The Vancouver Canucks enter the 2021-22 season with some fresh new faces in the lineup. Those players, along with a few from last year, could break out this season.
In 2020-21, Nils Hoglander, Thatcher Demko, Jake Virtanen and Olli Juolevi were breakout candidates. Hoglander and Demko had good seasons, while Virtanen and Juolevi had disappointing campaigns and are no longer with the team. Here are the Canucks’ 2021-22 breakout candidates.
Vasili Podkolzin is an obvious breakout candidate for the Canucks. The 2020 first-round pick is finally making his NHL debut after spending the last two years in the KHL playing with SKA Saint Petersburg. He struggled during the regular season with the club but put together an impressive playoff performance last season, scoring six goals and posting 11 points in 16 games.
He had a slow start in training camp and preseason but came on in the second half. Podkolzin has noticeably progressed throughout each preseason game, showing off his passing skills, his stickhandling, his ability to drive the net, and he has impressed on the forecheck.
Podkolzin may not start the season off as hot as other Canucks rookies have. It may take the Russian forward some time and a few more conversations with head coach Travis Green for him to put everything together. Still, he has shown in training camp that he has the skills and drive to be an important player for the Canucks.
Throughout the preseason, he’s lined up alongside J.T. Miller and Nic Petan. If the Canucks decide to play Miller at centre to start the season, Podkolzin should be a lock to play with him early on. A bottom-six role fits him early on while he is getting comfortable playing in the NHL. Once he is comfortable, he will start to produce offensively. He could finish the season with close to 15 goals and 35 total points.
Green started training camp by stating the third pairing left defence slot was up for grabs between Jack Rathbone, Olli Juolevi and Brad Hunt. Out of the three, Rathbone has impressed the most, while Hunt proved he is a good option as a seventh or eighth d-man. Meanwhile, the team traded away Juolevi to the Florida Panthers on Sunday.
Rathbone is entering his rookie season with the Canucks, although he played eight games last season, scoring his first goal and adding two assists late in the 2020-21 season. He played in all seven of the team’s preseason games, scoring one goal and posting two points. He has shown off his play in the offensive end and in transition from both offence to defence and defence to offence. He likely won’t get much time on the power play since the Canucks have Hughes and Ekman-Larsson. Still, Rathbone will have an opportunity to provide the Canucks with more offence from the backend. The rookie should start the season playing with Luke Schenn, who should provide him with some balance in the defensive end.
In the 2020-21 season, Thatcher Demko split starts with Braden Holtby, playing in 35 of the team’s 56 games. He posted a record of 16-18-1 with a 2.85 goals-against average (GAA), a .915 save percentage (SV%) and one shutout. This season he will be the clear starter, with the team bringing in Jaroslav Halak as a backup to the 25-year-old goalie.
Though Demko had a tough start to the 2020-21 season, he had a great month of March for the team. Through 11 games, he posted an 8-3-0 record with a 2.15 GAA and a .937 SV%. His impressive run in March led to him signing a five-year contract with an average annual value of $5 million. Demko’s hot streak ended due to the team’s COVID-19 outbreak, which led to the club having a 24-day layoff.
The young goalie has shown he is capable of being the starter before his run last season. He replaced Jacob Markstrom in Games 5, 6 and 7 in the second round of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights. He was the main reason the team came back from being down 3-1 in the series against Vegas and forcing a Game 7. He stopped 128 of the 130 shots he faced in the series.
In 2021-22, he will look to take the next step in his development and play at the same level he did in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs and in March of last season. Halak should provide Demko with some relief whenever the goalie has played through multiple games in a row. Demko is entering the first year of his five-year contract and will hope to prove he is worth his newly earned contract.
Youth Looking to Make a Mark
The Canucks have multiple young players looking to have a breakout season in 2021-22. Including the three players above, Hoglander had a great rookie season and should look to take another step this season. Conor Garland is another player who has had a great season before but is looking to take a step in his development. Other players such as Elias Pettersson will be looking to breakthrough and officially join the top ranks with players such as Conor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.