The Vancouver Canucks lost a lot and gained very little this offseason. When the dust had settled, Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom, and Josh Leivo were members of the Calgary Flames, Tyler Toffoli was with the Montreal Canadiens and Troy Stecher was in Motor City. When you take full stock of the situation, they lost their starting goaltender, two regular defencemen, and a proven top-six forward in the storm that was free agency.
General manager Jim Benning did eventually sign Braden Holtby to fill Markstrom’s shoes and traded for Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights to replace some of the minutes Tanev logged, but questions still remain going into 2020-21.
Who Will Replace Tanev on the Penalty Kill?
Throughout most of his tenure with the Canucks Tanev was a mainstay on the team’s top penalty killing unit. He also was amongst the league leaders in blocked shots multiple times and was a stabilizing force for any defenceman he was paired with. Needless to say, he will be difficult to replace.
Schmidt will definitely take some of those tough minutes, as he averaged almost two minutes of shorthanded time with the Golden Knights last season. He also has eclipsed the 100-mark in blocked shots three times in the past five campaigns. His Corsi-for percentage (CF%) numbers are pretty special too, never dropping below 50 percent in seven straight campaigns.
If he makes the team, Olli Juolevi could also take some of those minutes. He was the Utica Comets’ top penalty killer in 2019-20 and logged most of his blocked shots while shorthanded. His hockey IQ and stickwork could be perfect for the second penalty killing unit with Tyler Myers or Jordie Benn.
Can Virtanen Play in the Top-Six on a Regular Basis?
Jake Virtanen has only ever seen spot duty in the top-six since he became a full-time member of the Canucks. He had a career-high 18 goals and 36 points last season, which was a positive development, but then regressed in the playoffs where he should have been at his best. So, the question marks are understandably surrounding him going into 2020-21. On the plus side, it appears that he’s taking this offseason seriously as he’s been working out with Myers every morning in Kelowna.
If Virtanen can finally realize his mouth-watering potential in 2020-21, the Canucks will not have any problems in their top-six. He worked well on the top line with Elias Pettersson and JT Miller in the playoffs, so maybe a full season there will jump him into high gear.
When you look at the advanced stats, it shows that he actually made Pettersson better when he was on his line. According to a recent article by Chris Faber of Canucks Army, his expected goals for percentage (xGF%) jumped from 50.93 to 52.64 when Virtanen was lined up next to him. So maybe he can handle a regular shift in the top-six and be a productive part of it. We will just have to wait and see if he’s up to the challenge.
If Virtanen cannot get it done, Nils Hoglander, Jayce Hawryluk, and later on in the season Vasili Podkolzin, could be next in line to take a stab at replacing Toffoli’s spot in the top-six.
Will Green Shake Up His Bottom-Six?
One of the Canucks’ problems in the playoffs was the lack of production from their bottom-six. Adam Gaudette was virtually non-existent in most of the games he played, mostly because he wasn’t given proper wingers to work with. If he has to play with Antoine Roussel and Brandon Sutter again this season, I don’t foresee the Canucks going very far again. He did score 12 goals and 33 points, but I think he could be one of the breakout players of the year if better linemates are given to him.
The Canucks need a top-nine, not a top-six. For them to compete in the regular season and the playoffs, they need consistent scoring from at least three lines. If head coach Travis Green sticks to his guns and plays Sutter and Roussel on the third unit, they will continue to struggle to generate offence from the bottom of their lineup. He needs to shake it up with some youth and skill.
Can the Canucks Tighten Up Their Defence?
With a new goaltending tandem in Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby, the Canucks are venturing into unknown territory. Markstrom bailed them out so much last season that he was named their MVP by many fans and pundits alike. If they hope to succeed in 2020-21, that can’t happen again.
Holtby struggled with the Washington Capitals in his final go-around and they had a relatively solid defensive structure finishing with a 51.6 CF% compared to the Canucks’ 48.43 CF%. He did not have to stand on his head too much while Markstrom had to seemingly do it on a nightly basis.
Holtby did face more high danger chances than Markstrom, but his save percentage (HDSV%) was much lower as he finished with a .786 HDSV% compared to Markstrom’s .836 HDSV%. If the Canucks can’t tighten up their defence, they probably won’t repeat as playoff contenders.
Demko was excellent in the playoffs with that same leaky defence, but that was over a short period of four games. His insane 0.64 goals against average (GAA) and .985 save percentage (SV%) is not sustainable over an entire season, I can tell you that with 100 percent certainty. So it would be in the Canucks’ best interest to make their tandem’s job easier by limiting the scoring chances they have to face every game.
Lots of Uncertainty Going Into 2020-21
The Canucks have an elite core of young players in Demko, Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser as well as a solid group of veterans in JT Miller, Tanner Pearson, Alex Edler, and now Schmidt and Holtby. They could get to the playoffs with all of them playing at their best, but in order to make it an easier road, they need everyone pulling on the rope.
Gaudette and Virtanen have to take another step in their development and at the very least have a repeat performance from 2019-20, and newcomers like Juolevi and Hawryluk need to be difference makers as they attempt to fill the roles of Stecher and Leivo. Tyler Motte has to continue to be the ultimate utility man on the fourth line and Roussel needs to bounce back and become the agitator we all know and love.
Basically, everyone has to step up their games in 2020-21, especially if the Canucks are playing in an all-Canadian division. Some surprises like Hoglander, Sven Baertschi, and Jack Rathbone coming to camp with chips on their shoulder would also be a welcome sight as well. All of these questions may take almost an entire season to answer, but for the team to take the next step, they all have to be answered sooner rather than later.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, editor, part-time journalist, 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.