There’s a saying in the NFL: Defense wins championships. While we’ve seen the NHL shift toward offence during the regular season with an uptick in goal scoring, come playoff time, it’s defence that stands out. The Vancouver Canucks made a few notable additions to help out their offence, but their defensive depth will play a significant role in their success this upcoming season.
A blockbuster trade kicked off the Canucks’ offseason, and although the smaller moves made afterward didn’t necessarily make headlines, they will bolster a defensive group that struggled last season. Only six teams gave up more goals than the Canucks in 2020-21 with 188 goals against, a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.36 per game. With a few players still to be signed, specifically restricted free agents (RFAs) Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, general manager Jim Benning decided to get a jump start on his roster by making changes to his defence.
Heading into the offseason, there were many questions about how Benning would re-vamp and re-tool the left side. Outside of re-signing Hughes, two-thirds of that side will not be returning in 2021-22. Long time Canuck, Alexander Edler signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent after spending the first 15 years of his career in Vancouver. Along with Hughes, Olli Juolevi will get an opportunity to play full-time minutes on a make-it or break-it season. The 23-year-old signed a one-year extension worth $750,000.
However, for the final spot, however, one notable swap will make a major impact on the left side. The Canucks traded Nate Schmidt to the Winnipeg Jets for a third-round pick. Taking his place will presumably be Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in the Canucks’ biggest offseason deal.
While Ekman-Larsson’s underlying numbers might not be optimistic, a change of scenery could be what the doctor ordered. Along with playing behind Hughes, he could be paired with a defensive-minded partner like Tyler Myers or Travis Hamonic, a luxury he never had in his time in Arizona. We also can’t forget that the Canucks aren’t paying his full salary ($7.26 million of his $8.5 million cap hit). He might not live up to the standard set in his earlier playing days, but he could bounce back to some extent this season.
As for the right side, much will remain the same. Myers seems to be set playing in the top four again. Hamonic was re-signed on a two-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $3 million per season, but a few more names were added to bolster the right side and make it much deeper.
Tucker Poolman was signed to a four-year, $10 million contract ($2.5 million AAV). He played 39 games last season, and while he registered just one assist, he’s only a year removed from registering 16 points in 57 games with the Jets in 2019-20. He won’t be depended on offensively, but if he can be steady on the back end and play to where he was a couple of seasons ago, it would be an added bonus for the Canucks.
Other Notable Names
There are a couple of other notable additions that should get solid ice time and possibly an extended look if injuries become an issue, which they usually are. Luke Schenn was brought back on a two-year deal worth $1.7 million ($850,000 AAV). The 31-year-old spent the last few seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and similar to his role there, will be a solid depth option for the Canucks with plenty of playoff experience. He is familiar with the club after being acquired in a trade in the 2018-19 season from the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Michael Del Zotto.
The final player not to sleep on and who could be in the starting lineup come October is Jack Rathbone. At just 22 years old, Rathbone has been successful at every stop regardless of the level. From 2018-2020, he scored 53 points in 63 games at Harvard University in the NCAA. In just eight games with the Utica Comets last season, he scored two goals and seven assists, and in his brief stint with Vancouver had three points in eight games. If he gets a little more exposure this coming season, he could become a regular on the Canucks roster.
With the returning players from last season’s team, the players brought in via trade, free agency, and with the rookies getting a bigger opportunity to showcase their talent, the Canucks’ depth will be much better than it was a season ago.
I’m a London, Ontario based broadcaster and sports writer for the Vancouver Canucks. I’ve done work in the past reporting on the NHL, NBA and MLB. I’ve also covered the OHL including the Owen Sound Attack and am currently involved with the London Knights.