The 2020-21 season was a complete disaster for the Vancouver Canucks as the team finished last in the North Division with a 23-29-4 record. What made matters worse was the increased expectations after the team’s successful 2019-20 season. Through 69 games, the club posted a 36-27-6 record and made the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season. They beat the Minnesota Wild in the play-in round and then beat the St. Louis Blues in six games to advance to the Western Conference Semi-Finals. The Canucks forced a Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights after being down 3-1 series.
With the 2020-21 season in the books, the Canucks have started to move forward. General manager Jim Benning has added multiple pieces to improve the team and potentially get the club back to where it was two seasons ago. The GM has made improvements to the club’s top-six, forward depth and blue line. Whether those changes make the team better than it was during the 2019-20 season is to be seen.
The two teams shared similar core forwards in Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, along with supporting players in Tanner Pearson, Tyler Motte, Brandon Sutter and Zack MacEwen. Pettersson, Miller, Horvat, Motte, Sutter and MacEwen will likely resume a similar role from the 2019-20 season, while Boeser and Pearson will see a change.
Boeser was, without a doubt, the best player on the roster for Vancouver last season. While most of the team regressed, Boeser had a bounce-back season for the club. In 2019-20, he scored 16 goals and posted 46 points in 57 games. In 2020-21, he led the team in goals with 23 and points with 49 in 56 games. In 2019-20, he spent some time bouncing between the first and second lines, but after his impressive 2020-21 season, he should be a lock to stay on the first line for the majority of next season.
As for Pearson, during the 2019-20 season, he played on Horvat’s left wing. However, the Canucks have added a few middle-six forwards, which will likely lead to Pearson playing on the third line next season.
The player from the 2019-20 season roster who stands out the most is Tyler Toffoli. Acquired a week prior to the 2019-20 trade deadline, Toffoli had a short but impressive run with the Canucks. He played 10 games in the regular season scoring six goals and 10 points and then added two goals and four points in seven playoff games while playing through an injury in the postseason. He left the Canucks in the offseason and joined the Montreal Canadiens, and scored the seventh-most goals in the league with 28 in the 2020-21 season.
The Canucks also no longer have Adam Gaudette, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle and Jake Virtanen. Adam Gaudette was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline for Matthew Highmore. Meanwhile, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle were traded for Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland. All four played in the club’s bottom-six lines, struggling to provide the team with depth scoring. However, Roussel, Beagle and Eriksson, were a part of the team’s penalty kill, but their cap hits were too high for players who were unable to put the puck in the back of the net. Jake Virtanen, fifth on the team in goals with 18 two seasons ago, was bought out by the club in July. Near the end of the 2020-21 season, the Canucks placed Virtanen on leave following allegations of sexual misconduct. His time with the club was filled with inconsistency issues and controversy.
The players the Canucks have added heading into next season, since the 2019-20 season, include Garland, Highmore, Nils Hoglander and Jason Dickinson. Additionally, the team’s 2019 first-round pick Vasili Podkolzin will also join the roster next season.
Garland will likely play with Horvat to start the season along with Hoglander, who had a tremendous rookie season last year. Additionally, Podkolzin also has the potential to play on Horvat’s right side along with Garland. Regardless of which wingers play with the captain, the Canucks will have their best second line in years. Dickinson seems like a great improvement to the team’s previous third-line centre in Gaudette. Meanwhile, Highmore will likely slide in as a fourth-line winger, switching with MacEwen.
Although the Canucks have lost Toffoli, they’ve improved their forward group. Not only will they have quality two-way forwards in the top-six, but their third and fourth lines will also be able to chip in offensively as well.
On defence, the blueline has almost entirely changed for the Canucks, with Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers as the only remaining players from the 2019-20 season. Hughes will likely resume his role as the top offensive defenceman on the club, quarterbacking the first power-play unit. Meanwhile, Myers, who played on the third d-pairing in 2019-20, will line up alongside either Ekman-Larsson or rookie Jack Rathbone.
Aside from Hughes and Myers, the 2019-20 Canucks’ blueline included Chris Tanev, Alex Edler, Troy Stecher, Oscar Fantanberg and Jordie Benn. Tanev was a reliable shutdown defenceman who was the perfect d-partner for Hughes in his rookie season. The Canucks lost him to their division rival Calgary Flames in the 2020 offseason.
Edler is considered by many the greatest defenceman in franchise history, and he thrived in a second pairing role in the 2019-20 season. He played his 15h and final season with the club in 2020-21, as he signed with the Los Angeles Kings this offseason. His d-partner, Stecher, also left the team in the 2020 offseason to join the Detroit Red Wings. Last season, the Canucks missed both Tanev and Stecher as the right side of their defence suffered without both of them.
Benn and Fantanberg were both used as depth defencemen for the club but weren’t very impressive. The Canucks didn’t re-sign Fantanberg after the 2019-20 season, and he joined the KHL’s, St. Petersburg SKA, while Benn was with the team last season but was traded to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline last season.
The Canucks struggled to replace Stecher and Tanev last season, but Benning improved the team’s blueline this offseason. The addition of Ekman-Larsson has been controversial among Canucks fans, but he will likely be a positive addition to the d-core. He is a replacement and upgrade of his fellow countrymen, Edler. The Canucks also have an upgrade on the left side of their third defence pairing with Rathbone. The rookie defenceman joined the club late last season, as he played eight games, scoring his first NHL goal and posting three points. Rathbone is by far a better third-line defenceman than Fantanberg was and could be a great partner for Myers.
On the right side, the organization added a few shut-down right-handed defencemen. Travis Hamonic played with the Canucks last season, along with Hughes, and the two will likely continue their partnership to start next season. The club also added Tucker Poolman, who has been a controversial addition. Poolman has only played 120 games over his three-year NHL career at the age of 28, and the Canucks locked him up for four years at an average annual value of $2.5 million. He will likely play with Ekman-Larsson when he is in the lineup.
The team also brought back Luke Schenn, who had a short stint with the club at the end of the 2018-19 season before winning two Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Schenn will likely be a depth defenceman along with Olli Juolevi to start the season. Juolevi played 23 games last season before being kept out of the lineup due to cap issues but impressed in the games he played. He will likely battle with Rathbone for a spot on the third pairing.
The Canucks will see somewhat of a change in net this upcoming season. The 2019-20 season saw Jacob Markstrom starting a majority of the team’s games, while Thatcher Demko was his backup. Markstrom signed with the Flames after the season, leaving Demko to share the crease with newly signed Braden Holtby. Holtby’s time with the club was only for a season, as he has been bought out.
Markstrom was the team’s MVP in the 2019-20 season, as he started in 43 of the team’s 69 games. He posted a 23-16-4 record, with a 2.75 goals-against average (GAA) and a .918 save percentage (SV%). He carried most of the workload in net and was relied on heavily to help the Canucks win games that season. Demko was the backup goalie but only started in 25 games, posting a 13-10-2 record, a .905 SV% and a 3.06 GAA. Markstrom suffered an injury late in the season, which led to Demko starting in a string of games. The young goalie faced a similar scenario in the playoffs when the Swedish vet went down in the second-round series against the Golden Knights. As the Canucks were down 3-1 series, he won two games and kept Game 7 close. Additionally, he only allowed two goals while making 128 saves in the three games he started.
Demko’s impressive three games in the playoffs gave the Canucks some confidence when they lost Markstrom in free agency in the 2020 offseason. In turn, they signed Holtby to split starts in net. Demko struggled earlier in the season but had an impressive month of March. He posted a 16-18-1 record, with a .915 SV% and a 2.85 GAA, but in March, he posted an 8-3-0 record with a .937 SV% and a 2.15 GAA. He may have a slow start next season, but as the season goes on he has shown he can find his way.
Backing him up will be 15-year veteran Jaroslav Halak, who signed a one-year deal with the club. He spent the past three seasons splitting starts with Tuukka Rask in Boston. He will be able to start over a string of games if Demko needs a break at different points in the season.
Canucks 2020-21 Season Could Be Best in Years
Since the 2014-15 season, the Canucks struggled to make the playoffs. The 2019-20 season marked the first time the club reached the post-season after being in the draft lottery for four years. The upgrades the team has made to its roster this offseason could result in the franchise icing one of their best rosters in years.
The top-six has improved despite losing Toffoli, but the bottom-six is where the team will see the most improvement. Moving overpaid players in Eriksson, Beagle and Roussell and replacing them with Dickinson, Pearson and either Podkolzin or Hoglander. Motte, Sutter and MacEwen or Highmore add a promising fourth line to the team.
On defence, the Canucks have improved offensively, especially if Ekman-Larsson proves he can play as well as he once did. Additionally, they improve on the left side of the third pairing, replacing Fantenberg and Benn with Rathbone and Juolevi. The biggest question marks on defence are the team’s right-handed defencemen. Tanev and Stetcher were reliable options for the Canucks and the team found it hard to replace them last season. The club hopes Hamonic, Poolman and Schenn will be able to replace them next season.
Lastly, the team’s goaltending 2019-20 was the reason they had a good season. Markstrom was the team’s MVP, and the Canucks struggled to replace him early in the 2020-21 season. However, Demko did show signs of being a starter in the month of March, and if he can play at that level for most of next season, the team will be in good hands. Additionally, Halak will be able to help support the young goalie whenever he struggles.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.