Vancouver Canucks’ general manager Jim Benning and head coach Travis Green discussed the club’s playoff run and offseason in their end-of-season media availability on Tuesday. The Canucks were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 in the second round last Friday.
The front office will have to decide which free agents they will re-sign as the team faces a cap crunch. In total, they have six unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and five restricted free agents (RFAs), while they have $17 million in cap space. Jacob Markstrom, the club’s starting goaltender, was injured in the second round and is one of the UFAs.
Canucks Plan on Keeping Markstrom and Demko
Backup goaltender Thatcher Demko impressed in Games 5, 6, and 7 after the Canucks lost Markstrom in the second-round series. Benning noted that Markstrom was skating and may have been available for the club had they moved on to the Western Conference Final, though.
Although Markstrom had been the team’s MVP leading up to his injury in the playoffs, Demko’s performance has some questioning whether the Canucks should just allow the 30-year-old Markstrom to move on in free agency and start the 24-year old Demko next season. Benning shot down the idea, stating he believed having two starters is better than one. He also noted that he’s been in contact with Markstrom’s agent.
“I talked to Jacob’s agent yesterday. He’s an important guy in our group, he’s a leader. He was the MVP of our group over the course of the season. We want him back. We’ll start working on that this week.”Benning on Markstrom’s contract talks.
Allowing both Markstrom and Demko to split starts next season is a beneficial strategy for the Canucks. In the 2019-20 regular season and postseason, Markstrom was noticeably overworked, playing in 33 of the team’s first 47 games. All of the wear and tear added up, and he was sidelined with a knee injury in February. Before being replaced by Demko in Game 5, Markstrom had played in 14 consecutive playoff games, including three sets of back-to-backs. Splitting time in net between the two goaltenders gives the club the best chance to win, as it will reduce the risk of injury.
News on Young Guns
Good News for Juolevi
The Canucks brought a few young defenders to training camp before the start of the 2020 playoffs. Olli Juolevi was the only defender from that group who appeared in a playoff game. Benning noted the sixth overall pick from 2016 had a good training camp. Juolevi will have an opportunity to join the club next season due to his noticeably improved play in camp.
Also, the Canucks have a few defensemen who are pending free agents, including Oscar Fantenberg, who played on the team’s third pairing and is a left-handed defenseman. Juolevi is a left-handed defender as well and will fit in perfectly on the left side of the team’s third defensive pairing. He would be playing behind Quinn Hughes and Alex Edler.
Bad News for Virtanen
On the other hand, Jake Virtanen may have played his last game for the Canucks. Benning stated the club might have to make some tough decisions on young players. Virtanen is the most obvious candidate to be moved since he will be an RFA this offseason. The 24-year-old winger had a disappointing postseason, as he scored just two goals and posted three points in 16 games. Benning expected more out of the 2014 first-round pick due to his speed and size, similar to Vegas’ Alex Tuch, but was disappointed.
“I thought he worked and competed hard in the playoffs. He scored that big goal for us in Game 6. To be perfectly honest with you though, I was expecting more from Jake in the playoffs.”Benning told Sportsnet 650.
Toffoli Returned Earlier Than Expected
The Canucks lost Tyler Toffoli, who was seen in a walking boot, after Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild in the play-in round. The trade deadline acquisition did not return until Game 2 against the Golden Knights and made an immediate impact, as he scored the first goal of the game. He had two goals and four points in seven games, but Benning noted he initially expected more from the veteran forward before learning Toffoli was supposed to be out twice as long as he actually was, and wanted to return early.
Benning said Toffoli helped Elias Pettersson prepare for Games 5, 6, and 7 against the Golden Knights. Toffoli was a member of the 2014 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who came back after being down 3-0 in their first-round series to the San Jose Sharks. The Canucks managed to win Games 5 and 6 after going down 3-1, but failed to complete the comeback in Game 7. Nonetheless, the veteran experience from the 28-year-old helped the young team continue to compete even when they were down and out.
Canucks at the 2020 NHL Draft
Benning will likely see if he can recover a couple of picks before the 2020 NHL Draft, as the Canucks are entering without a first and second-round selection. The club traded its 2020 first-round pick, a 2020 conditional pick, and goaltender Marek Mazanec to the Tampa Bay Lightning for J.T. Miller at the 2019 NHL Draft. Then, the Canucks traded their 2020 second-round pick, Tim Schaller, and prospect Tyler Madden to the Kings for Toffoli before the 2020 trade deadline. The general manager may explore trading Virtanen’s rights in an attempt to recover the draft picks they’ve lost.
In August, Benning noted he is no longer exploring options through free agency. The general manager has done a great job of stocking the cupboard with talented prospects through the draft. Adding more picks will help Benning continue to do that as the team improves.
Management Impressed With Canucks Playoff Run
The 3-0 loss in Game 7 to the Golden Knights is still fresh for Green. The head coach believes the playoff experience is invaluable for the Canucks’ young players, although he is upset with the result. Green stated the playoff run was a learning experience for his club as they now understand what it takes to win in the postseason.
Although it was the first postseason appearance for many of the young players on the club, they adapted quickly. Pettersson, Demko, and Hughes left their mark in their first-ever playoff appearance. Pettersson tied Miller for the team lead in playoff points with 18 each. Hughes set the record for the most points in a postseason by a rookie defenseman with 16. Demko shined, stopping 123 of the 125 shots he faced and posted a 48-save shutout in Game 6. The Canucks’ management believes the young core has raised expectations and shown what the future in Vancouver has to offer.
Benning and Green Have Work to Do
Benning and Green will have to help build on what the Canucks accomplished to have a successful 2020-21 season. Benning has to make a decision on which free agents he is willing to keep, and potentially using the rights of others to recover draft picks.
Green stated that to improve, the Canucks have to make sure their young players continue to develop. The club set out to win and prove people wrong. Green and his coaching staff will have to find a way to spread that competitive mindset to newly acquired players and prospects throughout the organization.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.