While we wait for official word on when the 2020-21 season will start, let’s look ahead to what promises to be an intriguing training camp for the Vancouver Canucks.
Fresh off their first playoff appearance in five seasons, the Canucks will enter next season with expectations higher than they’ve been in a long time. That’s for good reason too. With Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and J.T. Miller, they’ve got an elite young core to work with.
But there’s also uncertainty heading into next year. They’ve lost their MVP in Jacob Markstrom, a top four blueliner in Chris Tanev, and a first-line winger in Tyler Toffoli. How will Nate Schmidt look in blue and green? How good is Braden Holtby at this stage of his career?
Here’s what we’re likely to be talking about whenever training camp begins.
1. Battle for spots on defence
The Canucks have made it no secret about the fact that they’re planning to have an open competition for one of their spots on defence. Olli Juolevi, Jack Rathbone, Brogan Rafferty, and Jalen Chatfield are in the running, but none of them is a shoo-in.
Rathbone may be their most promising prospect, but he’s never played pro hockey before. Rafferty is already 25, and lit up the AHL with 45 points (7-38-45) in 57 games last season — but with Hughes and Schmidt already in the fold, is there room for another offensive defenceman? Chatfield is 24 and is more reliable defensively, but cracking the NHL after just four points in 48 AHL games seems unlikely.
Then there’s Juolevi, and as a former first-round draft pick, it would be a sizeable disappointment if he can’t claim the spot. The 22-year-old’s development has been stunted by injuries, but he did work his way into an NHL playoff game, so that’s a good sign.
2. Travis Green’s contract status
While the Canucks and Travis Green would surely like to put pen to paper before stepping on the ice, if he enters the season as a lame duck coach, the questions about his future will only get louder.
Green is looking for a raise on his current salary, which is worth $1 million according to CapFriendly.com. The average salary among publicly available numbers is $3.8 million, so expect Green to earn somewhere north of $3 million.
3. Who’s their No. 1 goalie?
Holtby has a Vezina Trophy and a Stanley Cup on his resume, but he also just posted the worst save percentage (.897) of his career in 2019-20. Was that a blip or is this a sign that his career’s in decline?
Thatcher Demko, meanwhile, is entering just his second full season as an NHLer. Many will wonder if his spectacular three-game playoff run is an indication that he’s ready for prime time.
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle for both goalies, but it is worth monitoring how each netminder is used going forward.
4. Is this the year Jake earns a spot in the top 6?
For better or worse, the spotlight always seems to be on Jake Virtanen. Despite the shortened season, he posted career highs in goals (18), assists (18), and points (36) in 2019-20. Now 24, it’s time for the former sixth overall draft pick to prove he belongs in the top six.
With Toffoli leaving, there’s an opening for him, too. He’ll need to perform at both ends of the rink, consistently, to gain Green’s trust.
5. Hoglander’s bid to make the team
If Virtanen doesn’t seize the opportunity in the top six, maybe Nils Hoglander does instead. The 19-year-old is on loan with Rogle BK in the Swedish Hockey League at the moment, where he has nine points (2-7-9) in 14 games. The 5-foot-8 winger is undersized, but has boatloads of talent.
Conventional wisdom has him starting with the Utica Comets, but given he’ll be one of the few players in midseason form, there may just be a spot for him in Vancouver right away.
6. Ferland’s health
Has Micheal Ferland played his last NHL game? That’s a real concern after a concussion-plagued season that left the burly winger on the sidelines for most of it.
While Ferland’s health is the main concern, his availability will also have consequences for the Canucks’ salary cap. If the 28-year-old is able to play, he’ll count $3.5 million against the cap, and the Canucks will likely have to shed salary. If he goes on long term injury reserve, Vancouver will have a cushion.
7. Will Loui ride the bus?
Will Loui Eriksson crack the opening night roster… of the Utica Comets?
That’s a very real possibility for the 35-year-old winger, who was a playoff healthy scratch multiple times last summer. Eriksson can kill penalties and has been used in a top six role as recently as the postseason, but his foot speed and offence are an issue — one that’s likely to get even worse.
“Sweetness” has just 89 points in 255 games (including playoffs) since signing with the Canucks in 2016. With just two years left on his deal, will the team try to strong-arm him into retirement?