Vancouver Canucks 2020-21 NHL season preview

Vancouver Canucks 2020-21 NHL season preview
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The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we preview the Vancouver Canucks.

Vancouver Canucks 2019-20 Rewind

Record: 36-27-6 (78 points); fourth in the Pacific Division; sixth in the Western Conference.

Leading scorers: Elias Pettersson (27 goals), J.T. Miller (27 goals, 72 points).

Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Canucks were on a four-year playoff drought. They also hadn’t won a playoff series since falling to the Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Elias Pettersson & Co. really skyrocketed the fortunes of this Canucks era, though, as they made the playoffs — then made a significant run.

Between a blistering power play and a keyed-in Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks appeared ahead of schedule during the regular season. Seeing Quinn Hughes fall just short of a Calder Trophy only cemented the notion that the Canucks’ young players might drive them to bigger things. Seeing J.T. Miller exceed even the most optimistic expectations only added a cherry on top.

Once the playoffs came around, the Canucks leaned on top players, with Bo Horvat chipping in some highlight reel moments of his own. In a stretch that may have changed the team’s direction in net, Thatcher Demko was absolutely lights out in nearly willing the Canucks past the Golden Knights.

By passing the Wild and Blues, then pushing Vegas, the Canucks inspired big dreams. Still, with cap concerns, this team looks different from the 2019-20 version in some key ways. Will the Vancouver Canucks continue their upward trajectory, or could we see growing pains this season?

Additions

Subtractions

Jacob Markstrom (free agency), Tyler Toffoli (free agency), Christopher Tanev (free agency), Troy Stecher (free agency).

Vancouver Canucks 2020-21 preview Schmidt Demko
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

3 Most Interesting Vancouver Canucks

• Holtby – Demko

To the naked eye, Jacob Markstrom’s .918 save percentage from 2019-20 is already quite good. Dig deeper and you’ll understand why Markstrom almost ended up being a Vezina finalist. As Vancouver is Awesome notes, Markstrom ranked in the top 10 by a variety of proprietary and/or private metrics. The Canucks defense leaked a lot of shots, and Markstrom was up to the task.

Now the Canucks will ask Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby to carry that torch.

Interestingly, in the case of both goalies, expectations vary.

If you look at long-term reputation alone, Holtby might look like an upgrade over Markstrom. After all, Holtby has a Stanley Cup ring. Despite not even being a full year older than Markstrom, Holtby’s played in far more games (468 games played to 272), boasts a better career save percentage (.916 to .911) and, naturally, earned way more wins (282 to 110).

Most goalie models lean heavily on recent seasons, and with good reason. Note former Canucks goalie Cory Schneider, among others, as examples of how far a great goalie can fall. Holtby struggled mightily in 2019-20 (.897) and has been bumpy in general lately. (Recall that, even in his Cup-winning year, he temporarily lost the Capitals’ starting job to Philipp Grubauer.)

Despite those quibbles, the Canucks made a reasonable call. While Markstrom demanded a huge, risky contract, Holtby’s deal is fairly low-risk.

On paper, Holtby could form a tremendous duo with Demko. But that depends not just on “which” Holtby we see, but also which Demko.

Considering Demko’s dazzling playoff displays, some might assume that he’s a no-brainer future star. He’s certainly been a prospect on the Canucks radar. Even so, Demko’s regular season stats left a lot to be desired. Yes, it’s only a 37-game sample, but Demko’s career .906 regular season save percentage is cause to pause some optimism.

If the Canucks defense ends up shaky in 2020-21, they’ll need a lot from their goalies. Can Demko and/or Holtby stem that tide?

• Nate Schmidt

If there’s one obvious area of improvement for Vancouver, it’s in their top-end defense. Exploiting the Golden Knights’ cap issues to land Nate Schmidt ranks as one of Jim Benning’s best moves. (Especially if you ignore unearthing draft day gems.)

Schmidt figures to be an upgrade over Christopher Tanev — probably a big one. But how much might he upgrade the Canucks’ defense in general? Can it be enough to offset depth losses, such as Troy Stecher? (Could Travis Hamonic end up carrying some of that burden, too?)

As much as anything else, Schmidt could make the Canucks more interesting in a more literal way. With the skill and daring Schmidt brings to the table, he can help make the Vancouver Canucks more dynamic. There could be a threat from the blueline beyond Quinn Hughes.

(Take a look at this Wednesday training camp bit from The Athletic for some sensory details [sub required]. Apologies if you imagine a “woop, woop” while reading Schmidt’s name for a while.)

• Elias Pettersson

Look, Pettersson’s been the most interesting Canuck basically since he first set foot on NHL ice. Actually, it’s hard to believe he’s only been at this level for two years. Maybe because he’s been great from the start; maybe because 2020 felt like three years in one.

Even by Pettersson’s high standards, this is an interesting season. After 2020-21, Pettersson’s rookie deal runs out. Since the Canucks indulged on some expensive free agents, it could be challenging to make all the numbers work.

That’s especially true since Pettersson could earn more acclaim this season.

By Evolving Hockey’s GAR metric, Pettersson ranked second only to Artemi Panarin last season:

Vancouver Canucks 2020-21 season preview Pettersson GAR
via Evolving Hockey

Such analytics dominance could point to even bigger things. Scoring 66 points in each of his first seasons was impressive enough, but don’t be surprised if Pettersson reaches greater heights.

(With all of that in mind, the Canucks should probably extend Pettersson sooner rather than later.)

Best-Case Scenario

Instead of taking a step back, Holtby – Demko give the Canucks stellar goaltending. Better yet, it’s an advantage during a schedule that promotes pairings. Schmidt, Hamonic, and Olli Juolevi combine to form an improved defense. Then an electric offense does the rest, and the Vancouver Canucks once again end up ahead of schedule.

Worst-Case Scenario

A lot went right for the Canucks in 2019-20. Players like J.T. Miller exceeded expectations. Young talent ended up better than anticipated, too. What if all of those bounces go the wrong way this time around? What if we get the worst versions of Demko and Holtby? And what if a top-heavy team suffers injuries? Missing the playoffs in a relatively weak North Division could cost people jobs, and sour all of those good feelings.

Pointsbet – Vancouver Canucks Stanley Cup odds

Canucks +2800 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.