The Vancouver Canucks have had a clear-cut mission going into the 2015-2016 season: they want to get younger. They made some unpopular trades through the summer with general manager Jim Benning called on the carpet by some fans for effectively “ruining” the franchise for the near future. Fan favourites like Kevin Bieksa, Eddie Lack and Zack Kassian were traded away.
Vancouver wrapped the 2014-2015 season with a 48-29-5 record, good for second in the Pacific Division. They were 24-15-3 at home and scored 236 goals while allowing a disappointing 220. When it came time for the post-season, the Canucks lost to the Calgary Flames in six games in the first round. They have made the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, but they’ve only advanced past the first round once.
As far as Benning is concerned, it’s okay to take a “little bit of a step back” in the regular season if that means the team can advance in the playoffs. He acquired the likes of Brandon Sutter and Brandon Proust to go with a gaggle of draft picks, plus he seems ready to put the focus on youngsters like Bo Horvat and netminder Jacob Markstrom.
Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are the cornerstones of the Canucks’ offence attack. They play with either Alex Burrows or Radim Vrbata on the wing and that won’t change for the 2015-2016 season. Henrik Sedin managed 73 points in 82 games last season and he’ll continue to be a natural point-producer. Some would still like to see him shoot the puck more rather than defer to his brother, but old habits die hard.
Daniel Sedin just edged out Hank with 76 points in 82 games. He had 20 goals, four of which came on the power play, and added four points in six playoff games. The 34-year-old Vrbata gives the Sedin twins some nice hands and vision to play with. He had 63 points in 79 games, including 31 goals, and he’s a viable offensive option. And Burrows is still a firecracker. He produced 33 points in 70 games.
The Canucks are hoping Sutter will kick off the second line at centre. The 26-year-old former Penguin had 33 points in 80 games last season, including 21 goals. He is a capable two-way player and seems to be growing in confidence. Vancouver fans may have to realize that he’s not the second coming of Ryan Kesler, but he doesn’t have to be in order to be effective. Throw Chris Higgins or Jannik Hansen in the mix and you’re looking at a decent top six.
Defensively, the Canucks will once again enter the season without a top defenceman. Sure, they have Alexander Edler. He scored 31 points in 74 games last season and averaged nearly 24 minutes of ice time a game, but he’s not among the league’s elite blueliners. He can still be unpredictable in his own end and is prone to mistakes.
Dan Hamhuis is the savvy veteran. The 32-year-old from Smithers logged an average of 21:31 a game and moves the puck well. He had 23 points in 59 games, including 22 assists. But like Edler, it’s hard to consider Hamhuis a distinctive top-tier threat. He lacks that extra gear to get things done and isn’t the most physical of defencemen.
On a typical night, the Canucks dig deep into their group to find defensive balance. Chris Tanev, Yannick Weber, Luca Sbisa, and Frank Corrado will all see more ice time this season and that’s not a bad thing. Weber had 11 goals last year, including five on the power play, and Tanev is a quality puck-mover. Vancouver can also use 27-year-olds Matt Bartowski and Alex Biega down the line, but this group looks rather thin on paper.
The departure of Eddie Lack left many scratching their heads. The hope is that Ryan Miller will live up to his billing as the number one guy for the Canucks, but his save percentage last season was his lowest since 2007-2008. In 45 games, Miller picked up 29 wins and posted a goals against average of 2.53 to go with that .911 save percentage.
All eyes will turn to Markstrom if Miller falters. The 25-year-old from Gavle rocked the house with Utica in the AHL last season with a .934 save percentage and a 1.88 goals against average. The trouble is that he’s hasn’t replicated that success at the NHL level yet. Vancouver will hope to give him that opportunity behind Miller.
Winger Jake Virtanen was drafted by Vancouver in the first round in 2014, but he was slowed up last season by summer shoulder surgery. The book on him is that he’s a natural scorer and the Canucks are taking a long hard look at him in the pre-season. The knock on the 19-year-old is that he can take a few shifts off, which could come back to haunt him if he’s on the bubble.
Centre Cole Cassels is the son of former NHL centre and former Vancouver Canuck Andrew Cassels. He has a mind for hockey and plays the game with wisdom beyond his years. The 20-year-old from Hartford is likely to start the year in Utica after he saw top duty with the Oshawa Generals, where he squared off against one Connor McDavid.
The Path Ahead
The Canucks are hoping the shift to younger players will grant them more success over the long haul, which in turn will translate to more success in the post-season. And they believe, right or wrong, that they are a playoff team capable of challenging for the ultimate prize in sports. That may have a few fans raising eyebrows, but Benning and Co. believe in this team and believe in their game plan.
There are some serious questions, however. The goaltending situation is a little on the shaky side and Vancouver has some issues when it comes to defensive depth. They’re missing that top-tier defenceman and that could come back to haunt them in the end, plus they may be making a mistake putting all their faith in Ryan Miller.