The Vancouver Canucks — although the team did better than most people expected — simply fell a little short last season. They were almost there, and the team’s first 60 games were competitive. However, during the last 20 games, the team slipped out of the playoffs. As the season wound down, the lack of depth was apparent and, when the injuries came, the team wasn’t able to compensate.
Reviewing the Season
If you’re general manager Jim Benning, what do you do? First, you take a good, honest look at your team and assess its short-term and long-term needs. Here’s what I saw as team needs, and from the moves Benning made, I think we agreed.
The Good News
First, there’s good news. The team’s young players were surprisingly good and, in fact, even better than expected. That was particularly true for Calder Trophy-winner Elias Pettersson. Benning must have seen that the skinny kid had talent, but no one — and I mean no one — expected him to be as good as he was.
Last season also showed that Brock Boeser wasn’t a
The short of it is the youngsters are good and will get better. But they needed help now.
The Bad News
After reviewing the season, I believe Benning saw that the team had three glaring weaknesses. First, the team needed more scoring. Second, the team needed a stronger defense. And, third, the team needed to accept the reality of its make-up and engage a long-term view towards fixing whatever problems that make-up created.
Obviously, Benning believed the long-term view wasn’t so bad, as I noted above. The team had a strong core of young players — forwards Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat; defenseman Hughes; and goalie Thatcher Demko.
However, that core was too young to carry the load alone. Given those needs, Benning aggressively engaged both the trade and the free-agent market during the offseason. During that process, he sought to pick up a few scorers, solidify the team’s defense, and pick up experienced players to both
Benning Addresses His Team’s Goals
To the surprise of many in hockey, Benning was far more assertive fixing those needs than many expected. It was a busy offseason.
As Benning noted after signing a three-year contract extension Aug. 20, “Our goal is to make the playoffs so our young players can experience what playoff hockey is. That’s an important part of their development. So by signing some of these players we did this summer, it’s with the goal in mind we want to keep getting better and be a competitive team that can compete for a playoff spot.”
Goal One: Mentorship for Younger Players
Who are the players the team signed? Specifically, the team acquired forward J.T. Miller via trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning on June 22. The team also added defensemen Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn as free agents on July 1 and forward Micheal Ferland on July 10. Although he doesn’t fall into this group’s demographic, defenseman Oscar Fantenberg was also added.
The thing most of these players have in common is that they’re a little bit older and more experienced. I’m sure Benning valued each of these players as skilled in their own right, but he also saw the possibility of them helping the team’s core of young players continue moving in what he sees as the right direction.
I, for one, believe Benning’s approach is solid. I think each signing addresses a problem that helps make the team more competitive and will move it one step closer to the playoffs.
Goal Two: Depth Throughout the Season
Second, the Canucks added depth on both the front and the back end with their offseason additions. And, that depth improved the team. Last season, the team simply didn’t have the quality of player to overcome any injuries that occurred and, during the last month of the season, the team almost had to airlift players to fill in the gaps (Ryan Spooner, for example, simply didn’t cut it and was released).
This season, the team’s depth is greater, with the addition of Miller and Ferland, who have already proved themselves to be quality players, to the core of Pettersson, Horvat, and Boeser. Remember, too, that Jake Virtanen, Josh Leivo, and Tanner Pearson are still around to help. These players had solid seasons in 2018-19.
Goal Three: Shoring Up the Defense
There’s no argument that the team’s defense is vastly improved with the addition of Benn, Myers, and Fantenberg. Benn brings experience and scoring: he had his best season with the Montreal Canadiens during 2018-19. Myers is a giant of a defenseman, who’s tough to play against. He’s also had two 30-point seasons in a row.
And, although Fantenberg isn’t older and as experienced, he did play with the Calgary Flames in that team’s playoff chase last season and he has the potential to grow. With Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, and Troy Stecher, it’s a solid rearguard. As well, Alex Biega was a surprise when needed last season and has earned another chance for minutes.
Where’s the Team Now?
As it stands, Horvat is the only Canucks player of the young core who has any NHL playoff experience at all. That came during his rookie season as a fourth-line center when the team last made the playoffs in 2014-15. Even with his lack of solid line partners, the 24-year-old set career highs last season with 27 goals, 34 assists, and 61 points in 82 games. Those numbers also account for the fact that he spent much of his time concentrating on his defensive play because he was matched against other team’s top forwards.
Of all the changes to the team, as a fan, I’m most looking forward to what might happen if Horvat plays consistently with the same linemates. Even given the problems that face the Canucks, one thing we shouldn’t forget is that the team has moved more successfully than many expected from its rebuild as an elderly team led by the Sedin twins, to a team that is now working to prop up its young core with veteran players.
Last season, the Canucks improved by eight points from the team’s 2017-18 season, but missed the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. Could this will be the team’s first foray into the postseason? If so, it’s a necessary step for moving this team forward.