With the preseason underway and as rosters are being finalized, anticipation is growing for the start of the 2021-22 NHL regular season. With fans returning and teams playing outside their division, there is a buzz in the air. With the Stanley Cup on everyone’s mind, getting to the postseason is step number one, and for the Vancouver Canucks, the path has never been clearer.
There are plenty of factors that will determine if Vancouver is successful this season. Whether it’s returning to the Pacific Division or their new acquisitions or the growth of their young players, this season will be an opportunity for the Canucks to take advantage of and return to the postseason after missing it last season.
The Pacific Division
Last season, the Canacks only faced Canadian teams in the Scotiabank North Division during the regular season. The top four teams made it to the postseason, while the other three sat at home. Despite the better odds of a limited division, a return to the Pacific Division will give Vancouver a much-improved chance of making the playoffs.
Yes, there will be stiff competition, like the Vegas Golden Knights and the Edmonton Oilers (again), but there are other teams that the Canucks can take advantage of. The Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks didn’t qualify for the postseason in 2020-21, and while the Kings made a couple of moves to improve their roster, the Ducks and Sharks won’t strike a lot of fear into their opponents. All three teams ranked either 25th or worse in goal scoring, and outside of the Kings, who added players like Viktor Arvidsson and Phillip Danault, the other two franchises didn’t bring in enough talent to change that narrative.
The Seattle Kraken will also join the Pacific this season. They are constructed from the net out, and while defensively, they have a good group with players like Adam Larsson and Mark Giordano, they could have similar problems to the Kings and Sharks. Despite their talented players like Jarred McCann, Yanni Gourde, Jayden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle, unless they go on a magical run like the Golden Knights in their inaugural season, they should experience some growing pains that the Canucks can take advantage of.
Canucks’ New Acquisitions
Not only did general manager Jim Benning free up cap space by getting rid of a few tough contracts, but he turned over two-thirds of the roster this offseason. The new acquisitions should have a major positive impact this season.
Upfront, Vancouver’s roster is significantly deeper and much more balanced than it was last season. They acquired Conor Garland in the blockbuster trade with the Arizona Coyotes and signed him immediately to a five-year extension with an average annual value (AAV) of $4.95 million. Garland has already made an impact in the preseason and will greatly benefit the top-six as a potential 20-30-goal scorer. Jason Dickinson was also brought in via trade from the Dallas Stars in exchange for a third-round pick. He fills a big need as the team’s de-facto third-line center. He has strong a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 55.3% and chipped in with 15 points across 51 games last season.
The Canucks’ defence will look very different this season. There are a few big names that remained with the club, including Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers. However, out are longtime Canucks Alexander Edler and Nate Schmidt, with Travis Hamonic’s status up in the air. Coming in to replace them are Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tucker Poolman and Luke Schenn.
Ekman-Larsson was the big question mark in that trade, and with six years left on a deal that will pay him $7.26 million, the hope is that a change of scenery and a new defensive partner might be exactly what he needs. In their preseason game against the Calgary Flames on Monday night, Ekman-Larsson registered two points and earned praise from head coach Travis Green. “I really thought he took charge tonight, played with a lot of energy, had a lot of bite in his game, too, which you always like,” he said.
Remember, Ekman-Larsson is just three years removed from 42 and 43-point seasons. Even if he isn’t the same player he once was, getting off to a strong start would be a big boost for him and the organization.
Poolman and Schenn are both solid defenders who fill out the defensive group. The right side alone will feature Myers, Poolman, Schenn, and rookie Jack Rathbone. With Hamonic’s playing status still unknown, both players might have a larger role than they thought coming in, while Rathbone also has an increased shot at making the roster (we’ll get to him in a bit). Poolman mustered just one point last season, but he did record 16 the season before with the Winnipeg Jets and averaged a career-high 18:18 of ice time (TOI) per game.
Canucks Primed to Take a Leap Forward
Due to injuries and COVID-19, many players were given larger roles and opportunities last season. Mix in some auditions near the end of the season, and some players are primed to take a leap forward this season, both offensively and defensively.
Nils Hoglander, for example, took advantage of his opportunity when called upon. With the injury to Elias Pettersson and a rocky start for Tanner Pearson, Hoglander stepped in and scored 27 points, playing all 56 games. At just 20 years old, he could benefit from the surrounding talent and having a full season under his belt. If he takes that leap forward, Vancouver’s playoffs odds will increase this season.
Rathbone could also really come into his own in 2021-22. He played eight games down the stretch last season, and while he only averaged 15:30 TOI, he chipped in with three points and showed his potential. In his collegiate days from 2018-2020, Rathbone scored 53 points in 61 games at Harvard University and followed that up by producing nine points in eight games for the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League. If he plays in a protected role behind Myers and Poolman (with Hamonic opting out) on the third pairing, he could take another step toward becoming a regular NHLer, which would give the organization another young, stud offensive defenseman in the system.
Not everything works out the way it’s supposed to, and nothing is guaranteed in the NHL, but with all of these factors playing in Vancouver’s favour heading into the 2021-22 campaign, a postseason berth looks very promising for this re-vamped squad.
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.