Canucks Seek to Bounce Back in Season of Redemption

Brock Boeser scored 26 goals last season — good enough for third on the Vancouver Canucks behind Elias Pettersson’s 28 and Bo Horvat’s 27 — a solid number considering he was injured for 13 games. He could have surpassed the 30-goal mark had he remained healthy for the entirety of the season, but netting just under 30 goals in a shortened campaign is not cause for concern.

With Boeser’s contract situation finally sorted out — he signed a three-year bridge deal earlier this week — the team can focus on bouncing back after an exhilarating season that came to a disappointing end.

Miller Time…Again.

J.T. Miller is a player with top-six potential, (from ‘Ben Kuzma: Miller time is the right time for Horvat to find missing link,’ The Province, 09/15/2019). The argument that he was a bottom-six player with the Tampa Bay Lightning falls short when you consider that he was playing with the deepest forward group in the NHL. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Ohio native will excel with Horvat next to him.

Even Horvat might have been a third-line player if he had played on such a deep Lightning team. The Lightning are replete with top-six players leaving no room for Miller on either of the top two lines. However, his predominantly bottom-six role hardly impacted his ability to collect points, as he recorded 47 points in 75 games.

Horvat — the Canucks’ bonafide second-line centre — has experienced a revolving door of wingers over the past couple of seasons and none of them were as talented as Miller. For the first time, Horvat will have an established top-six forward by his side.

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Miller spent time alongside Steven Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli last season and proved his versatility by playing at centre and on the wing. With more stability on a Vancouver roster that desperately needs someone with his skill set, he should crush any point totals he reached in prior seasons.

With Tanner Pearson on the other side of Horvat, the three should comprise a formidable second line behind Michael Ferland, Pettersson and Boeser. If Pearson picks up where he left off last season — he had 9 goals in 19 games — the trio will become a force to be reckoned with.

J.T. Miller Lightning
Canucks offseason acquisition J.T. Miller may see some minutes on the team’s top line in Brock Boeser’s absence. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

A welcome addition to the Canucks lineup, it would be realistic to see Miller score 20-25 goals and add 30-plus assists on Horvat’s wing. He will see time on either the first or second power-play units, and with his explosive speed, could be utilized on the penalty kill as well.

Altered Roles

This arrangement gives the Canucks a bunch of potential suitors to play in the middle-six; Sven Baertschi, Jake Virtanen and Pearson will have an excellent opportunity to prove they belong in the top-half of the forward group by taking on more responsibility.

Sven Baertschi is healthy and ready to bounce back after a short 2018-19 campaign. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

A healthy Baertschi could make a world of difference if Miller is expected to be impactful on the second line. The Canucks’ offensive unit will be much improved if Baertschi can contribute on the second or third line.

The offseason acquisitions by general manager Jim Benning have made the top-nine forward group more malleable, deep enough that a potential second-line scoring winger like Baertschi can play down the lineup without people questioning it. Of course, he could impress head coach Travis Green and take Pearson’s spot next to Horvat and Miller. Again, malleability.

Depth shouldn’t be an issue for the squad during the 2019-20 season as they have a plethora of bottom-six forwards chomping at the bit for a roster spot. If injuries happen — as they often do in Vancouver — there will be no shortage of players to step up and fill those spots. Players like Zack MacEwen, Adam Gaudette and even Kole Lind may have the opportunity to impress us this season.

The most paramount improvement in the forward group, however, must come from Brandon Sutter. After playing just 26 games in the 2018-19 NHL season, the once 21-goal scorer has an opportunity to reclaim the third-line centre role that he once held uncontested.

Injuries and sub-par play led many to believe that his spot would be filled by someone like Adam Gaudette, but after watching Sutter score two goals against the Edmonton Oilers in preseason action on Tuesday night, its starting to look like the former Pittsburgh Penguin is ready to reclaim what is rightfully his.

More Freedom, More Damage

The acquisitions of Ferland and Miller mean that Pettersson will have some more protection and in turn, the freedom to do what he does best – score magnificent goals.

Adding big bodies ensures that the more flashy, offensively inclined players like Nikolay Goldobin and Pettersson will not have to worry about being targeted by opposing tough guys. If Ferland ends up on the top line with Pettersson, we should expect an increase in point production from the young Swede.

Players like Josh Leivo and Jake Virtanen will have to play a tougher game, especially Virtanen. Speed is one of his strengths, but at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, he hasn’t utilized his frame the way many fans had hoped he would since he was drafted sixth-overall by the Canucks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

Size Matters

Benning had a busy offseason. As the summer heated up, so did his phone. On July 1, he inked former Winnipeg Jets defender Tyler Myers to a five-year, $30-million contract with an average annual value of $6 million; a steep price to pay for a player who turns 30 in February.

Myers does, however, add serious size to the Canucks’ d-core, as the second tallest player in the NHL at 6-foot-8. He is almost guaranteed to make Quinn Hughes feel a little safer.

Benning also landed former Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jordie Benn.

Jordie Benn
Jordie Benn has spent time with the Montreal Canadiens and the Dallas Stars over the past few seasons. Vancouver will be his third NHL team. (Michael Connell/Texas Stars Hockey)

Benn — a Victoria, B.C. native — is an immediate upgrade over Derrick Pouliot, Erik Gudbranson and Alex Biega. At 32 years of age, the older brother of Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn brings veteran leadership to a Canucks team with a lot of young star power. At 6-foot-2 and 199 pounds, he will also provide some grit as a probable third-pairing defenseman.

With these acquisitions, Benning was trying to round out a group that was on the edge of becoming a playoff team. He knew what he had in Vancouver and figured that adding a couple more key pieces would push the team into playoff contention. He may have been right, but we’ll have to wait until October to be certain.

Elias Pettersson, Jacob Markstrom Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver Canucks’ Elias Pettersson and Jacob Markstrom (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

The team is stronger than they were last year, and while it is largely dependent on the newcomers, the Canucks’ young core of Pettersson, Horvat, Boeser and Hughes are all set to build on their prior successes. The Canucks will redeem themselves this season and the NHL will notice.