Jason Brough

VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 10: Goalie Jacob Markstrom #35 of the Vancouver Canucks during NHL action against the Colorado Avalanche on April 10, 2014 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Getty

Goaltending was a rare bright spot for Vancouver last season

2 Comments

This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

The Vancouver Canucks finished with the third-worst record in the NHL last season, and there were a lot of reasons why.

Goaltending was not one of them.

In fact, on a lot of nights, if not for Ryan Miller or Jacob Markstrom, things could’ve been a lot worse. Miller finished the season with a .916 save percentage; Markstrom’s was .915. The way the undermanned Canucks defended at times, those numbers were more than acceptable. Only the Ottawa Senators allowed more shots per game (32.8) than Vancouver (32.5).

Markstrom’s performance was an especially pleasant surprise for the Canucks, who’d made the decision to trade fan favorite Eddie Lack to Carolina during the previous offseason. Markstrom was coming off an excellent 2014-15 campaign in the AHL, but had yet to prove he could play in the NHL. He’d cleared waivers on his way to Utica, a sign of how far his stock had fallen since his days as a top prospect with the Panthers.

In 2015-16, Markstrom started 30 games for the Canucks, his solid (sometimes spectacular) play earning him a three-year contract extension that has him tied to the club through 2019-20. On at least one occasion last season, he downright “stole” a game for his team.

“It was a good year for me, personally, and it was a tough year for…obviously it’s never fun to lose hockey games and last year we lost way too many of them,” Markstrom said in July. “As for right now, when I look back, I feel like last year…it felt like a tease. I can’t wait to get going and get started.”

Miller, meanwhile, just turned 36 and has one year left on his contract. It remains to be seen if Vancouver will pursue an extension. While the Canucks have an excellent prospect in Thatcher Demko, he only turned pro in April and will likely need more than one year of AHL seasoning. An important part of the future, Demko won’t be rushed into the NHL.

As for next season, the Canucks are hoping to make it a little easier for Miller and Markstrom. Injuries to key veterans like Brandon Sutter, Henrik Sedin, Alex Edler, Chris Tanev and Dan Hamhuis certainly didn’t help things last season. While Hamhuis has moved on to Dallas and may be missed, big Erik Gudbranson has been added, in large part for his crease-clearing ability.

“We’re going to play with more structure defensively this season,” said GM Jim Benning. “I feel we’ll be strong up the middle defensively. We’re hoping that cuts down on the miraculous saves.”

Because while spectacular saves are nice to watch, too many of them can be a symptom of a big problem.

Related: Canucks re-sign Bachman, a goalie to expose in the expansion draft

Under Pressure: Jim Benning

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: Jim Benning of the Vancouver Canucks attends round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
8 Comments

This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

It was only an online survey, and barely 200 people responded. But the results did not flatter Vancouver general manager Jim Benning. Out of all 30 NHL teams, readers of The Hockey News had the least confidence in the front office of the Canucks.

It did not help that the survey’s findings were released just a few days after the Canucks had been fined for tampering. At the draft in Buffalo, Benning had spoken about Vancouver’s interest in Steven Stamkos and P.K. Subban, two players who were property of other NHL clubs. While the league accepted that Benning had “intended no harm with his comments,” it still cost the club $50,000, not to mention a good amount of embarrassment.

Of course, Benning’s biggest sin, if you ask his critics, has nothing to do with talking too much. No, his biggest sin is an unwillingness to accept that the Canucks are no longer a playoff team. An unwillingness, essentially, to tank.

Since Benning arrived in the summer of 2014, Vancouver has not gone through a tear-it-down rebuild like we’ve seen in places like Toronto and Buffalo. Instead, the Canucks have tried to remain competitive while getting younger at the same time.

And though they were far from competitive last season, finishing 28th overall — their worst season since the Mike Keenan era — Benning insisted that injuries were the biggest reason for all the losing.

“In my heart, I really believe if we’d had Brandon Sutter the whole year and Alex Edler didn’t get hurt, we’d be right there,” he told the Vancouver Sun in late February, at which point the Canucks were all but officially eliminated.

And so Benning went to work. His two biggest offseason moves were acquiring defenseman Erik Gudbranson in a trade with Florida and signing winger Loui Eriksson in free agency.

While Gudbranson is still young, just 24 years old, and Benning has said he expects the former third overall draft pick to be in Vancouver for the next decade, the fact the Canucks surrendered well-regarded 20-year-old forward in Jared McCann plus the 33rd overall pick in the 2016 draft was more evidence of the club’s reluctance to bottom out.

“I come from a scouting background, so to trade second-round picks away, it kills me,” Benning said. “But where we’re at right now, I think we owe it to our fans to try to field the most competitive team that we can right now.”

The key phrase there: “right now.”

Certainly, Eriksson was not signed for three or four years down the line. He just turned 31 and is expected to skate with the Sedin twins, who turn 36 in September and have two years left on their contracts. The decision to not trade a player like Jannik Hansen, who just turned 30, is another one that a rebuilding club might not make.

“We’re not moving Jannik,” Benning told The Province recently. “I thought he was excellent for us last year and with the way the game is going with speed and skill, he fits that description perfectly. And we have him under a good (cap) number the next couple of years, so we’re not looking to do anything.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the direction that Benning has chosen (and there’s something to be said for trying to maintain a culture of winning), there’s no denying he’ll be under considerable pressure next season. If the Canucks don’t improve — and they’ll need to improve rather dramatically to get back into the playoffs — it will be a lot harder to justify his “right now” moves.

At least with tanking, losing is part of the plan.

Poll: How much will the Canucks miss Dan Hamhuis?

Dan Hamhuis
AP
11 Comments

This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

In Vancouver, they still talk about the injury that Dan Hamhuis suffered in Game 1 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Would things have ended differently if he hadn’t tried to hip-check Milan Lucic along the boards? How much did losing him for the rest of the series hurt the Canucks’ chances of beating the Bruins?

They’re impossible questions to answer, but the fact they’re still asked underscores the importance of Hamhuis to those good Vancouver teams of a few years ago. The steady two-way defender played a ton for the Canucks, typically getting the toughest assignments. In 2014, he represented Canada and won gold at the Olympics in Sochi. There is no better blue line in the world than Canada’s, and Hamhuis was able to crack it.

But in 2016-17, after six seasons in Vancouver, Hamhuis will play for the Dallas Stars, possibly on their top pairing. He signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Stars on July 1.

The Canucks, meanwhile, are expected to go with a top four of Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Ben Hutton, and newly acquired Erik Gudbranson. The best bet for the third pair on opening night is Luca Sbisa and Philip Larsen, though Nikita Tryamkin, Andrey Pedan and Alex Biega are also in the mix.

That’s nine defenseman in all.

Even though Hamhuis had wanted to remain a Canuck, and he clearly wouldn’t have broken the bank to re-sign, he just didn’t fit in the team’s plans going forward.

“There’s opportunity there for younger players. We didn’t have the room and the fit wasn’t right” to keep Hamhuis, explained Canucks president of hockey ops Trevor Linden

Now, obviously, Hamhuis is not a consideration to make Team Canada anymore. There’s a lot of mileage on his body — 872 NHL games, plus 62 in the playoffs — and his offensive production fell to just three goals and 10 assists in 58 games last season, the lowest point total of his NHL career.

So it’s time to vote:

(Click here if the poll doesn’t show up for you.)

Looking to make the leap: Anton Rodin

SASKATOON, SK - JANUARY 3:  Anton Rodin #18 of Team Sweden skates with the puck while being defended by David Warsofsky #5 of Team USA during the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship Tournament Semifinal game on January 3, 2010 at the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.  Team USA defeated Team Sweden 5-2.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

Most Canucks fans had already written off Anton Rodin. He was the guy who came to North America in 2011 and couldn’t even cut it in the AHL. Just another draft bust for an organization that’s had plenty of those in its history.

But then Rodin — a second-round draft pick of Vancouver’s in 2009 — went back to Sweden and found his game. In 2014-15, he was named MVP of the SHL after scoring 19 times with 21 assists for Brynas. He maintained that level into 2015-16, before suffering a freak knee injury during practice in January.

Despite the season-ending injury, the Canucks still signed him in March, and GM Jim Benning is pegging Rodin — a 25-year-old, left-shooting right winger — as a potential third-liner for them next season.

“We watched him 20 times this year,” Benning told Postmedia. “He’s got the skill to play in the NHL and he’s a little older, so he’s mentally tougher and physically stronger. The time was right.”

Rodin is expected to be healthy for training camp, which should be a pretty competitive one for Vancouver. Benning would still like to add another forward, either via trade or free agency. And even if the group remains the same, there’s already been talk that Jake Virtanen, who turns 20 next week, could start the season down in the AHL.

“There’s going to be competition amongst our young players for ice time and spots on the team,” Benning said in a recent radio interview, per Canucks Army. “Jake is in good shape, he’s working hard. He’s an important guy for our group, but we’ll make the decision that’s best for him in the long term. If he needs to spend time in the AHL and that’s what’s best for his development, that’s what we’ll do.”

Looking to make the leap: Jesse Puljujarvi

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Jesse Puljujarvi poses for a portrait after being selected fourth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
Getty
7 Comments

This post is part of Oilers Day on PHT…

Jesse Puljujarvi‘s English is still a work in progress, so he wasn’t exactly overflowing with words after getting drafted fourth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in June.

Was he surprised that the Blue Jackets passed on him at third overall?

“I like Edmonton, and I’m very excited to go there, and I’m very happy now.”

What does he think about the opportunity to possibly play with Connor McDavid one day?

“Maybe yes, I want to play with him, and very nice.”

And is he ready to play in the NHL right away?

“Yeah, of course.”

That last answer was the key answer.

Indeed, the expectation is that Puljujarvi will be on the Oilers’ roster next season. Though the highly touted Finnish winger only turned 18 in May, unlike most other prospects at that age, size and strength are not a concern.

“I like his big, strong stride,” said Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, per the Edmonton Journal. “He protects the puck very well. He shoots in traffic and he can make plays, too. … You don’t accomplish what he’s accomplished at the men’s level and at the international level without being a real good player. He’s obviously a real good player, but he does all this stuff and he’s a big, strong body which I like.”

A few days later, Chiarelli would concede that having Puljujarvi fall to them made it “easier” to trade Taylor Hall for defensive help in the form of Adam Larsson. The Oilers also signed Milan Lucic to help replace Hall.

To be sure, Puljujarvi will still have to earn his NHL roster spot. If he does, he could start on the right side of the third line, or maybe even on the second line if he outplays Nail Yakupov. Barring a trade, Jordan Eberle will most likely be on the right side of the first line, with Zack Kassian on the fourth.

But if it turns out that Puljujarvi isn’t ready, he’s eligible to be sent to the AHL.

“Jesse will dictate his entry into the league and the pace of it,” said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan, per Postmedia. “He’s highly skilled and he’s played against men in a pro league back in Finland. … Jesse’s play (in the Finnish Elite League) gives him a head start but we’ll see it turns out. There’s years where you count on things and they don’t get done. In other years, there’s surprises.”