In a few short weeks, the Vancouver Canucks have transformed into a tougher, more balanced team both up front and on the backend. Judging by the recent acquisitions made by general manager Jim Benning, this has been the plan from the beginning of the offseason.
The question of team toughness has always been a point of contention. Look no further than the Mark Matheson MMA move on uber-rookie Elias Pettersson. The lack of response from the team following the hit and subsequent injury reignited visions of Daniel Sedin being punched in the face by Brad Marchand. The Canucks needed to address this weakness and I believe they have done just that. Let’s look at three reasons why they will be tougher to play against in 2019-20.
Grit, Thy Name is Jordie Benn
We can talk all day about Tyler Myers and his 6-foot-8 frame being added to the defense core but the truth is, despite his size, he is not the most physical defenseman. The player that I think most changes the grit factor on the backend is the man who hails from Victoria, British Columbia, defenseman Jordie Benn. Benn is known for being a gritty player, not only with his physical play but also his penchant to block shots. In 2018-19, he not only dished out 124 hits but he also sacrificed his body to the vulcanized rubber 128 times. That, my friends, is the definition of grit.
This past season was not an aberration either. Since he broke into the National Hockey League with the Dallas Stars in the 2011-12 season, he has put together six seasons with over 100 blocked shots. That is a lot of pucks not getting to the goaltender.
However, toughness doesn’t only include the willingness to sacrifice the body. It is also making it difficult for opponents to navigate the defensive zone. Overall, Benn has been an analytics dream. Over his eight-year NHL career, he has averaged a 51 Corsi for percentage (CF%). With him on the ice, his team has the puck more often than not which is very good for a defenseman. The toughness of the blue line has increased with the addition of Benn.
The Micheal Ferland Effect
Apart from Antoine Roussel, the Canucks have lacked a physical deterrent in their top six. Enter Micheal Ferland. Signed to a four-year contract on July 9, he will add a certain toughness and scoring ability not seen in Vancouver since Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler.
We don’t know where he will ultimately play, but I think he would be best utilized on the top line with Pettersson and Brock Boeser. There were too many times last season when a physical response was needed and there was none to be found. Stars like Pettersson need to know that the team has his back when someone like the Panthers’ Mike Matheson takes issue with his immense skill. Known for being a physical and nasty piece of business, Ferland will make opponents think twice before taking liberties with two of the best players on the roster.
Ferland makes his presence known in other ways as well, which makes him more valuable. Over the past three seasons, he has posted 106 points (53 goals, 53 assists) and is no stranger to the offensive zone. This will make it even tougher for opponents to focus on Pettersson and Boeser, and giving them just a little more room could be lethal.
Additionally, Ferland could be a mentor to fellow winger Jake Virtanen, who plays a similar game albeit without the consistency. If he is able to strike a chord with him, the Canucks will be better off for it. Virtanen in the bottom six playing his style would add an additional threat to the roster. In a perfect world, the Canucks would have three lines that can consistently score and adjust to different styles of hockey. Ferland could be the most important signing Benning makes in his tenure as a GM.
Size Matters: Tyler Myers and JT Miller
After watching the Boston Bruins and the St Louis Blues battle it out in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, it became clear that size still matters in the NHL. Despite the transition to skill and speed, there is still a need for size. With the additions of Myers and JT Miller, the Canucks will be able to better compete with the likes of the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights. Both have bigger bodies and play a more physical brand of hockey, which has confounded the Canucks in recent years.
Over the past two seasons, the Canucks have won a total of three games against those two division rivals. Divisional games are important and the team has not won enough in the past few seasons. In order to have a chance at the playoffs, they need to find a way to beat these teams more consistently. Having Myers and Miller patrolling the ice will help them do that.
Benning has made it his mission to help the Canucks be a playoff team in 2019-20. The signings and trades he has made will increase the likelihood of it happening. This much is clear, they will be a tougher team to play against. That is something I haven’t been able to say for a long time. What’s more, smaller, skilled players like Pettersson and Quinn Hughes will have a lot more room on the ice because of it.