Though stripped and gutted by other teams (but mostly just Brad Treliving) during the offseason, the Vancouver Canucks roster retained all those young stars that made them the surprise story of the summer. Whether they replicate their postseason success in the shortened season, however, depends on how their firepower and fresh faces offset ongoing defensive struggles.
2019-20: 36-27-6 (3rd Pacific, 7th West)
Captain: Bo Horvat
Coach: Travis Green (otherwise known as Mark Ruffalo’s doppelganger)
GM: Jim Benning
Key Additions: D Nate Schmidt, G Braden Holtby, D Travis Hamonic
Key Departures: G Jacob Markstrom (to the Flames), D Chris Tanev (to the Flames), F Tyler Toffoli, D Troy Stecher, F Josh Leivo (to the Flames), D Oscar Fantenberg, G Louis Domingue (to the Flames)
Aside from Markstrom, Tanev and Leivo disrobing their red sweaters on the ice against the Canucks and revealing their signings as part of some clandestine conspiracy to infiltrate the Flames and sabotage their season on behalf of their former team, the Flames should be wary of their neighbours to the (Scotia) West for a few key reasons—beyond possible treason.
To pinpoint the Canucks’ greatest overarching strengths and weaknesses, allow us to thrust the throttle into reverse and revisit Games 5 and 6 of their second-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights.
In Game 5, the Canucks eked out a slim 2-1 win to claw their way to another game – despite being out-shot 43-17, and out-high-danger-scoring-chanced 14-4 over three periods.
Two nights later, Thatcher Demko dazzled again under an onslaught to secure a 4-0 win for a Canucks team that conceded 48 shots and only posted 23 themselves. The Golden Knights also out-high-danger-scoring-chanced them 22-13, yet the Canucks managed to beat them.
Quoting Bart Simpson, therein lies the game: the Vancouver Canucks are an elite top-heavy offensive team that routinely converts on whatever spare chances their opposition might allow, but they also withstand barrages and bombardments from the other team nearly every game.
Last season, the Vancouver Canucks finished eighth in the league in goals-per-game while simultaneously stalling and stunting at 18th in shots-per-game (per NHL.com). The secret to their success was evidently their conversion rate. Just like they managed to nab two goals on 17 shots and pinch a victory against the odds versus Vegas that day, the Canucks shot to score last season among the best offensive teams in the league.
According to Natural Stat Trick, their team-wide shooting percentage was eighth last year—and individually, dual dynamos Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser finished fifth and sixth, respectively, among all NHL skaters with over 500 logged minutes in even-strength shooting percentage. Though 17 teams lapped the Canucks in shots generated, few teams compare to them in goals generated. Vancouverites can thank their hyperactive offensive core for that unparalleled ratio – Pettersson, Boeser, JT Miller, Bo Horvat and precocious blueline quarterback Quinn Hughes have combined to make the Canucks one of the flashiest and least forgiving teams in hockey. The Flames will need to beware bestowing too many chances to this lineup—especially with their 24.2% power play that finished 4th in the NHL last year—because they rarely miss.
But without Demko swatting away those shots with ease beyond his experience, the Canucks probably lose those games to the Golden Knights. Allowing 40+ shots a game catches up with you, signals a significant area of concern within the structural integrity of your defensive makeup.
In reality, the Canucks averaged 33.3 shots-against-per-game during the regular season last year—but that was still the fourth-highest rate in the entire league. To emphasize the issue, they allowed more shots per game than the Detroit Red Wings (woof). Natural Stat Trick slots their xGA/60 last year at 2.53 to claim the 5th-worst rank in the league, and their CA/60 at 60.24 was the 4th-worst in the league.
Often hemmed in their own end and especially hammered by trigger-happy offensive outburst from the opposition, the Vancouver Canucks play their worst hockey in their own zone. When Demko (or Braden Holtby, as we shall see) is on his game, their sure-fire top-six scoring should assure the win, but the Canucks certainly rely heavily on their goaltending and first two forward lines cruising at high altitudes. The Flames will need to therefore exploit the extra time allotted in the offensive zone by a team like Vancouver and pepper them to try matching the conversions.
Over the off-season, however, the Canucks brass performed admirably in addressing this defensive issue. Though they lost shutdown defender Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher to signings elsewhere (i.e., here, in the former case), they picked up the loudest top-four defenceman in the NHL, Nate Schmidt, for pennies from the cap-strangled Golden Knights.
Bolstering their blueline even further is the former Flame with whom we’re all so familiar, Travis Hamonic. The Canucks invited him to training camp on a PTO, whereupon pundits expect him to sign a deal and possibly replace Tanev as the reliable rearguard leashed to Hughes. Bill Huan of The Canuck Way shares this assertion:
“When Hughes is making his one-man rushes, Hamonic can stay behind and act as a safety net for Vancouver. This will allow the young phenom to continue playing his game, and we all saw how successful he was last season when given free rein to roam around the ice.”
It is not a considerably fresh taken to compare Tanev to Hamonic, so taking the quick route to consider it an even swap, the Canucks essentially just replaced Schmidt with Stecher this offseason. Now, that is a massive upgrade. Schmidt can helm a secondary power play unit, nearly doubled Stecher in points last season and boasts a better CF% and xGF% – honestly there was no need to waste ink comparing them. So if Schmidt can better seal the crease and spearhead more effective breakouts, it may not be so easy for teams to trample Vancouver in the shots department.
An X-factor for the Canucks, though? Nils Hoglander.
The 2019 second round pick who graced last year’s World Juniors with a show-stopping lacrosse goal has stolen the scene at Canucks training camp, too. Considered to be vying for a spot on the opening-night roster before camp, Hoglander has nearly guaranteed himself a top-six role on Horvat’s wing to start the year with his elusive maneuvers.
Add another lethal Swede to the threats posed by the Canucks this season. Zoinks.
Ultimately, the Vancouver Canucks are a lively and exciting hockey team fuelled this past season by a potent offence but plagued by a frail defensive structure. Entering this year, the offence persists – Pettersson, Hughes and Boeser are already elite yet still improving youths, plus Hoglander is teasing an impressive rookie campaign. Meanwhile, personnel changes on the blueline might spell a tighter own-zone team that refrains from conceding so many shots (and so many dangerous ones) night after night after night.
Regardless, the Flames should brace for merciless offence every time they adjust their watches to Pacific time this season – but they should also recall just how many scoring chances they could very well muster themselves against this specific squad.
Thatcher Demko (Starter)
Projected Taxi Squad:
F Sven Baertschi
F Justin Bailey
F Jayce Hawryluk
D Brogan Rafferty
D Jalen Chatfield
G Michael Dipietro