The Vancouver Canucks begin their 50th anniversary season tonight with a lot of hope.
Hope that they’re an improved team. Hope that they can challenge for a playoff spot.
Hope that the dark days are behind them.
— Joey Kenward (@kenwardskorner) October 2, 2019
There’s a lot of reason for optimism, of course, but making the playoffs is not easy.
The Canucks finished with 81 points last season, an improvement of eight points from the year before. They missed the playoffs by seven points in a down year in the Western Conference.
The average total needed to make the playoffs in the West over the last five years is 93 points, which means the Canucks likely need a huge point improvement again this season.
Can they do it?
They can, but they need a lot to go right.
1. Their goaltending needs to be good again
The Canucks finished last season tied for 13th in the league in goals against, which was a true testament to the season Jacob Markstrom put together. The Canucks MVP started 60 games (seventh-most in the league) and compiled a .912 save percentage – mid-range among starting goalies.
Markstrom did this behind a terrible defence, which was also decimated by injuries, and had to face 1,896 shots — fourth-most of any goalie last season.
Can he replicate his success? Sure, but goaltending always seems to be unpredictable in the NHL.
Also important: getting reliable goaltending from Thatcher Demko in his first full NHL season. The 23-year-old was good in eight starts last season, putting up a .913 save percentage, but that’s a small sample size.
2. Defence needs to be better than it has been in years
Unlike opening night last year, the Canucks won’t be dressing Erik Gudbranson, Derrick Pouliot, and Michael Del Zotto — so the defence will be better.
Their back end is much improved on paper. How much will it improve on the ice?
Free agent signings Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn will help, as will a full season from rookie Quinn Hughes.
Alex Edler and Chris Tanev are getting long in the tooth though. Edler had a nice bounce-back season in 2018-19, can he maintain that level of play? Tanev has dropped off in recent years – can he stay healthy longer, and will that help him return to the player he was two years ago?
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3. Big steps forward from their young players
Going into a new season, the temptation for fans and media is to analyze new acquisitions and dissect the bubble players in training camp. But the players who will decide the Canucks’ fate more than anyone are their four best young players: Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and Hughes.
We don’t know how much these four players, who range in age between 19 and 24, have improved. Preseason gave reason for optimism, but the production of young players doesn’t always follow an upward trajectory.
If the ‘core four’ realizes their potential, it’ll go a long way.
4. Their bottom-six needs to not be a tire fire
The most controversial decision made in training camp was cutting Sven Baertschi, which signalled that Travis Green will be going with an old school approach to his third and fourth lines.*Mr. Nolan-Smith
The Canucks’ bottom-six was outscored at even strength more than any other team in the league last season and yet, they’ve returned much of the same group. They need to be better.
5. New players need to fit in well
You never really know what to expect when acquiring new players.
Surrounded by new teammates, playing for a new coach, and working with a new system affects players differently. Is Micheal Ferland the right tonic for Pettersson and Boeser on the top line? Can JT Miller find chemistry with Horvat?
Is Tanner Pearson the 40-point winger he was for years with the Los Angeles Kings, or was last season a sign of things to come? After scoring 15 points in 61 games, he produced 12 points in 19 games after joining the Canucks at the trade deadline, so that’s a good sign.
Myers was a controversial signing. Is he well-suited for the top pairing alongside Edler or will he get eaten alive by the competition?
6. Special teams need to be… well, special
The Canucks had the 11th-best penalty kill last season, but were 23rd on the power play.
Green has options on the power play this season, with two intriguing units available to throw over the boards. Above all, the team needs to find a way to make Pettersson and Boeser dual threats on the first unit. There’s room to improve.
7. Stay healthy
The Canucks haven’t had any luck in the injury department since their last playoff appearance in 2015.
Here’s how many games these prominent Canucks players missed last season:
- Brandon Sutter: 56
- Sven Baertschi: 56
- Chris Tanev: 27
- Alex Edler: 26
- Antoine Roussel: 17
- Brock Boeser: 13
- Elias Pettersson: 11
…and that doesn’t include games Markstrom missed due to injury.
Perhaps having the puck will help, and key acquisitions Ferland, Miller, Myers, and Benn have averaged a collective 78 games per season in the last two years.
If it all comes together, the Canucks should be playing playoff hockey in Vancouver for the first time in five years.