The Vancouver Canucks will look a little different on the blue line and in net next season. The organization lost two top-four defencemen through free agency, as Chris Tanev signed a four year deal with the Calgary Flames and Troy Stecher signed a two year deal with the Detroit Red Wings.
Both players played on the right side, meaning the Canucks will have to fill in both of those spots next season. Tanev spent most of last season playing alongside rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes on the Canucks’ top pairing, while Stecher played with Alex Edler. General manager Jim Benning traded a 2022 third-round pick for Nate Schmidt to replace one of the two defenders, which means the club will look towards their defensive prospects to fill in the remaining spot on the back end.
In net, the Canucks lost their MVP in Jacob Markstrom, who signed a six-year deal with the Flames. To replace him, Benning added former Vezina winner Braden Holtby. The Canucks will not enter next season with the same situation in net as last season, and Thatcher Demko should take on a more important role.
First Pair: Quinn Hughes – Tyler Myers
Hughes will start next season with a new defense partner due to the departure of Tanev. The opening night of next season may be a perfect time to experiment with Hughes-Tyler Myers as a pair. Myers spent last season on the third pairing with Oscar Fantenberg, who has signed with the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg. He struggled to post points as he finished with 21 points in 68 games while playing with Fantenberg.
Myers, who is close to a foot taller than Hughes, plays a very similar style to the 21-year-old. The two are offensive-minded, skate well and rely on their stick to make defensive plays (from ‘Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers have more similarities than differences,’ Vancouver Courier, 12/09/2019). Last season, through five games, the pair outscored the opposition 7-1 and out-shot them 51-30 while playing together.
“I think for us, we’re moving our feet together, we’re staying close to each other, we’re supporting each other really well, and it’s making it easy for us to control the puck. With the way Huggy skates, the way he handles the puck and spins off guys creates a lot of space for other guys on the team.”Myer said about playing with Hughes.
Hughes and Myers could prove to be a great top pairing for the Canucks come next season. It would help raise Myers’ play as the defenceman signed a five-year deal at $6 million per before last season, but he struggled to produce offensively.
Second Pair: Alex Edler – Nate Schmidt
With Edler losing a step at 34 years old, pairing him with Schmidt, a mobile defender, makes the most sense. Schmidt is an upgrade on Stecher, who played with Edler last season, as he is a high-end, play-driving top pair defenceman. Since joining the Vegas Golden Knights three seasons ago, he was in the top 60 for shot attempt differential (Corsi for percentage/CF%), unblocked shot attempt differential (Fenwick for percentage/FF%), and expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) among defencemen.
With Hughes on the top pair and Schmidt on the second, the Canucks will have two D-pairings featuring a top-end defenceman who can drive the play. Last season, Hughes was the only player who could do so, which hurt the club. As for Edler, pairing him with Schmidt keeps him in the top-four, instead of having him drop to the bottom pair. Edler’s decline was evident once the calendar flipped to 2020, which saw his CF% plummet as the season went on (from ‘Canucks offseason review: 10 thoughts on Vancouver’s transformation,’ The Athletic, 10/20/2020). The 34-year old has one season left on his two-year, $12 million contract.
Third Pair: Olli Juolevi – Jordie Benn
With Fantenberg headed to the KHL, Olli Juolevi will slot in on the Canucks’ third defence pairing alongside B.C. native Jordie Benn. Earlier in the offseason, Benning stated he believes Juolevi is ready to play in the NHL, which is good news for the defenceman, the team and the fanbase.
The Canucks drafted the Finnish defenceman in 2016 with the fifth overall pick, but he has only played one game with the team so far. Pairing him with a veteran like Benn to start the season is likely since the Canucks don’t have many other options on the right side other than prospects.
Young players such as Jack Rathbone, who signed a three-year deal with the club, could be an option next season. Rathbone is projected to be a top-four defenceman for the Canucks behind Hughes in the future. The team also has Brogan Rafferty, who led all Utica Comets’ defenders in points last season and Jalen Chatfield on the right side. There is no doubt that they will all get a good look at training camp since the organization lacks depth on defence.
Goalies: Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby
With Markstrom in Calgary, head coach Travis Green will have to adjust his team’s approach in net. Demko and Holtby will split starts next season per Benning. The two will have to replace an MVP season from Markstrom, which will be very tough to do. He started in 43 of the 69 games the Canucks played last season and finished fourth in Vezina voting after posting a 23-16-4 record, .918 save percentage and 2.75 goals-against average.
As for Demko, he has only played 37 games so far in his career, 27 of which came last season. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, he played three games, which included a 48-save shutout win in Game 6 against the Golden Knights. The Canucks have a good chance of repeating their success from last season if the 24-year-old can play at the same level he did in his three playoff starts. Holtby had his worst season based on his save percentage (.897 SV%) in 2019-20, which resulted in the Canucks signing him at an affordable price. The 10-year veteran is expected to provide Demko with some competition and leadership as the young goalie continues to develop.
Canucks Have a New Look After Free Agency
The Canucks lost two key players on defence and their MVP through free agency but signed Holtby and traded for Schmidt. Holtby may not be able to replace Markstrom but will be good enough to split starts with Demko next season. The Canucks added mobility on the backend but lost a reliable defensive defenceman in Tanev and a hometown player in Stecher. The lack of depth on the blue line will lead to younger players getting their opportunity to play with the main roster and potentially provide the organization with some help.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.