While the 2018-19 edition of the Vancouver Canucks isn’t expected to be very good, training camp should be.
With players reporting to camp on Thursday and on-ice sessions beginning on Friday, let’s dive into the biggest questions surrounding the Canucks before they begin the preseason on Tuesday.
1. Who’s going to be the captain?
The Canucks will enter training camp without a captain for the first time in eight years.
Bo Horvat is the heir apparent, but Jim Benning has hinted that the team may go in a different direction regarding who wears the C.
“Travis [Green] and I have talked about this,” Benning said in an interview on TSN 1040 last month. “We’re going to continue to talk about it. Bo’s a leader of our young players already in that group, but we have other good leadership on the team and we want him to continue to work on his development as a player and do all the things that he’s capable of.
“We’re going to have more conversations in the next couple weeks to decide if we’re going to name a captain this year or go with three assistants.”
Horvat, 23, now has four seasons of NHL experience and ticks a lot of boxes to be the team’s next leader. He’s probably ready for it, but the Canucks have the luxury to wait a year to make sure.
Henrik Sedin wasn’t given the C until opening night in 2010. Will they do the same with Horvat?
2. Who plays with Horvat and Boeser on the first line?
Horvat and Brock Boeser took over from the Sedins as the team’s top offensive producers last year and enter this season as two-thirds of an undisputed top line.
Question is, who’s going to join them?
Sven Baertschi was given the plum assignment on most nights last season, but Green could elect to spread the wealth.
The so-called garbage-goal king, Loui Eriksson could benefit from cashing in on Boeser rebounds. Brendan Leipsic brings some grit, skill, and speed that could compliment them.
Or perhaps rookie Elias Pettersson slides in on the wing – though we don’t know what position he’ll play yet.
3. Is Pettersson a centre or a winger?
Pettersson was drafted as a centre – a position the Canucks desperately need to solidify following Henrik Sedin’s retirement.
Still just 19, Pettersson is rail thin, so it remains to be seen if he can withstand the rigours of a physically-demanding position. The Canucks could elect to start the season with him on the wing, where he played a majority of his record-breaking season in Sweden last year.
If they stick with him at centre, he’ll likely need support. Playing him with a defensively-responsible player like Eriksson, a fellow Swede, makes sense. If he needs help on faceoffs, they could move Brandon Sutter to the wing.
4. How many rookies make the opening night lineup?
For a rebuilding team, the Canucks sure have stocked themselves with a lot of veterans.
Pettersson’s a shoo-in, but after that, it could be tough.
Adam Gaudette is probably the most NHL-ready rookie available, but his inclusion on the roster will mean putting another veteran on waivers. Jonathan Dahlen looked good at Young Stars in Penticton, but he’ll really need to stand out to earn a spot.
Olli Juolevi is another candidate, though his unassuming game doesn’t lend itself to ‘banging down the door’ to earn a spot. Thatcher Demko’s time in Utica is nearly up, though with Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson signed to NHL contracts, he’ll need to continue to prove himself in Utica.
5. Who will end up on waivers?
As it stands, the Canucks will risk losing one veteran on waivers – probably Brendan Gaunce – assuming no injuries. If another rookie sticks, it likely means that Nikolay Goldobin, Brendan Leipsic, Sam Gagner, Markus Granlund, or newly-acquired Tim Schaller could wind up on waivers as well.
This also assumes the Canucks keep seven defencemen and 14 forwards, meaning Alex Biega is destined for the waiver wire. For Juolevi to stick under those circumstances, someone like Ben Hutton or Derrick Pouliot would need to be exposed.
6. Will Olli Juolevi look out of place?
This is an important year for Juolevi.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the 20-year-old blueliner since being picked fifth overall in the draft more than two years ago.
It’s important for the franchise that he develops into a top-four defenceman, so starting him in Utica is probably the right course of action. Give him meaningful minutes and watch him grow – he’s coming off an off-season back surgery, so that’s the likely path with the possibility of a call-up once injuries start taking their toll later in the season.
Until then, it’ll be very interesting to see how he performs during the preseason. He didn’t look at home last year at this time. If he duplicates that performance, it will be cause for concern.
7. Will anyone surprise us?
The Canucks will be looking for some surprises this season, the good kind, that involve players taking an unexpected step forward.
Power forward Jake Virtanen turned 22 over the summer and the path has never been clearer for him to earn ice time. Goldobin is less than a month away from his 23rd birthday, and will need to gain the trust of the coach in order to show off his skill.
Leipsic, 24, scored nine points in 14 games with the Canucks following a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. Was that a blip or a sign of good things to come?
Is Granlund the player we saw in 2016-17 that was on a 20-goal pace or a fourth-line checker? Are the three new free agent signings – Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, and Schaller – as bad as many fear?
On defence, Hutton’s playing for a contract. Can he escape the coach’s doghouse?
Can Markstrom stay consistent? He had a shaky start to last season but quietly settled down after January 1, putting together a .917 save percentage in his final 32 appearances.
There are more questions than that, but we haven’t got much more time to address them. Let the post-Sedin era begin.