All things considered, Canucks fans have to be impressed with their team’s 2020 playoff run.
Vancouver tied with Nashville for the eighth most regular season points (78) and, had the season not ended prematurely, the Canucks likely would have had to play without team savior Jacob Markstrom in net. For a group that didn’t look close to playoff ready heading into the season, the fact that Vancouver took Vegas to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals was quite the feat, even if the inevitable exit still stung.
The Canucks still have a ways to go and a tight cap situation will make addressing any of the team’s dire needs a challenge over the next few months. But the pieces are in place for a successful future: Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, and Thatcher Demko give the team a nice base to build around. With that in mind, it’s all about capitalizing on their core, but first there are a few major concerns to tackle in the near future:
Poor cap management a hindrance to scoring depth
Having an abundance of terrible contracts with slow, under-performing forwards can damage a team’s optimum performance. Who knew? That’s been one of the pitfalls of Jim Benning’s time in Vancouver. Finding suitors for the likes of Loui Eriksson (35 years old, $6-million cap hit), Antoine Roussel (30, $3 million), or Jay Beagle (35, $3 million) before their deals end in 2022 will take a Herculean effort. The Canucks will shave around $8 million once Brandon Sutter and Sven Baerschi are off the books next off-season, but that doesn’t exactly help the team out now.
Compared to other teams, the $1.04 million in cap space gives them some flexibility, but not in Vancouver’s case. After giving up key assets to get a handful of games from Tyler Toffoli before his departure to Montreal, the Canucks find themselves with fewer offensive tools than last season with no noticeable replacements. It’s crazy to think they are so close to the gap given the fact that not a single player made more than $6 million this past year, but tying up $26 million for guys like Eriksson, Beagle, Roussel, Sutter, Michael Ferland, and Tyler Myers – most of whom are just depth guys to begin with – put a strain on the pocketbooks.
Not to mention that Demko, Hughes, and Pettersson – three of the team’s most important players – are all RFAs next off-season with the potential of the salary cap staying flattened at $81.5 million. To quote the brilliant mind of Scooby-Doo: “Ruh-roh.”
Now the Canucks need to get creative. If we’re going off of Daily Faceoff’s line tracker, Vancouver could start with a third line of Roussel, Sutter, and youngster Adam Gaudette. That trio combined for 27 goals last season, which accounts for about 12 percent of the team’s 224 goals – placing them around 26th among third lines in the NHL. If your right wingers after Brock Boeser are Eriksson, Sutter, and Beagle…yikes.
The Canucks have a handful of un-tradable contracts, and no money to play with. There’s an argument to be made that Nate Schmidt is a good enough replacement for Chris Tanev on the point, but the Canucks didn’t succeed in their pursuit to fix holes left by Toffoli or goaltender Jakob Markstrom. The Canucks could give some kids a shot at ice time, but two of the club’s top prospects – Nils Hoglander and Vasili Podkolzin – remain in Europe. Kole Lind and Jayce Hawrlyuk could fill some roles when needed and Will Lockwood might not be far away, either. That may not be enough, but it’s something.
Defense needs to rally around Hughes
Was Hughes deserving of the Calder Trophy this past season? Of course, but Cale Makar was just as worthy a recipient. The Canucks should be thrilled to have found their star No. 1 defenseman in Hughes, a player perhaps capable of being the best to ever patrol the blueline in franchise history.
But despite possessing a star on defense, Vancouver allowed the fourth most shots per game during the regular season at 33.3. Markstrom was fantastic in the crease, but the team sat 11th in goals-against per game with 3.10. Simply put, the Canucks weren’t good enough in their own zone. Despite losing Tanev to free agency, they did at least address the need for a tighter blueline by acquiring Schmidt from Vegas in mid-October. At the very least, a combination of Hughes and Schmidt gives the Canucks a reliable top pairing that will only get better over time.
Beyond that, there’s nothing overly special about the remainder of the corp. Alex Edler is 35 and far beyond his prime while Tyler Myers – criticized for his constant trips to the penalty box during the post-season – can only do so much. Jordie Benn is fine on the third pairing, but this is still hardly a group to get excited about.
Vancouver’s cap situation makes any further adjustments a challenge, but one thing is certain: Hughes is the cornerstone of this blueline and the club needs to build around him to stay successful. Schmidt is a highly capable defender who can handle the pressure of playing with a future superstar, but the Canucks need to ensure they aren’t forced to rely on Hughes too much. The oldest Hughes brother is just 21 and should be allowed to make mistakes – many kids his age are still playing college hockey. Heck, he may have been ready to start his fourth year at the University of Michigan had he not been so profound in his development.
Now the challenge is managing everyone around him. Is the group improved from a year ago? That’s up for debate, but the Canucks need guys like Myers and Benn to hold their own on a nightly basis to keep the depth in check, especially if they hope to be contenders in the post-season once again.
Is it Demko’s world or Holtby’s?
When the Canucks moved on from Markstrom, the team’s most important player this past season, it signaled a new era for a franchise that was showing some real spunk. Contract congestion prevented Markstrom from returning, and he instead signed with Calgary on a six-year deal worth $6 million per season.
The Canucks had a spot to fill and added Braden Holtby out of Washington on a two-year deal worth $4.3 million per campaign. Holtby is a significant downgrade from Markstrom, having finished 49th in both save percentage and goals-saved-above average at 5-on-5 this season out of 54 goalies with at least 1,000 minutes played. On the flip side, only five goalies with at least 40 starts beat Markstrom, including all three Vezina Trophy finalists in Connor Hellebuyck, Tuukka Rask, and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
That leaves Vancouver’s goaltending situation in the hands of Holtby and the 24-year-old Demko, who was a shining star for the Canucks in the Western Conference semifinals, playing some of the best hockey we saw throughout the marathon event. The Canucks seem destined to use Demko as the goaltender of the future, a designation many gave him when the club selected the Boston College goaltender in the second round of the 2014 NHL draft. Demko had some strong moments as a rookie this season, but the sample size is still quite small to get an accurate reading.
The logical conclusion would be to expect both goaltenders to split the season. Holtby is a veteran nearly three seasons removed from a Stanley Cup championship, a playoff run that saw him play perhaps the best hockey of his career. It’s been downhill since then, but there’s an argument to be made that he was mentally out of it last season once it became clear Ilya Samsonov was the future in Washington’s crease. On the other hand, Demko definitely looks like he’ll be Vancouver’s starter in the long-term, but it’s unrealistic to think a goalie with 37 starts over three seasons will immediately have the edge over a veteran with an impressive resume.
If we’re simply looking at a “what have you done for me lately” scenario, Demko is the right choice, bar none. He’s already looked confident and we haven’t yet seen what he’s capable of when given full control of the crease. Holtby – still out there trying to prove he can be a starter in the NHL – will certainly push Demko to perform. It’s also possible for Holtby to steal the spotlight and remain in Vancouver’s net for the next few years. It’s very wide open right now, but the Canucks targeted one of the bigger goaltending UFAs for a reason – they’re serious about contending while the core is intact.