Welcome to the first edition of the Vancouver Canucks Mailbag, where I answer hot button questions from you, the fans! Preseason is underway and Canucks hockey has returned to the West Coast. Training camp came to a close on Saturday and two preseason games are in the books. From the new additions to Vasily Podkolzin, the first mailbag of the 2021-22 season was full of great questions. So without further ado, let’s get the festivities going with our first question!
How Many Starts Do You Predict for Thatcher Demko?
After splitting the net with veteran Braden Holtby last season, Thatcher Demko has another grey beard to mentor him in 2021-22 in Jaroslav Halak. With 10 back-to-backs this season, I see him getting at least 50 starts with Halak grabbing the rest. Of course, this is all dependant on the health of Demko.
If one of the tandem gets injured, I fully expect top prospect Mike DiPietro to step up from Abbotsford and take on the role of backup to either Halak or Demko. Judging by his performance in training camp so far, he’s probably an American Hockey League (AHL) season away from graduating to the NHL full-time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get some games this season, especially if Halak underperforms behind Demko.
Thoughts on Podkolzin So Far? Where Do You Project Him in the Lineup by Mid-Season?
After three days of training camp and one preseason game, Vasily Podkolzin has not looked like a player just embarking on his journey in the NHL. He seems comfortable with the speed of the game and does not look out of place on a line with two veterans in Conor Garland and J.T. Miller. In his first game against the Calgary Flames on Monday, he generated a few chances and finished with two shots on goal.
Without Elias Pettersson, head coach Travis Green has used Miller as a center with Podkolzin and the returns look very promising so far. In the scrimmages, they controlled the puck in the offensive zone more often than not and were dangerous almost every shift. Podkolzin has also showcased his smooth skating and hard, accurate wrist shot throughout camp, two things that were supposed to be his weaknesses. With Pettersson on the verge of re-signing with the Canucks, it will be interesting to see where Green puts him to start the season. If he’s not in the top six on opening night, he will definitely be there by mid-season.
What Do the Canucks Have To Accomplish for Green To Enter the Jack Adams Conversation?
That’s a tough question to answer. For Green to be in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award, he has to at the very least lead the Canucks to the playoffs, maybe even win the Pacific Division. The team has to be solid all-around, not just on offence but overall team defence as well.
With Dave Hakstol (Seattle Kraken) and Gerard Gallant (New York Rangers) likely to be contenders for the award by the end of the season, he will have to outperform them and prove that the Canucks’ defence isn’t worse than last season. They will be better offensively with Garland and Podkolzin added to the team, but it’s the defence core that could struggle to keep the high danger chances down. If he and new assistant coach Brad Shaw can accomplish that, he will be in the conversation for sure.
Do You Think All (the Canucks’) New Acquisitions Will Play Above Their Expectations?
After training camp and the very small sample size of two preseason games, the new acquisitions of Garland, Oliver Ekman-Larsson (OEL), Jason Dickinson, Tucker Poolman, and Phil Di Giuseppe have all had their moments in a Canucks uniform. The loudest on the scoresheet so far has been the former Arizona Coyotes’ duo of Garland and Ekman-Larsson as they generated a goal and two assists against the Flames.
Dickinson and Poolman have not been noticeable in terms of goals and points, but that’s not usually their game. Poolman has looked comfortable beside OEL on the top pairing and Dickinson has quietly done his job in the bottom six. Di Giuseppe has impressed with his speed, playmaking, and tenacity and is now firmly in the conversation for a roster spot.
If all of them continue on an upward trajectory, I don’t see why they can’t play above expectations. Although, it depends on who is setting them and what the bar is set at. If you are expecting Ekman-Larsson to play up to his $8.25 million cap hit, then you will probably be disappointed. If Garland plays in the top six and on the first unit power play all season, he will easily score 20 goals, which should be expected after he was on pace for that in 2020-21. Basically, if the expectations are set to a reasonable amount, they will all play above them.
Does Juolevi Stay Up or Get Waived?
Based on Olli Juolevi’s mediocre performance in camp and the preseason so far, he should be one of the players waived. At this point, Jack Rathbone and Brad Hunt have outplayed him and appear to be better options in the lineup. Having said that, he is still the only defenceman on the roster bubble that can kill penalties. The Canucks also run the risk of losing him on the waiver wire to a team looking for depth on the blue line.
The Canucks are already shallow in that department with Travis Hamonic’s absence, so I’m not sure general manager Jim Benning will want to risk doing that. If anything, he will be traded for another depth defenceman before being exposed to waivers.
Will the Canucks Defence Improve Under Brad Shaw?
By the end of the season, the addition of Brad Shaw from the Columbus Blue Jackets will be looked upon as one of the best moves the Canucks made in the offseason. The man they call the “defence whisperer” has helped develop some of the best defencemen in the NHL which include Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Seth Jones, and Zach Werenski. Now he has the likes of Quinn Hughes and Jack Rathbone to mold into two-way superstars.
Not only that, but Shaw has also reigned over strong defensive teams too. Both the Blue Jackets and the St. Louis Blues were in the top ten in penalty killing and goals against and were some of the stingiest when it came to high danger chances. Over the last few seasons, the Canucks have struggled with that aspect of their game as they have been amongst the worst in the NHL when it came to high danger chances against and overall shots against.
So to answer your question, yes, I do believe the Canucks will be a better team defensively, regardless of what the blue line looks like on paper. If their team defence improves and the tandem of Demko and Halak are spared the high danger shots and chances, they should have enough offence to win their fair share of games.
Who Could the Canucks Snag on the Waiver Wire?
If the expected happens and Hamonic does not suit up this season with the Canucks, Benning will be scouring all the markets to find his replacement. They do have an in-house solution in Luke Schenn, but he has not been a full-time top-four defenceman in a long time. So expecting him to hold down a permanent spot with increased minutes could be a stretch.
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The waiver wire could be a solution, depending on the quality of talent that hits it. Right now I am looking at Cale Fleury from the Seattle Kraken and Taylor Fedun from the Pittsburgh Penguins as possible waiver pickups. Fleury and Carrick are still young at 22 and 27 years old respectively and the Canucks have a little experience with Fedun as he was in their system during the 2015-16 season. He didn’t play last season, but he has shown the ability to be a full-time NHLer in the past with the Dallas Stars. He also averaged 46 seconds per game on the penalty kill and was a bit of an offensive threat with six goals and 20 points in 81 games.
The last time Fleury saw NHL ice was back in the 2019-20 season when he played 41 games and recorded 45 blocked shots and 102 hits. Like Fedun, he also spent an average of 46 seconds per game on the penalty kill. The fact that he was a physical presence is notable though as the Canucks will lose that with Hamonic out of the lineup.
That does it for the first Canucks mailbag of the 2021-22 season. Thank you to everyone who responded to the call for questions. Look for more in the coming months, as I am going to try and make this a monthly column. The countdown is on as we are only 11 days away from the season opener against the Edmonton Oilers. All I have to say is, let’s do that hockey!
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Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.
Matthew also co-hosts The Hockey Writers Prospect Corner on YouTube.