With the free agency period starting to settle down, and restricted free agents (RFAs) slowly getting locked up to new deals, the anticipation for both the players and fans for the start of the 2021-22 season is growing. There will be players returning to their old teams, and others who will don the jersey of a new one. Some coming back from injury, while some are looking for redemption.
This past season for the Vancouver Canucks was in their minds a step back, especially after making it to the second round of the playoffs a year prior. Now there are still a couple of questions left to be answered, but fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about this season.
Vancouver has had not just one of the busiest offseason of any team around the league, but also one of the most newsworthy. Its blockbuster trade with the Arizona Coyotes got the ball rolling, and since then the team has made a handful of moves, and signings, that will certainly change the outlook of the organization. That, combined with the young players and the growth of others, should lead fans to expect a lot of positives this coming season.
The New Additions
The Canucks turned over nearly a third of its roster this offseason, and whenever that happens there is always a ton of excitement to get to see the new guys skate for the first time. From the crease out, there is at least one new player at each position, all with their own potential upside to helping this team get back to the postseason.
In goal, Thatcher Demko remains the starting goaltender, but the backup situation looks slightly different. The Canucks bought out Braden Holtby and replaced him with former Boston Bruins netminder Jaroslav Halak. Over his last three seasons, Halak has not only seen steady work, but his numbers look good in the process as well. He’s started in 90 games over that stretch, with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.43, and a combined save percentage (SV%) of .916. The 36-year-old will provide a much-needed steadiness in the crease, and has shown to play well if injuries come into play.
On the back end, there were a few players shipped out, while others back via trade and free agency. The two big notable names gone are long-time Canuck Alexander Edler and Nate Schmidt. Replacing them will be Oliver Ekman-Larsson, along with a combination of Tucker Poolman, Luke Schenn, and youngster Jack Rathbone. Ekman-Larsson, who was one of the two big players acquired in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes, that sent three expiring contracts, a first-round, second-round and a seventh-round selection in return.
Up front, the Canucks will go into the season healthy and much deeper. It’s not necessarily the volume of players coming in, rather the impact they will have. First, they added Jason Dickinson, who was acquired from the Dallas Stars in exchange for a third-round pick. He will be slotted into the third-line center role, something the Canucks desperately needed this past year. Dickinson comes with having 15 points in 51 games this past year while playing 16:12 time on ice (TOI) per game.
The other big piece is the other part of the Ekman-Larsson trade is Conor Garland. He will be an immediate impact to Vancouver’s top-six after scoring 22 goals in the 2019-20 season, along with 39 points across 49 games last year. Whether he’s slotted on the top line with Elias Pettersson, or on the second unit with Bo Horvat, Garland probably has the most hype of any other player mentioned going into this season.
Young Players Development
Last season, the injury bug (not to mention the COVID-19 wave) hit the Canucks hard. While it was a detriment to the season, it allowed some of the younger players to step into larger roles than expected and showcase what they had to offer. The first and most notable is 20-year old Nils Hoglander, who made a major impact in his rookie year. He capped off last year scoring 13 goals and 14 assists while averaging 15:27 TOI per game. His role should only expand and should see san expanded role on the powerplay, where he was limited to just one power-play goal.
Another youngster who had a brief but promising stint this past season was defenseman Jack Rathbone. He has proven everywhere, producing nearly a point-per-game at the NCAA level with Harvard University with 53 points in 61 games. Despite the defense being a bit clogged with the acquisitions of Schenn and Poolman, along with the re-signings of Travis Hamonic and Olli Juolevi, Rathbone should still have every opportunity to fight for a spot on the opening night roster.
Another Step Forward For Demko
Back in the offseason, Vancouver locked up Demko to a five-year, $25 million extension. It was the kind of move that the Canucks made in anticipation of him growing and eventually outplaying said contract as time goes on. We always look back to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs when Demko burst onto the scene versus the Vegas Golden Knights. In four games, he put up a ridiculous 0.64 GAA and a whopping .985 SV%.
No, these are not sustainable numbers for anybody over the course of an 82-game season, but we’ve seen improvements steadily throughout his early career. He started 35 games while posting a 2.85 GAA and .915 SV%, all career highs. At just 25 years of age, he’s entering the prime of his career at the start of his five-year contract. Along with a reliable number two option behind him in Halak, Demko should have every opportunity to take another step forward.
Star Players Takeover
With the core (almost) intact for the foreseeable future in Vancouver, fans are waiting in anticipation for them to truly take the team over and take the team to the next level. They’ve all had success at some point, but not to the level to put Vancouver in the upper tier of teams across the league.
Pettersson and Hughes (who are still awaiting new deals) have each proven at a young age their capabilities as players. Pettersson is a Calder Trophy winner and put up 66 points in consecutive seasons to start his career. Hughes has yet to score fewer than 41 points in each of his first two seasons. Then there are the players who carried the offense when Pettersson got hurt. Brock Boeser (49 points), J.T. Miller (46 points), and Horvat (39 points) were the top-three point-getters at the forward position last season. Even the year prior, they were all right at the top in point production, with Miller leading the way with 72 points. The issue hasn’t been the star players, it was injuries and the lack of secondary scoring that has killed them in years prior.
Factor in a fully healthy lineup, depth at all three position groups, and the further development of the younger players, there are a few reasons to be excited heading into the 2021-22 season.
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.