With development camp in the books, the next big event for the Vancouver Canucks and their fans is the return of the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton on Sept. 16. After that, it’s training camp, preseason, and finally, the start of another campaign on Oct. 12 when they travel to Rogers Place to take on Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.
Every offseason the winds of change blow through Vancouver as players become free agents, get traded or are added to the roster from other teams. This year was no exception with Ilya Mikheyev, Curtis Lazar and Dakota Joshua being signed on July 13 and Juho Lammikko, Matthew Highmore and others being let go as free agents. With players being moved in and out of the organization, roles and responsibilities inevitably change for the regulars and the ones coming in. The question is, who will that be for the 2022-23 season? Let’s take a look.
Jack Rathbone was expected to become a regular on the Canucks’ blue line going into 2021-22. Unfortunately, that did not happen as he was sent down the freeway to Abbotsford after only nine games. Even with injuries throughout the season on the parent club, he never suited up for a game in Vancouver again despite putting up career numbers in the American Hockey League (AHL).
On the bright side, Rathbone did gain confidence in his game, both offensively (which is his forte) and defensively as he put up 10 goals and 40 points in 39 games along with a solid plus-4 in the plus/minus column. He also got into two AHL Playoff games where he recorded a single assist. Now poised to play his first full NHL season in 2022-23 after signing a one-way contract with Vancouver, he should be counted upon to anchor the second-unit power play with his elite puck-moving abilities and powerful shot from the blue line.
Sent down last season because of his defensive deficiencies, it will be interesting to see how far Rathbone has come in his development when the Young Stars Tournament gets going in September. With Trent Cull now running the defence in the NHL for the Canucks, he might get more ice time depending on how much his former head coach thinks he’s grown in that respect. Fortunately, it appears Rathbone has a positive relationship with him, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he thrived in his expanded role this coming season.
“Being able to play under coach [Cull] and his staff… I don’t think anyone should take that for granted. They’re probably one of the best coaching staffs in the league. So I think that was huge being able to work with them every day.”
When Spencer Martin was acquired by the Canucks from the Tampa Bay Lightning last offseason, it was for AHL depth behind Mike DiPietro, nothing more. Fast forward almost a year later and he is now the understudy to starter Thatcher Demko in the NHL. What happened last season that warranted such a jump? All you have to do is look at his stats and you will understand why, as he finished 2021-22 with a 1.74 goals-against average (GAA) and .950 save percentage (SV%) along with a sterling record of 3-0-3. When Demko and Jaroslav Halak went down with either injuries or the dreaded COVID protocol list, he was there to pick up the pieces. Except, he not only filled in for the duo but looked like a Vezina Trophy winner in the process.
Martin wasn’t thrown softballs during his NHL stint last season, no, there were curve balls, slurves and even some knucklers tossed his way as he never finished a game where he faced fewer than 30 shots. In fact, there was one against the Edmonton Oilers where he stared down 50 and ended up stopping 47 of them in a 4-3 shootout loss. All told, he got in front of 218 pucks and turned away 207 of them, culminating in six quality starts and a goals-saved above average of 9.3. Finally, to make his season in the big leagues even more impressive, he stopped 95 percent of the high-danger shots thrown his way. Even though it was a small sample size, that of course led all Canucks goaltenders.
Now the 27-year-old Oakville native is ready to start his first full season as a backup in the NHL. If all goes well, Martin should be able to spell Demko for at least 30-40 games thus giving the American All-Star more rest so that he is fresh down the stretch and (hopefully) into the playoffs. Judging by his insane 2021-22 season, he should be more than equipped to handle it.
One of the more under-the-radar signings on July 13, Joshua might end up being the most important. The 26-year-old Michigan native may have only played 30 games in the NHL last season with the St. Louis Blues, but made an impact with two game-winners and 77 hits, while also prevailing on 53.3 percent of his faceoffs. With the Canucks needing to be harder to play against next season, he will bring physicality, grit and most of all, size to a fourth line that head coach Bruce Boudreau hopes will be his go-to trio for an energy boost whenever his team needs it.
Joshua will work hard to prove that he can be an everyday player in the NHL this coming season. Given that the Canucks gave him a one-way contract, it’s clear that management believes in his game and what he can bring to the lineup on a nightly basis.
“Hopefully, Lazar and Joshua will grind other teams down and give our coaches more flexibility in matchups,” said Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin. “We like Joshua in the projection of being a bigger and heavier body and hard to play against because St. Louis is a deep team” (from ‘Canucks: Rocky road to The Show has Dakota Joshua jacked to make impact’, The Province, 7/18/22).
Joshua’s confidence should be high going into the 2022-23 campaign since he dominated the AHL Playoffs with the Springfield Thunderbirds to the tune of seven goals and 15 points in 18 games. Even though he didn’t come away with a Calder Cup, he still showed that he could turn it on offensively when called upon. While that won’t be his primary job with the Canucks, it’s never a bad thing to see your fourth line scoring goals, which is definitely possible with a unit that includes the first-round pedigree of Lazar.
All in all, Joshua will be expected to take on a bigger role than he has ever had to this point in his career. Good thing is, it appears he’s ready for the challenge.
“The Canucks have a solid young core and to just be another piece to help them win is really exciting for me,” added Joshua. “It will be cool to see what we can do. For me, it’s controlling the play at the top of the circles, being engaged physically and defensively sound. A good and solid 200-foot player who can be relied on by players and coaches.”
If Rathbone, Martin and Joshua can excel in their expanded roles and the other additions of Lazar, Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko fit seamlessly into Boudreau’s system, the Canucks should be comfortably in the playoff picture come April of 2023. Yes, even with the defence corps as it looks right now. Regardless of what happens at the end of the season, it should be an interesting story to follow as these three acclimate to their new positions in the team’s structure.
All advanced stats were from Hockey Reference