With the salary cap squeezing virtually every decision the Canucks will have to make this offseason, they could really use some nice surprises.
To keep improving, the Canucks are going to need to find value, perhaps in the way of young players on cheap contracts earning a roster spot.
Here’s a look at six players who are in the running to do just that.
1. Olli Juolevi
Many people had given up hope on Olli Juolevi, given the 22-year-old’s terrible run of misfortune with injuries over the last two seasons.
He underwent a season-ending knee injury in December 2018, limiting him to just 18 games during his rookie season in the AHL. That news came just six months after the Finnish blueliner had to get back surgery.
Juolevi played 45 of Utica’s 61 games this past season, putting up 25 points (2-23-25). The hype around him had died down considerably, with Quinn Hughes’ arrival and the emergence of Brogan Rafferty.
But for Game 4 of the play-in series against Minnesota, the Canucks made the surprising decision to turn to Juolevi to fill in for the injured Oscar Fantenberg. He only played 6:16, but Juolevi didn’t look out of place, so perhaps that’s a good sign for the future.
He’s not going to be the top-pairing defenceman the Canucks hoped he’d be when they drafted him, but he can still help the team.
2. Zack MacEwen
Position: Right wing
Undrafted winger Zack MacEwen appeared to solidify himself as an NHL player last season, and yes he is still considered a rookie by virtue of playing fewer than 25 games last season.
The PEI native scored five goals and one assists in 17 games with the Canucks, but was less impressive in six playoff games. Nevertheless, it was a positive step for the 6-foot-4 forward, who could provide affordable depth on Vancouver’s fourth line.
3. Brogan Rafferty
Brogan Rafferty is a wild card of sorts for the Canucks. He played two games for Vancouver in 2018-19, shortly after he was signed as a college free agent, but didn’t see a single game of NHL action last season, despite some eye-popping AHL numbers.
Rafferty finished third in AHL defencemen scoring with 45 points (7-38-45) in 57 games, and deserves a look at the NHL level. At age 25, he’s old for a rookie, so it’s time to find out what he can offer.
4. Jack Rathbone
The best defence prospect in the organization, Jack Rathbone is making the move to pro hockey after two seasons with Harvard. A smooth-skating puck-moving defenceman, Rathbone scored 31 points in 28 games last season.
It’s not easy to make the leap from NCAA to NHL, but perhaps the West Roxbury, Massachusetts native can beat the odds.
5. Kole Lind
Position: Right wing
After a disappointing rookie season in the AHL where he scored just 17 points (5-12-17) in 51 games, Kole Lind bounced back with Utica last season, scoring 44 points (14-30-44) in 61 games in 2019-20.
The Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, product likely needs more AHL seasoning, but he turns 22 in October, so we should begin to learn if he’ll develop into an NHL player.
6. Nils Hoglander
Position: Left wing
Unlike Vasily Podkolzin, who is under contract for one more season in the KHL, Nils Hoglander is under contract with the Canucks and on loan with his team in Sweden, so he’ll be eligible to play when the NHL season starts. The Canucks’ second-round pick from 2019 has an enormous amount of skill, but he’s undersized at 5-foot-9.
It’s probably too much to ask for Hoglander to step into the Canucks lineup right away, but it’s been done before, and he’s used to playing against men, having played two years in the Swedish Hockey League.