Micheal Ferland

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Western Conference matchups

While a lot can change between now and actual, meaningful hockey happening, the NHL announced its return-to-play plans on Tuesday. That means we learned the 24 teams who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer, with 12 from the Western Conference and 12 from the East. We also learned about the seven teams who will have a long wait until next season, and how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be handled.

Most directly enticingly, we found out about eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play in round robin tournaments to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Western Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups]

(5) Oilers vs. (12) Blackhawks

Regular season recap

The Oilers surged to the Pacific Division’s second spot on the strength of “The Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid Show.” A lot had to go right for that to happen, even beyond Draisaitl and McDavid dominating compared to their usual, lofty standards.

When it comes to judging the Blackhawks, it’s all about your expectations. If you were expecting the return of dynasty days, then sure, you’d be disappointed. Most have tempered such expectations, and with that in mind, the team at least found ways to scrap toward reasonable competitiveness. Sure, they can be a mess, but sometimes they snatched victory from the jaws of defensive defeat.

With a whopping 110 points, Draisaitl blazed by anyone else to win the Art Ross Trophy. No one else even crossed 100 points, as McDavid finished second in scoring with 97. Other Oilers didn’t provide much offense beyond Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (61 points), as Zack Kassian and Oscar Klefbom finished fourth on Edmonton with just 34.

The Blackhawks didn’t reach the same heights, but were similarly top-heavy. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews continue to run the show. Beyond them, Alex DeBrincat took a step back, but Dominik Kubalik emerged.

On paper, Chicago probably hopes to break even regarding special teams. Yes, both teams featured top-10 penalty kill units this season, but the Oilers boasted the most efficient power play in the NHL, while Chicago’s PP was almost the worst.

Even with Robin Lehner shipped away in a trade, the Blackhawks may hold a goaltending advantage. Corey Crawford finished 2019-20 on fire, while Edmonton’s options were merely average.

Season series

Blackhawks leads season series 2-1. Last meeting: Chicago won 4-3 on March 5.

Injured players who could return

Blackhawks: When Calvin de Haan underwent shoulder surgery in late December, it seemed to be season-ending. Now it’s not so clear. Concussions could be especially tricky to deal with in this climate, so we’ll see how Adam Boqvist comes along. One would think that Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook won’t be available, but who knows?

Oilers: Edmonton indicated that Mike Green and Joakim Nygard should both be ready for a return to play.

Storylines to Watch

Considering the gap between McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Kane and Toews, cynics might groan when things are framed as the battle between a dwindling dynamic duo and a rising one.

But … c’mon. It is fun to picture how those rising stars will try to learn new tricks from those old dogs. The truth is that Kane and especially Toews already “passed the torch,” yet this could be a lot of fun. Really, the (mostly) flawed rosters around both duos could make the battles more fun to watch.

I ranked this as the most exciting series of the Western Conference side, but click here to see if it got the overall nod.

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Predators Coyotes
(Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(6) Predators vs. (11) Coyotes

Regular season recap

After stumbling for much of the season, the Predators were starting to get their wits about them entering the pandemic pause. On the other hand, the Coyotes seemed to be running out of gas, and rank among the teams lucky to still be in the dance.

Even before COVID-19 disrupted life and sports, the Predators experienced plenty of drama. It says a lot about the ups and downs of the Predators’ season that they a) fired Peter Laviolette during the season, b) hired John Hynes, who was also fired during 2019-20, and c) managed to finish in the old wild-card setup entering the pause. Phew.

If you’re asking me, you need to squint to see major Predators improvements, unless you really have a thing for coaches benching star players.

That goes for Laviolette to Hynes, and also improving on issues from 2018-19. Despite adding Matt Duchene and removing P.K. Subban, the power play remains a drag. New issues surfaced, too, with Pekka Rinne‘s play sagging to a worrisome degree.

Speaking of things staying mostly the same … hey, at least the Predators still have that defense.  Mattias Ekholm‘s useful, yet Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis stood out the most. Check out where Ellis and Josi rank on Evolving Hockey’s GAR chart for all skaters, not just defensemen:

Evolving Hockey GAR Ellis Panarin Pettersson Josivia Evolving Hockey

Personally, the feeling with the Predators is “they made all of those changes to end up, basically, in the same spot?” You could say similar things about the Coyotes. Despite bringing in Phil Kessel and then Taylor Hall, the Coyotes continue to live off of goaltending (and to a lesser extent, defense).

At least Arizona’s goalies have delivered enough to make that living survivable, if not easy. Darcy Kuemper continued to quietly rank among the league’s best, while Antti Raanta came through when Kuemper got hurt.

Season series

The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.

Injured players who could return

Coyotes: One would expect Conor Garland to be over his knee injury. Arizona should get young defenseman Jakob Chychrun back, too.

Predators: The 2019-20 season presented the Predators with injury issues, but they were healing up nicely around the time of the pause. Dan Hamhuis should probably be healed up, though.

Storylines to Watch

When you look at the way these teams are put together, both the Predators and Coyotes made bold moves to step forward. Instead, they’ve basically stood in place.

Will either team be able to argue that the gambles eventually paid off once play resumes? Can Duchene justify his price tag? Can Phil Kessel regain his scoring touch? How much money will Taylor Hall lose or gain in free agency?

The Predators and Coyotes have a lot to prove, and a lot to lose.

Also, “Coach vs. Player” doesn’t really do much for me when the two say glowing things about each other, but Hynes did coach Hall during Hall’s Hart season so …

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Canucks Wild
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild

Regular season recap

As different as their paths and outlooks have been, it’s fascinating how little space there ended up being between the Canucks (78 points, 69 games played) and Wild (77 in 69 GP).

The Canucks already boast some of the premium pieces the sort-of-rebuilding Wild should clamor for. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes look like stars now, let alone later. Their development buoyed Jim Benning’s gambles, from ones that were brilliant (J.T. Miller, costly or not) to not-so-much (Tyler Myers, mainly costly). Pettersson, a few other skaters, and an on-point Jacob Markstrom have made things work just enough.

By most underlying measures, the Wild were actually a pretty competent team in 2019-20. They played well enough, collectively, that Bruce Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired. That’s just how it goes for coaches in the NHL, though, especially since Bill Guerin didn’t hire Boudreau. (Frankly, Jason Zucker wasn’t the problem either, but at least trading him seemed like a gesture toward rebuilding.)

Really, you could argue that Devan Dubnyk was as responsible as anyone for Boudreau getting fired. If the Wild played at about the level they did — including Kevin Fiala rising to something approaching a star level — Minnesota could be a fairly tough out.

They’ll need better goaltending, though, whether they hope Dubnyk can rebound, or they stick with Alex Stalock, who was increasingly grabbing starts.

Season series

Wild won two of the three games, although one of those victories came via a shootout. That aforementioned (Wild won 4-3 [SO]) happened during their most recent meeting on Feb. 19.

Injured players who could return

Canucks: It seems like Markstrom and Chris Tanev should probably be good to go from what seemed like minor, late-season injuries. The break could be beneficial for Micheal Ferland, who was dealing with concussion issues. Josh Leivo should be back.

Wild: Not much to speak of for Minnesota, as Eric Staal missed time for personal reasons. Staal spoke about that recently.

Storylines to Watch

Vancouver missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. The Canucks also haven’t won a series since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins. As much as it sometimes feels like these youngsters are skipping to the front of line for Vancouver, Canucks fans must be getting antsy.

While it only seemed like the Wild were headed toward two consecutive seasons without postseason appearances, their larger decline extends further. Minnesota won two first-round series in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but otherwise haven’t seen much from the Zach PariseRyan Suter era. (Who, for all the negative talk around them, remain top contributors for the Wild.)

A Parise trade didn’t work out. Mikko Koivu did not get traded, whether the Wild wanted to or not. As badly as the Wild need a rebuild, this unexpected opportunity opens the door for a last hurrah.

So, will it be one more ride for the Wild, or a chance for the Canucks to take big steps toward an even bigger future?

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Jets Flames
(Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets

Regular season recap

When considering the Flames’ 2019-20 season, don’t compare their work to 2018-19 alone. Unless you want to be sorely underwhelmed.

That’s because, frankly, multiple Flames put together career seasons they weren’t likely to replicate. You could argue that all of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan might have played over their heads last season. Those players cooled off considerably — maybe extremely — and the Flames suffered as a result.

In a twist, that drop-off didn’t explain why Bill Peters got fired.

Even so, that group remains pretty good, especially with Matthew Tkachuk steadily improving (and thus becoming that much more annoying). Cam Talbot‘s also been a nice addition for the Flames, who are seemingly always looking for that goalie.

That goalie in Winnipeg ranks as far and away the main reason the Jets didn’t totally crash. Connor Hellebuyck absolutely saved Winnipeg’s season, as the Jets were absolutely dreadful on defense. As in: even worse than you’d expect after subtracting Dustin Byfuglien (voluntarily or not), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.

As leaky as the Jets were on defense, they still have the fuel for serious offensive firepower, as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Patrik Laine remained productive in 2019-20.

Season series

The Jets took the season’s only meeting 3-1 in overtime on Oct. 26.

Injured players who could return

Flames: The timetable seems right for Travis Hamonic to return. Noah Hanifin had also been dealing with some concussion issues.

Jets: How serious were Bryan Little‘s issues? If they were season-threatening, maybe he could come back? If they are closer to career-threatening, then who knows? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next few weeks.

Storylines to Watch

Last season, the Flames ranked first in the Western Conference, while the Jets managed 99 points. For all the disappointments in 2019-20, and even with some key omissions in mind, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams putting something special together.

Two star-packed teams hoping to make the most of what is pretty close to a clean slate? That could be fun. Really, it could actually be the most exciting series for the Western Conference side if everything clicks.

Besides, Patrik Laine might say funny things, and Matthew Tkachuk has all that pent-up pandemic pest energy to release. (OK, that last part has me worried.)

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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

PHT Decade in Review: Most significant trades in hockey

As 2019 comes to a close, we’re taking a look back at the past decade. We’ll remember the best players and teams, most significant goals, and biggest transactions that have happened since 2010. Let us know your memories in the comments.

Best Hockey Trades

Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen

The Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets each had a glaring need and were able to help each other when Seth Jones and Ryan Johansen were traded for one another. From Columbus’ perspective, Johansen was not a favorite of coach John Tortorella and already had a lengthy contract dispute. Nashville had an abundance of talent on the blueline and needed to find a top line centerman. When a trade of this magnitude happens, one team usually regrets the move but, in this situation, both teams were left quite pleased.

Martin St. Louis for Ryan Callahan

It takes a lot of extenuating circumstances for two teams in the thick of a playoff race to trade their captains, but in 2014, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning completed the transaction. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman created a dispute with Martin St. Louis when he left the future Hall-Of-Famer off Team Canada’s original roster for the Sochi Olympics. In return, St. Louis requested a trade and the Lightning ended up honoring the request. On the other side, Glen Sather wrapped up contract extensions with Henrik Lundqvist and Dan Girardi but struggled to find common ground with Callahan. Even though the Lightning had very little leverage in the negotiations, Yzerman still found a way to pry two first-round picks from New York in the process. The Rangers went on to lose in the 2014 Cup Final and fell in the 2015 Conference Finals to the Lightning in a seven-game series. Neither team won a championship because of this move, but both clubs settled a problem with this transaction.

Mike Richards and Jeff Carter end up in Los Angeles, Flyers acquire Wayne Simmonds, Bradyen Schenn and Jakub Voracek

A few maneuvers were significant when Los Angeles won two Stanley Cups early in the decade, but the Kings paid a steep price to acquire Mike Richards in June 2011. Coincidentally, another big piece, Jeff Carter, was traded that day to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was eventually sent to Los Angeles at the 2012 trade deadline where he became a key cog for the Kings. Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown were already in place, but the acquisition of Richards and Carter were a huge reason why Los Angeles was very successful in the first half of the decade.

On the flip side, the Flyers were looking to change the culture around the club that offseason and landed Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn in the Richards deal, while acquiring Jakub Voracek in the Carter trade. Philadelphia did not win a Stanley Cup, but they were not ripped off in either deal when trading legitimate NHL stars.

Flames send Dougie Hamilton to the Hurricanes in five-player trade

It was a blockbuster trade in June of 2018 that helped both the Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames. Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox were sent to Carolina in exchange for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. If one was to define a hockey trade, this would be a great place to start.

One sided trades

Bruins ship Tyler Seguin to Dallas

There are always overreactions after losing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs but the way the Boston Bruins reacted to losing the 2013 Stanley Cup Final was clearly a mistake. The Bruins front office decided to trade Tyler Seguin, a star in the making, to the Dallas Stars for Loui Eriksson and several other pieces. The Bruins did not make matters worse by handing Eriksson a lucrative contract extension in the summer of 2016, but they did lose a player that averaged 77 points per season since the trade.

Capitals send Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Martin Erat

George McPhee is most likely still having nightmares about this transaction.

Ben Bishop for Cory Conacher

This deal is easy to judge knowing how each player performed since the trade. However, in April of 2013 the move did make some sense for both teams. The Ottawa Senators had a crowded crease with Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner and Bishop while Conacher was off to a strong start with the Tampa Bay Lightning, recording 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) in the first 35 games of the season. The undersized forward instantly became the Senators’ leading scorer upon his arrival but would never become the lethal scorer Ottawa hoped for. On the other hand, Bishop has become a well-rounded NHL goaltender.

Griffin Reinhart to Edmonton

There probably could be a category for several of the moves Peter Chiarelli made but trading two premium draft picks for Griffin Reinhart is at the top of the list. It doesn’t help when one of those picks turned into Mathew Barzal, but the Oilers general manager hoped Reinhart would solve Edmonton’s defensive issues. Former Islanders general manager Garth Snow is probably still confused how he pulled this one off.

Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson

Hall helped the New Jersey Devils return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and captured the 2018 Hart trophy, while Edmonton picked up a middle-pairing defenseman.

Mika Zibanejad for Derick Brassard

Why the Ottawa Senators were interested in trading a young center with Zibanejad’s potential is still a bit mind-boggling. The Swedish forward has turned into one of the more underrated centers in the NHL while Brassard has bounced around the NHL the past couple of seasons.

Brent Burns to the Sharks

The Minnesota Wild received Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-round draft pick, but Burns has been one of the most dynamic defensemen in the entire NHL throughout the decade. There are very few assets that could have lived up to the value Burns has provided on the ice.

Franchise Altering Maneuvers

P.K. Subban for Shea Weber

For those who understand the salary cap recapture penalties, the Nashville Predators took a significant gamble when sending Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for P.K. Subban. If Weber were to retire before his deal runs out, they will be forced to operate with a lot of dead money on their books.

Subban did help the Predators reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2017 but has since been shipped off to the New Jersey Devils.

Blues acquire Ryan O'Reilly

The 2019 Conn Smythe winner was an integral member of the St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup run last season. Doug Armstrong gave up a lot at the time including a top prospect, two premium picks and two roster players, but the Buffalo Sabres miscalculated in their evaluation. Without the the O’Reilly acquisition, the song ‘Gloria’ is probably not a huge hit in the St. Louis area.

Penguins acquire Phil Kessel

It wasn’t always a smooth ride in Pittsburgh, but Kessel averaged 75 points per season and played a major part in back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.

TJ Oshie to the Capitals

The Washington Capitals have been one of the most successful teams over the last decade but didn’t get over the hump until the spring of 2018. T.J. Oshie was not the main piece during the championship run, but he has provided secondary scoring and strong two-way play since his acquisition in the summer of 2015.

MORE PHT DECADE IN REVIEW FUN:
• Top NHL players in fantasy hockey
• Most significant goals
• Best players of the decade
• Favorite goals, best/worst jerseys
Best NHL teams of the decade

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Maturing Hurricanes eye second-straight playoff berth

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes ended a nine-year postseason drought last season.

This year, their goal: to end an even longer one.

The Hurricanes are looking to reach the postseason for a second straight year – something they haven’t done in 18 years.

Carolina advanced to the Eastern Conference final last season before Boston swept the Hurricanes. That deep run gave a largely young team a taste of the postseason, after only a handful of players had any playoff experience entering that first-round series with Washington.

”It’s a whole new year, so what’s done is done,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said, ”and you’ve got to move on and you’ve got to find a way to be that much better.”

And find a way to avoid the playoff hangovers that have plagued this team in the past.

In the three seasons that followed their three most recent playoff appearances – 2003, ’07 and ’10 – Carolina’s point total has dropped by an average of 26.7 points. The Hurricanes finished last in the old Southeast Division the year after making the 2002 Stanley Cup final, and wound up third in the five-team division after both the 2006 Cup title and the run to the 2009 conference final.

WHO’S HERE

The Hurricanes didn’t make many flashy acquisitions during the offseason, instead sprinkling some solid veterans throughout the roster. They re-signed free-agent goalie Petr Mrazek to a two-year contract, picked up James Reimer as his likely backup, brought in center Ryan Dzingel for two years and gave defenseman Jake Gardiner a four-year deal shortly before camp.

Their most significant move was keeping one of their young stars – Sebastian Aho. Less than 24 hours after Montreal tendered him a $42 million offer sheet, they matched the deal and signed the 22-year-old restricted free agent to a front-loaded, bonus-heavy contract that locks him up through 2023-24.

”I think we assembled another solid team, and I think had some good additions,” forward Jordan Staal said. ”I think we’ll be a team that’s, obviously with Roddy, going to be one of the hardest-working teams, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got every game, and that’s going to give us an edge.”

WHO’S NOT

Justin Williams – for now, anyway. The captain of last year’s team said he was taking a break from the sport to start this season, but left the door open to the possibility of a midseason return. Carolina also traded defenseman Calvin de Haan to Chicago and let forwards Micheal Ferland (Vancouver) and Greg McKegg (New York Rangers) and goalie Curtis McElhinney (Tampa Bay) leave via free agency. They also cut ties with Scott Darling, sending him to Florida in the Reimer trade.

KEY PLAYERS

All eyes will be on Aho, especially during the opener – which, coincidentally, comes against the very same Canadiens team that tried to pry him away. He isn’t worried about handling the pressure that comes with that big contract won’t be a problem, and says he doesn’t set his goals in terms of goals or points: ”I just want to be a better player,” said Aho, who had team highs of 30 goals and 83 points last season.

Keep an eye on Reimer, too. Mrazek and McElhinney were almost interchangeable last season, pairing to give the Hurricanes a solid one-two combination in both the regular season and playoffs. A key question: Can Reimer seamlessly slide into that No. 2 role while bouncing back after a season in which he matched his career worst save percentage (.900)?

OUTLOOK

It’s been a challenge over the past two decades for the Hurricanes to build upon their successes. A key to doing so this season might come with the man advantage. Carolina scored on less than 10% of its postseason chances on the power play – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. Dzingel, Erik Haula and Gardiner should help with that.

PREDICTION

The Hurricanes went 46-29-7 last season and their 99 points ranked second in team history only to the 2006 Cup champions, and their 31-12-2 regular season record after Jan. 1 was no fluke. Aside from Williams, the core of that team – chiefly Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, star-in-waiting Andrei Svechnikov and virtually the entire defensive unit – is back and a year more mature. It might be too much to expect another run to the East final, but a second straight playoff berth is very much within reach.

Canucks’ biggest question: What exactly is the plan here?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks.

Three big questions for the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks.

1. Seriously, what is the plan here?

There is really no other way to ask it. I spent five minutes looking at this roster and this is the only question that kept entering my head.

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are dynamite. Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller are pretty good. Quinn Hughes has the potential to be a cornerstone player on defense. But then what? What else is happening here that should make Canucks fans feel good about the direction of the team for this season and beyond?

Jim Benning is entering his sixth season running this ship as the team’s general manager and after a playoff appearance in year one is in danger of giving the Canucks the first ever five-year playoff drought in franchise history. Outside of the five players mentioned above, the roster is full of veteran depth players that aren’t difference-makers and are for some reason signed to long-term contracts (bad idea!).

The highest paid players on the team are a 34-year-old Loui Eriksson, a 33-year-old Alex Edler, and Tyler Myers.

For all of this, the Canucks just rewarded Benning with a three-year contract extension earlier this month.

Given the moves over the past two offseasons (long-term contracts for Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland, Tyler Myers; trading a first-round pick for Miller) it almost looks like Benning and the front office is simply in a job-saving mode and trying to luck their way into a playoff spot instead of putting together a coherent long-term plan that can result in sustained success.

The result instead is a team that is not anywhere near good enough to make the playoffs and not anywhere near bad enough to get the best draft lottery odds. That is a brutal cycle to try and get out of.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Brock Boeser’s contract 

This is kind of related to the first question, but the Canucks are one of the many teams in the league dealing with a big-time restricted free agent that remains unsigned.

The problem is the Canucks, as currently situated against the cap, probably do not have enough salary cap space to actually sign him at the moment.

Because they have so much money invested in depth players on long-term deals they are now in a position where they have just a little more than $5 million in salary cap space remaining and will probably have to do one of two things to get him under contract for this season. Either play hardball and attempt to short-change their second best player, or try to make a desperation trade to create a little more salary cap space to sign him.

Boeser averaged more than .42 goals per game so far in his career (35 goals per 82 games) and is almost certainly deserving of a contract worth more than $5 million per season.

3. Will any other young players make an impact?

Other than Pettersson and Boeser there really isn’t a lot to be excited about up front in the short-term (2019 top pick Vasily Podkolzin is probably two years away from making his NHL debut), so that leaves the blue line where the Canucks have top prospect Quinn Hughes and 2016 first-round pick (No. 5 overall) Olli Juolevi. Hughes seems to be a lock for the roster, while Juolevi, coming off an injury-shortened and losing out on a numbers game on the depth chart will probably have to start the season in the American Hockey League.

The other intriguing player is goalie Thatcher Demko. Jacob Markstrom has been solid, but is probably only a stop-gap solution for right now. Demko only appeared in nine NHL games this past season but handled himself well and has a strong track record of performing at both the NCAA and AHL levels. He is still only 23 years old and should be considered a strong prospect with a chance to eventually take over the position.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

It’s Vancouver Canucks Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks.

2018-19
35-36-11, 81 points (5th in the Pacific Division, 12th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
J.T. Miller
Jordie Benn
Oscar Fantenberg
Tyler Myers
Micheal Ferland

OUT:
Ryan Spooner
Luke Schenn
Markus Granlund
Ben Hutton

RE-SIGNED:
Thatcher Demko
Alex Edler

2018-19 Summary

The expectations for the Canucks heading into last season weren’t very high. After all, this was/is a team made up of young players that clearly wouldn’t figure into the playoff picture. As expected, they missed the postseason, but in some way, they were probably a lot more competitive than many observers expected.

The fact that they finished with 81 points (nine out of a playoff spot) and exceeded some people’s expectations tells you a lot about where this franchise was coming into the season. The good news for Vancouver is that they seem to have found a couple of all-star forwards during their rebuild.

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser have become must-see TV. In his first NHL season, Pettersson put up an impressive 28 goals and 66 points in only 71 games. Once the 20-year-old fills out a little more, he should be able to get those numbers even higher.

“I feel like at the end of the season a lot of teams were making a push to make the playoffs, so definitely they were tougher games at the end of the season,” Pettersson told Sportsnet earlier this month. “And also for myself, I felt like I didn’t have 100 per cent energy coming into every game, so that’s been a big thing for me. That I have better conditioning, I have more strength and power in my legs, and just trying to get stronger and faster.

“It was my first year in the league and you just learn from it. Always have it back in your head that you want to play good even when you have a tough day.”

Just having an older and stronger Pettersson will make the Canucks better this season.

[MORE: Pressure’s on Tyler Myers | Three Questions | X-Factor]

As for Boeser, getting him back to full strength will also help the organization on the ice. The 22-year-old has yet to play in 80-plus games per year during his first two seasons in the NHL, but he’s been as productive as anybody on the roster. Last season, he had 26 goals and 56 points in 69 contests.

The key to Vancouver’s success will be to get these guys healthy. They both helped the organization take a step forward last year, but now it’s all about making progress.

Despite acquiring players like Miller, Benn, Myers and Ferland this summer, the Canucks still have some holes on their roster.

Will the goaltending hold up? At what point does Demko overtake Jacob Markstrom?

Markstrom played in 60 games last year and had some good showings, but he’s probably not the future in goal for the organization. The 29-year-old had a respectable 28-23-9 record with a 2.77 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage last season. As for Demko, he only got nine games last season.

The reason the Canucks added to their blue line is because they felt that was an area they needed to get better in a hurry. Last year, they were led by Edler, Troy Stecher, Hutton, Derrick Pouliot, Chris Tanev and Erik Gudbranson and Alex Biega.

Their blue line was underwhelming enough in 2018-19 that they decided not to bring back Hutton, Pouliot, Gudbranson (he was traded at the deadline). They did sign Edler to a new two-year deal, but clearly they’re banking on their newcomers delivering better performances. Also, top-10 draft pick Quinn Hughes should help them transport the puck from the back end.

Overall, we should see a more exciting Canucks team this season. Will it be enough to get them into the playoffs though?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.