Pacific Division Preview: Vancouver Canucks will sink or swim on the play of young core

Though Vancouver added multiple veterans in the offseason, the team’s fate will rest on the shoulders of players like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat.

As Year 3 of Vegas Golden Knights hockey fast approaches, we’ll take a look at the other teams in the Pacific Division ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. This series will provide an overview of each of Vegas’ division rivals, reviewing how the teams fared last season, examining organizational changes made during the offseason and exploring what their lineups might look like to start the season.

This year is a significant one for the Vancouver Canucks, as it’s the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. It would be poetic for the Canucks to snap their four-year playoff drought in such a season, and it’s clear management had that mentality given its aggressive offseason approach.

The Canucks have two of the most dynamic young forwards in the NHL in Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, both of whom have emerged as superstars in the making over the last two years. With Bo Horvat continuing to fly under the radar, the Canucks are one of the more intriguing teams in the Pacific Division; however, they weren’t able to get over the hump last year, finishing nine points out of a wildcard spot.

Vancouver brought in multiple veteran pieces to help address the team’s extreme lack of scoring. Whether or not it will be enough to extend Vancouver’s season remains to be seen.

Season in review

Scoring has been an issue for the Canucks for years.

In fact, Vancouver has scored the fewest goals per game over the last four seasons, averaging just 2.44.

The Canucks finished tied for 25th in the NHL last year with 219 goals for, averaging 2.67 per game. The power play will need to be better this year after converting on just 17.1 percent of its opportunities, good for 22nd in the league. The penalty kill operated at an 81.1 percent success rate, which ranked 11th.

One stat that stands out when looking at Vancouver’s 2018-19 season is the team’s record when scoring first vs. giving up the first goal.

The Canucks went 24-6-3 when they opened the scoring, good for a win percentage of .727. On the other hand, the Canucks gave up the first goal 49 times and went 11-30-8 when doing so; that comes out to a .224 win percentage, which was the fifth-worst in the NHL.

Speaking of tough starts, goaltender Jacob Markstrom struggled out of the gate, going 8-9-3 with a 3.31 goals-against average and .897 save percentage in his first 20 games. The Canucks are hopeful he will pick up where he left off, however, as he turned things around with a 20-14-6 record, a 2.49 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage in his final 40 games of the season. He also set a career high in wins with 28.

While he didn’t always have much help, several Canucks had strong individual campaigns.

Pettersson led the team in scoring with 28 goals, 38 assists and 66 points in 71 games en route to winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Bo Horvat also surpassed the 60-point threshold, setting career highs across the board with 27 goals and 34 assists for 61 points.

Boeser followed up his rookie campaign with similar numbers, potting 26 goals and 56 points (compared to 29 and 55 in 2017-18) in another shortened season. Injuries have prevented him from hitting 30 goals, but he’s about as close as it gets.

No one else on the team hit the 20-goal or 40-point mark, so injecting more offense into the lineup was definitely something the Canucks wanted to address in the offseason.

Offseason overview

In order to do so, the Canucks bought out the contract of ailing forward Ryan Spooner and upgraded their forward depth by trading for J.T. Miller and signing Micheal Ferland.

Vancouver paid a steep price for Miller, sending goaltender Marek Mazanec as well as a 2019 third-round pick and conditional 2020 first-round pick to Tampa Bay.

However, Miller scored a career-high 20 power-play points last season and provides an instant boost to Vancouver’s offense.

Ferland, who signed a four-year, $14 million contract, adds size and physicality, and he has proven he can keep up with elite forwards. He is coming off back-to-back 40-point seasons and has scored 15 goals in each of the last three years.

The additions of Miller and Ferland should go a long way towards improving Vancouver’s offensive deficiencies. Both drive to the net and are strong on the forecheck, which should create more room and more opportunities for the young skilled forwards in the lineup.

Vancouver also made widespread changes to the back end.

After re-signing veteran Alex Edler to a two-year, $12 million extension, the Canucks brought in Tyler Myers (five years, AAV: $6 million), Jordie Benn (two years, AAV: $2 million) and Oscar Fantenberg (one year at $850,000), letting Ben Hutton and Derrick Pouliot walk in free agency.

Myers, the 6-foot-8, 229-pound mobile defenseman with 30-plus points in consecutive seasons, will join Edler and rookie Quinn Hughes (who scored three points in five games at the end of last year) as the Canucks look to generate more offense from the blue line. It’s something the Canucks have struggled with for years, but even Benn, who was brought in as a bottom-pair defenseman, is coming off a career-high 22-point campaign.

Additionally, the Canucks re-signed goaltender Thatcher Demko to a two-year extension with a $1.05 million cap hit. He will back up Markstrom this season as he looks to bolster his NHL resume.

Other players who signed contracts to remain in Vancouver include Josh Leivo, Tyler Motte and Nikolay Goldobin (who was recently waived).

But the most significant move of the offseason was the three-year extension awarded to Boeser, who signed a team-friendly bridge deal with a cap hit of $5.875 million. It didn’t get done until mid-September, but it was a win for both the organization and the player. Like many other high-profile RFA’s, the last year of the contract features a $7.5 million base salary, which sets the stage for a much higher AAV next time around.

The other offseason departure of note was forward Markus Granlund.

Surprisingly, the team recently waived Goldobin as well as Sven Baertschi and Alex Biega. All three players cleared waivers and will start the season with the team’s AHL affiliate.

Lineup preview

Miller and Ferland give Vancouver significantly improved depth up front. The top six will feature Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat, Miller, Ferland and Tanner Pearson. It appears as though Ferland will skate with the two youngsters in Pettersson and Boeser, while Miller will line up with Horvat and Pearson on the second line.

That will drop Leivo to a third-line role; he should skate with Brandon Sutter and Jake Virtanen, leaving Jay Beagle, Tyler Motte and Tim Schaller to round out the forward group. However, with Motte set to miss 10-14 days, veteran Loui Eriksson should fill his role on the fourth line. Even if he may not be in the opening-night lineup, Adam Gaudette had an impressive preseason and could eventually push someone out of the bottom six.

On the back end, Edler and Myers should be the top pairing; that likely means Hughes will skate with Tanev and Benn will skate with Stecher.

The goaltending situation is pretty straightforward with Markstrom and Demko.

Therefore, here’s one possibility for what the Canucks’ lineup could look like to start the season:

Ferland — Pettersson — Boeser
Pearson — Horvat — Miller
Leivo — Sutter — Virtanen
Schaller — Beagle — Eriksson

Edler — Myers
Hughes — Tanev
Benn — Stecher


Quick hits

2018-19 record: 35-36-11-81
Position in standings: Division-5, Conference-12, League-23
Pacific Division record: 11-14-4
Record against Vegas: 1-3-0
Playoff result: Did not qualify for postseason
Power play (NHL rank): 17.1 percent (22)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 81.1 percent (11)
Goals for (NHL rank): 219 (25)
Goals against (NHL rank): 248 (14)
Leading scorers: Pettersson (28-38—66), Horvat (27-34—61), Boeser (26-30—56)
Top Corsi For % (min. 35 GP): Leivo (54.12), Biega (50.84), Pouliot (50.34)
Goals above replacement: Pettersson (15.7), Boeser (8.9), Edler (8.7)
Season opener: Oct. 2 @ Edmonton

Looking ahead to 2019-20

The Canucks have high hopes for this season after an active offseason. Hughes could be yet another difference-maker for a team with some true superstar talent, and the Canucks have a solid one-two punch in Pettersson and Horvat. The rest of the center depth is certainly a concern, especially against other Western Conference teams who are bigger and deeper up the middle.

The same is true on the blue line, notwithstanding the offseason overhaul, particularly with multiple injury-prone players in the mix (i.e., Myers, Tanev, etc.). However, Fantenberg is a solid seventh defensemen, and Biega is a decent call-up option.

That being said, the Canucks could very well be in the running down the stretch, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be playing meaningful hockey games in February/March. That wasn’t necessarily supposed to be the case so soon after the team went into rebuild mode, but the emergence of guys like Pettersson and Boeser has completely changed the energy in British Columbia, and Horvat could be wearing a “C” starting next week.

Though the Canucks could end up missing the postseason for the fifth straight season, it’s hard to imagine the team’s production won’t improve. Has the roster undergone too much change for one offseason? Probably not, given the personnel. Either way, there’s not much doubt that this team is better than it was last year.

Golden Knights vs. Canucks schedule

Dec. 15 vs. Vancouver
Dec. 19 @ Vancouver
Mar. 23 vs. Vancouver
Apr. 4 @ Vancouver

Statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, and Natural Stat Trick.