and defensive reliability. He hit injury trouble and didn’t play himself into the lineup so much as become a default extra man. It’s hard to picture him making the new, deeper lineup this year and will likely start in Utica unless moved.

These three are listed as “Wild Cards” because while they are clearly NHL players, where they fit on the team is still very much undetermined. This year’s training camp will make all the difference for them.

The Defence

Alexander Edler – Tyler Myers

Quinn Hughes – Christopher Tanev

Jordie Benn – Troy Stetcher

Extras: Oscar Fantenberg – Alex Biega

Edler is signed for another two years, keeping the veteran defenceman in the fold as a younger defence takes shape. He won’t be called on for 25 minutes a game this year, though he will continue to lead the way. New arrival Myers has got to be delighted to have Edler as a partner after two seasons of the somewhat erratic Dmitry Kulikov. He’s going to be heavily relied upon to improve Vancouver’s weak transition game and should improve his point totals.

Hughes made a good showing to close last season, increasing his ice time to 21 minutes by his fifth game. He’s a risk-taker, but his offensive potential is unlike anything the Canucks have had in their 50 years. The rookie should start with the very steady Tanev. He plays a smart, controlled game that will work well with Hughes’ enthusiasm.

Stetcher is going into his fourth season looking to add more offence to his game. That will be difficult this year, as he will lose power-play time to new arrivals Hughes and Myers. Benn is a solid, third-pair defenceman with some snarl and a sneaky bit of offence. He finished last year in Montreal just one point short of Stetcher’s 23.

Seven or Eight Defence?

Fantenberg is Vancouver’s third free-agent defenceman signing this off-season, coming in to shore up team depth. He’s a reliable defender and good passer, if not the best skater. He’s going to be competing with Biega to stay up.

Biega is an ideal seventh defenceman, in that he will do anything for the team – including play forward. He’s the guy you point your young players to and say “If you outwork Bulldog, you can stay.” He averaged more than two hits and two shots in his 41 games played last year.

Either of these veteran players can be an extra, and though the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks have a surplus number of forwards an argument could be made for both starting in the NHL rather than Utica.

The Goaltenders

Jacob MarkstromThatcher Demko

Markstrom established himself as a starting goaltender last year. His numbers for the past two years have been solid, if unexceptional, and his challenge was to maintain that level. For the most part, he did just that. Early career mistakes snuck back into his game when he was forced into playing too many games in a row last season. The Canucks will want to avoid that mistake from happening again.

Demko has arrived with great fanfare, finally claiming the backup position last year. After modest success in nine games last year, he will be watched very closely in a larger role.

A Note on Goalies

After last year’s goaltending debacle, the Canucks are going into 2019-20 with seven goaltenders under contract.

Richard Bachman is the long-time veteran in the system but is coming off a mediocre year and an Achilles injury. When he was called up to Vancouver, Green didn’t want to play him. He was a good mentor for Demko in Utica and may do the same this year for Michael Dipietro. There is a question of where: DiPietro finished his excellent OHL career with a brilliant playoff run derailed by injury. He will be fully recovered by the time the year starts, and most likely begin the season in Kalamazoo. This isn’t a mark against his play, but about the new depth, the Canucks have signed for goal.

Jake Kielly was signed from university and is two years older than DiPietro, giving him the inside lane for Utica. He will likely be the backup for Zane McIntyre, who should be the early callup during the season.

Players to Watch

Outside of the obvious (Pettersson!), the most interesting stories are in two rookies and two veterans still proving themselves.

Quinn Hughes

The Canucks haven’t had a defenceman break 50 points this century. Edler managed 49 in 2011-12, and Christian Ehrhoff reached 50 the year before, but otherwise? Jyrki Lumme hit 54 points in 1995-96. After five NHL games, Hughes has already been anointed as possibly the best offensive defenceman Vancouver has ever had. It sounds hyperbolic, but they might just be right.

Jake Virtanen

A strong player with great speed and size, but miscast as a power forward. He can hit like a truck but prefers to play with speed along the boards rather than centre ice. His goals come from an excellent wrist shot on the rush, despite Benning’s and Green’s deepest wishes. With the arrival of Ferland and Miller, he may feel less pressure to be a net-front presence, for better or worse.

Nikolay Goldobin

With the signing of a one-year “show me” deal, the pressure is on Goldobin to produce as a top-six skater. The big question is how. He is a better passer than a finisher and worked very well with Pettersson and Boeser last year. But with Boeser already on one wing and the demand for a physical player (probably Ferland) on the other, that opportunity won’t be as easy to get this time. His biggest competition is likely Baertschi, another creative forward who has accomplished more in his career. Injuries can get Goldobin a shot, but if he ends up in the bottom six he’ll be hard-pressed to prove his value.

Prediction for the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks are going to be an exciting team to watch this year – which doesn’t mean they’re a sure bet. Rookies, sophomores, and new arrivals are leading the way at every position, a delicate prospect at best. However, they also have the deepest roster of talent they’ve had in years. There is genuine competition for ice time, and their most talented players are also their youngest.

The small sample size leaves a lot of questions:

Will Pettersson maintain his pace for the full season this time? Almost certainly.
Can Markstrom continue his steady play? Probably.
Will Demko hold the fort for his games? He should.
Can Goldobin earn the chances he’s had? Hopefully.
Is Hughes going to be a Calder nominee? Maybe.

The questions continue with their more seasoned veterans.

While Miller and Ferland should help the weak power play, Sutter, Eriksson, and Granlund were the primary penalty-killing forwards. With Granlund already gone, if Eriksson leaves who fills in those gaps? Is there enough talent to increase scoring through the bottom-six forwards? Is there enough depth to get through the inevitable injuries to top players?

But all questions are moot compared to the most important one. Is the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks team good enough to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs?  Hm.

They certainly have the talent to reach the playoffs this year if everything goes right for them, including avoiding injuries. This is why we’re predicting the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks will finish…

Fourth in the Pacific Division, missing the playoffs.

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images

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