Once again, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning has been busy making changes and tweaks to his roster this offseason. Barring another trade or free agent signing, there will be at least six new names on the roster when the puck drops against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 13. Not to mention a plethora of new faces playing in Abbotsford when their season starts a few days later on the 16th.
Heading into the 2021-22 campaign expectations will be high for all of them as the Canucks continue their pursuit of becoming a perennial playoff team and Stanley Cup contender. So, as we wait with anticipation for not only the new season but the minute stars Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson sign on the dotted line, let’s put our prognosticator’s hat on and make some predictions for some of the new kids on the block.
After being shut out last offseason in his pursuit of Oliver Ekman Larsson, Benning got his man this time when he traded three bad contracts and a first-round pick (Dylan Guenther) to the Arizona Coyotes for the smooth-skating Swede and 25-year-old Conor Garland. The price was high to be sure, but you have to give something to get something and he paid dearly to get the services of the man they call “OEL”.
Now holding the highest cap hit on the team at $7.26 million in average annual value (AAV), that is until Hughes’ and Pettersson’s contracts come in, he will be expected to play to his salary almost immediately. He is projected to be the Canucks’ number one defenceman ahead of Hughes and will likely be a minute muncher in all situations. Averaging 23:26 a game over his 11-year career with the Coyotes, he’s no stranger to being “the guy” on the blue line. Look for him to continue that role in Vancouver under head coach Travis Green.
So, what should we expect production-wise from the Swede looking to fill Alex Edler’s massive shadow in the dressing room? Will he bounce back to the elite defenceman we saw a few seasons ago when he was putting up multiple 40-point campaigns, or will he just continue to regress into mediocrity?
I truly believe it’s the former, not the latter as he seems to be genuinely excited to start his career in Vancouver. He’s only 30-years-old, and his mobility has not left him yet, which is one of his greatest attributes. He is also only a year removed from a nine-season run that saw him finish with 30 or more points.
Ekman Larsson is still a top-pairing defenceman capable of changing the tide with his skating and transition game. With the likes of Pettersson, Garland, J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, Nils Hoglander, and Bo Horvat to pass to, his assist totals should be high. He hasn’t always been a rock defensively, but with the defenceman whisperer by his side in Brad Shaw, I expect that to change rather quickly.
Prediction: 10 goals and 40 points with a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of over 55
From one former Coyote to another. The appetizer to the Ekman-Larsson meal, Garland might turn out to be tastier than the main course when all is said and done. Signed to a long-term deal valued at $4.95 million AAV shortly after the trade, he was obviously acquired to join the core led by Pettersson, Horvat, Boeser, and Hughes. Locked up through his prime years, he should be a fixture in the top six for most of his time with the Canucks.
Fresh off a season that, if completed normally, would have seen him score 20 goals for the second straight time in his career, Garland should be ready to take on a bigger role offensively. At the World Championship with Team USA, he was also a monster, finishing with six goals and 13 points in 10 games. Needless to say, this is a player ready to break out in a big way.
Most likely lining up with Horvat and Hoglander to start, Garland should hit 20 goals and maybe even 60 points especially if Hoglander takes the next step in his development too. He should be a fun player to watch with his combination of speed, tenacity, and quick hands down low and in front of the net. He also has a heck of a shot and seems to know where to go to score goals. Sounds a lot like Tyler Toffoli, right?
Prediction: 20 goals and 60 points playing in the top six and on the power play
Replacing Brandon Sutter this season as the third line center will be Jason Dickinson, formally of the Guelph Storm and Dallas Stars. Once a prolific scorer in junior, he has developed into a very solid match-up center in the NHL. Sporting a 92 defense rating according to Andy & Rono’s model that takes into account play driving, denials, recoveries, and role difficulty, he was one of the best defensive centers in the league last season. His offence leaves a lot to be desired most of the time, but that’s not really his game. That doesn’t mean he can’t score the odd goal, but his bread and butter are denying chances and locking it down defensively.
The only thing missing from Dickinson’s repertoire is faceoffs as he has averaged only a 44.3 success rate over his entire six-year career. If he had that, the Canucks would have the second coming of Manny Malhotra. Maybe Horvat can give him some pointers from the master himself?
As for expectations, Dickinson will not be scoring a lot of goals in a Canucks uniform. If you are thinking he’s going to put up 20 or more goals, prepare to be disappointed. Having said that, I do see him hitting career highs since he could be playing with a combination of Garland, Hoglander, Vasily Podkolzin, or Tanner Pearson. Seeing that he was a former 20-goal scorer in the American Hockey League (AHL) and Ontario Hockey League (OHL), he might just surprise everyone and pot 15 goals.
Prediction: 15 goals along with strong underlying defensive numbers
Signed to help replace the presence of Chris Tanev on the blue line (more on that in a future article), Tucker Poolman will attempt to be one of the solutions and not part of the problem that has been the Canucks defence over the past couple of seasons. Plagued by high danger chances, turnovers, and all-around bad defensive structure, the team has needed a shakeup in that department for a while now.
It’s been well-documented throughout the Twitterverse that this signing was not received well by the faithful. I may be in the minority, but I don’t think the AAV and term are bad at all. When you look at comparables around the league, they are all getting paid around the $2.5 million AAV mark, so I don’t know what everyone was expecting here.
Poolman played most of the 2020-21 season alongside Winnipeg Jets’ top defenceman Josh Morrissey. When you look at the underlying numbers, Morrissey performed better defensively when he was playing with Poolman. Recording a 46.86 CF% with him and a 44.63 CF% without him isn’t huge, but when you look at the high danger goals against, Morrissey allowed seven more of those types of goals when he wasn’t paired with him. As a pairing, they only allowed seven in 485 minutes of ice time together. In 546 minutes paired with other defencemen, Morrissey and his partners allowed 16.
If paired with Ekman-Larsson, Hughes, or Jack Rathbone, Poolman should be able to support one of those offensively-minded defencemen pretty well. He probably won’t score a lot, but his defensive numbers should be strong especially after getting some tips from Shaw. The overall defensive structure of the Canucks will change for the better under Shaw too, so expect all the defencemen to get an uptick in their underlying numbers as well.
Prediction: Between 15 and 20 points and a CF% of over 50
Returning to the Canucks fresh off of back-to-back Stanley Cup wins with the Tampa Bay Lightning is Luke Schenn. After a cup of coffee that saw him play only 18 games at the end of the 2018-19 season, he will look to make the roster as a sixth or seventh defenceman in 2021-22.
After several seasons where he was a regular defenceman playing an average of 70 games and over 20 minutes a night, Schenn has settled in as a very solid depth option in the NHL. Still a very physical blueliner, he has recorded over 80 hits in each of the past three seasons, and 2,565 in his career overall. While not usually an efficient play driver, he did post a CF% of over 50 for the first time in his career when he finished with a 53 CF% last season.
When the inevitable injury bug strikes the Canucks’ defence, Schenn is well-equipped to step in. He had tremendous chemistry with Hughes when he was here last and he is a low-maintenance right-side defenceman who can kill penalties. Basically, he’s the perfect seventh defenceman. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up playing over 40 games, since that seems to be the average for the seventh man around these parts. Look no further than Oscar Fantenberg and Alex Biega if you want some recent examples.
Prediction: 30-40 games and 80-plus hits in and out of the lineup as the Canucks’ seventh defenceman
Halak has been part of tandems with perennial all-stars Carey Price and Tuukka Rask, so he should know a thing or two about goaltending. He’s also been a pretty good one himself, sporting a career 2.48 goals-against average (GAA) and .916 save percentage (SV%) over 501 starts. He also has 281 wins and 52 shutouts. Finally, he has two Jennings Trophies to his name as well. Not to mention THW’s own Ryan Szporer named him runner-up to Ilya Sorokin as the NHL’s best backup goaltender going into the 2021-22 season.
Predicting Halak’s season might be a little tough since we don’t know how Green will deploy his goaltenders. At this point, I am predicting a 60/40 split with Demko starting at least 50 games and Halak getting the rest. Given he is a capable goaltender, I don’t think he will hesitate to use him on back-to-backs and long road trips with a lot of travel. All in all, Halak should bring some stability to the Canucks crease as prospect Mike DiPietro percolates down in Abbotsford.
Prediction: 32 starts finishing with a 2.35 GAA, .910 SV%, and three shutouts
Canucks Hope Roster Changes Bring Playoffs Back to Rogers Arena
Every season, GMs, head coaches, and fans hope that the changes to the roster help push their team to the playoffs and hopefully the Stanley Cup. Not every addition works out, but there are times when a new face is one of the reasons for a playoff berth or championship. Just look at what Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman did for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After a year removed from an unexpected trip to the second round of the playoffs, the Canucks hope that one of their new additions help them get there again. On paper, they are definitely stronger with Ekman-Larsson, Poolman, Garland, Dickinson, and Halak. Now it’s up to them to meet those expectations on the ice and hopefully bring the playoffs back to Rogers Arena for the first time since Apr. 23, 2015.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout 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.