With the resumption of play still up in the air for the whole hockey world, it has put the Vancouver Canucks in a tough spot. Way back in June at the NHL draft, General Manager (GM) Jim Benning made a bold move triggering a trade with the Tampa Bay Lighting to bring in versatile power forward J.T Miller into the fold. The cost? A very steep price, to say the least: a first-round pick, a third-round pick, and a goaltending prospect. The Canucks weren’t sure what they were getting with Miller, a guy who saw his goal production dip from 23 to 13 in the 2018-19 season. It was a big gamble for the Canucks, but they saw the potential for Miller to play alongside Swedish superstar Elias Pettersson. As we are in the middle of an NHL shutdown due to COVID-19, it seems the gamble paid off. This season saw JT Miller tally a career-high in points (72), goals (27), and assists (45). He has been everything for the Canucks this season and is on a team-friendly 5.2M contract for the next three seasons.
The Canucks have been in a playoff position for most of this season thanks to steller play from pending free-agent Jacob Markstrom (who we will get to later in this article), and a rookie Phenom Quinn Hughes, who is possibly the leading candidate for the Calder Trophy. Hughes came in this season and displayed something that we have yet to see from the blueliner in a Canucks uniform: the ability to rush the puck and set up plays in the offensive zone. His play on the back end was a game-changer for the Canucks this season, helping the powerplay tremendously, a special teams’ unit that one year ago 9th-worst production. It lacked a quarterback. Enter Hughes.
The FIRST CAREER GOAL for Quinn Hughes! @Canucks
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) October 10, 2019
This season the powerplay skyrocketed all the way up to 5th overall in the NHL, tied for 2nd in powerplay goals with 57. The Canucks haven’t had a top-five powerplay since 2010-11 where they let the league in goals, goals for, and the Sedin twins were in the prime of their careers. IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME!!
The Canucks have not made the playoffs since the 2014-15 season and got bounced by the Calgary Flames in six games. Many believe that Vancouver is at the end of the five-year rebuild, a big part of which has been due to the work of the scouting within the organization, led by Judd Brackett. He and GM Jim Benning have done a tremendous job at restocking the cupboards full of elite prospects. Over the last five years, the Canucks have been in the cellar of the NHL drafting in the bottom five. That being said, they have done a great job of finding talent. Brock Boeser was taken at 22nd overall in the 2015 draft, Elias Pettersson was snagged at 5th overall in the 2017 draft, Hughes fell into the Canuck’s lap at 7th two seasons ago, and Benning and Brackett struck gold again in last year’s draft, taking a chance on a Russian forward Vasili Podkolzin. Podkolzin was drafted with the organization knowing that he is already committed to a 2-year contract in the KHL. To mitigate the wait, the Canucks also got another crafty Swedish forward by the name of Nils Hoglander, who recently just signed an entry-level deal with the club a couple of weeks ago.
“I’m excited. This is a big step in my hockey career. It means a lot with the amount of Swedish players that have played there and play there now. I’m looking forward to playing there one day."
Listen in as Nils Hoglander speaks to the Vancouver media. pic.twitter.com/wypAm9rlyN
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) April 29, 2020
As Pettersson and Hughes busted onto the scene so quickly, unexpected successes have rapidly sped up the rebuild for the Canucks. As a result, they went out and signed UFA defenseman Tyler Myers to a 5 year, 30-million-dollar contract last summer, and brought in forward Michael Ferland. A gritty forward with an inspiring personal story, Ferland’s impact was unfortunately cut short to just 14 games due to a concussion. This offseason, Canucks fans are going to see exactly where Benning and Company are heading.
Meanwhile, Tyler Toffoli was brought over to the Canucks in a deadline deal with the LA Kings to play in the top 6 with Pettersson and Miller. Safe to say, it was instant chemistry with the trio. In 10 games with the Canucks Toffoli tallied 6 goals 10 points
— NHL (@NHL) February 23, 2020
The price saw the Canucks send prospect Tyler Madden and a conditional 4th round pick in the 2022 draft to the Kings (if Toffoli resigns in Vancouver this summer). Many think it is a no brainer to bring back Toffoli on a 4-year deal, with speculation stating a contract of around 21-Million-dollars (5.25 AAV). It’s easier said than done though. The Canucks have their work cut out for them this summer with pending UFA’s in Jacob Markstrom, and Chris Tanev set to hit the market. They also have RFA’s to pay in Adam Gaudette, Jake Virtanen (who set a career-high in goals), Zack MacEwen, and local boy Troy Stecher.
The problem you ask? With the NHL losing money by the day, the possibility looms that there will be a flat salary cap for next season, which hurts the Canucks. They are still on the hook for two more seasons while paying recently retired Roberto Luongo three million as a cap recapture. Jim Benning will also have to keep in mind that next season Elias Pettersson is due to get a huge pay raise, and Hughes will follow suit the next year. With 20 million dollars in cap space this current summer the Canucks can only keep two of the pending UFA’s. Currently, the front runners are Toffoli and Markstrom.
Speaking of goaltenders, Jacob Markstrom over the past 13 months has solidified himself as the true number one goalie that the Canucks believed he’d be when they acquired him in 2014 from the Florida Panthers. In December 2018, he won 9 of 10 games, beginning to put his name on the map as a top NHL goalie. Since then, he holds a record of 43-29-10 with a 2.63 Goals-against-average, and a .915 save percentage with three shutouts. Lastly, he was named to the Pacific All-Star team for the first time in his career. This season he was the arguably the most valuable player on the team, and Canucks nation learned just how valuable he was when he went down with injury in March. This happened as the Canucks were in first place in the Division, coming off of a 9-3 win vs. the East-leading Boston Bruins.
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) April 20, 2020
In Markstrom’s absence, the Canucks went 3-5-0 and saw their six-point division lead disappear when they turned to rookie goaltender Thatcher Demko, as they fell all the way to the 2nd wild card in the West. Cap space is tight, with hopes that Markstrom and the club can come to a 4-year, approximately 25-million-dollar extension to remain the team’s starting goaltender. That leaves 8.5M dollars to sign the RFA’s, which is a tough decision.
One thing the Canucks should attempt to do this summer is to shed the Sven Baertschi and Louie Eriksson contracts to give them some cap flexibility and possibly upgrade the back end. With that being said, the Canucks may just look inside their system to upgrade their defensive corps. Brogan Rafferty showed lots of promise in Utica this season, tallying 45 points in 57 games, and he would look solid alongside Alex Edler next season. One more defenseman within the system is Oli Joulevi, the guy many are so quick to write off and quickly call a bust. Keep in mind, the kid just turned 22 this past week. There’s still lots of time for this kid to develop into a top 4 defenseman. To add, the poor kid has had a couple of freak injuries the last couple of seasons. Look for him to make a push to make the Canucks next fall.
If the Canucks do decide to search via trade to upgrade the blueline, there are a few targets they can look at. The first call I would make is to GM Doug Armstrong of the St Louis Blues and ask the availability of Vince Dunn. Dunn is a big, strong, left-handed defenseman that would fit the Canucks style nicely on the second pairing with Brogan Rafferty. With the Salary Cap potentially being flat, the Canucks hands are pretty much tied unless they can figure out a way to get creative and shed some contracts.
All things considered, the Canucks future is very bright with Pettersson, Miller, Boeser, Horvat, Hughes, Virtanen, and Markstrom leading the way. It’s been a dark and cold last five years in Vancouver, but the light may finally be at the end of the tunnel. Prediction: playoff hockey is going to be in the lower mainlands for many years to come!