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Did the Off-Season Put the Canucks a step ahead, or behind?

Trent Leith / January 13, 2021  

It’s safe to say this offseason for the Canucks has had its ups and downs, with some high turnover of veterans and key players in the locker room. On the other hand, there were bullets dodged as far as UFA contracts go and there is potential young talent ready to make their mark on the NHL. 

In the first days of the summer the off-season it looked like the potential of a young club shown in the playoffs was going to be squandered. Key players were leaving left and right, from lack of communication with Jim Benning, to the Canucks being priced out and focused on the future. By the middle of the offseason, it was primarily expected that the club would be taking a significant step backward. In the last days of the strange offseason, hope and expectation took another step forward. However, are the Canucks ultimately better or worse than it was in the dying moments of The Bubble?

Going Out

In this exercise, we need to know what the team lost, to know if what they have now is better or worse. The notable players the Canucks lost in free agency are Jacob Markstrom, Loui Domingue, Chris Tanev, Troy Stetcher, Oscar Fantanberg, Tyler Toffoli and Josh Leivo. It has been widely reported that many of the negotiations stalled leading into free agency, as Jim Benning worked on a trade for Oliver Ekman-Larrsen. With Benning seeing OEL as the highest priority, many of the pending UFAs got frustrated with the lack of communication and signed new deals, many too rich for Benning’s blood anyway. 

Jacob Markstrom was the backbone of the team’s success in the last few years. Markstrom had a career-best .918 SV% and 2.75 GGA in the strange 2019-20 season. His departure is arguably the most painful loss. The Canucks are not known for their defensive play, and Markstrom’s specialty was bailing the team out. Markstrom signed in Calgary with the dreaded 6×6 contract that any Canucks fan would shudder at the sight of. Louis Domingue also signed a league-minimum contract to play in Calgary leaving the Canucks 2 goalies down. 

Chris Tanev would also jump on the Calgary Cancuks Flames bandwagon signing a 4 year $4.5M deal. Tanev had a good year largely thanks to staying healthy and his son linemate Quinn Hughes having a breakout rookie year, and more importantly, a healthy season. Tanev was worth more to this team than what he showed in the score sheet. One of the two longest tenure Canucks and a leader to many of the young Canucks both on and off the ice, Tanev leaving hurts this club more than what is shown on paper.

Troy Stetcher was a fan favourite from Richmond, BC and was reported to have almost no negotiations with the team. Stetcher was known for his hard work, chipping in offensively, defensive reliability and puking in training camp. Tony Stretcher was also very reliable on the penalty kill. Stetcher would sign in Detroit on a very friendly 2 year $1.7M deal that left fans scratching their heads on why he couldn’t do that in Vancouver. 

Also on the backend, Oskar Fantenberg would leave North America all together for the chance to play with Vasil Podkolzin in Russia. Fantenberg was not a cornerstone piece by any stretch and was not in the lineup for much of last season. This departure was not one that was shocking or at all consequential. 

Tyler Toffoli was also left largely in the dark (sensing a pattern here?) and signed in Montreal for another palatable deal of 4 years at $4.25M. Toffoli was acquired around the deadline for Tim Schaller, prospect Tyler Madden and a 2020 2nd Round pick. Toffoli had immediate success playing on the top line with Pettersson and Miller, and even had chemistry with former teammate Tanner Pearson, and captain Bo Horvat. With another affordable deal, fans started losing their minds. Josh Leivo was also left without a contract and seeing as Vancouver wasn’t an option, he signed in the next best spot. Calgary, or as many call it, Vancouver Lite. Leivo signed for $875K for 1 year. While he has been injury-prone, he was an effective middle six player for the club and played well on the second line with Horvat. 

Coming In

When Jacob Markstrom signed in Calgary, Ian Clark helped identify Braden Holtby as a viable replacement. Holtby has had a down year in 2019-20, but has been a proven starter throughout his career. He signed for 2 years at $4.3M to split the crease with Demko. The key note to this deal is the M-NTC that allows Holtby to be exposed in the Seattle Expansion draft in Summer 2021 so the Canucks can protect Thatcher Demko.

After the OEL deal fell through, and 3 defencemen walked, The Vegas Golden Knights acquired UFA Alex Pietrangelo and the Canucks leveraged the cap and personal constraints and acquired Nate Schmidt for only a 2022 third. Nate Schmidt will help add offence from the back end, without sacrificing too much defensively. Plus he makes funny noises when he wants a pass so that’s a bonus. 

Travis Hamonic, signed a PTO with the Canucks prior to camp, and on the eve of the regular season opening, Hamonic signed a 1 year $1.25M deal and is expected to step right into Chris Tanev’s old role when he is game ready. Due to quarantine related issues and a practice being shut down, Hamonic only had one day to find his game legs after nearly a year, last playing Febuary 8th 2020. Hamonic also opted out of the playoff’s due to family related Covid-19 concerns. He may not be a lock for the opening lineup. 

How Does It Look

At first glance there is a lot more going out than is coming in this off-season for the Canucks, which is never a good sign.The biggest question mark is goaltending, as the Canucks lost their starter and third string goaltender. Markstrom made the Canucks look better than they perhaps really were once he bloomed into the bonafide number one he is today. Brayden Holtby is certainly a step backwards if you look at the previous year for these goaltenders. Holtby had a .897 SV% while on the flip side Markstrom had a .918 SV%, the highest of his starting career. 

There is more than meets the eye as far as these new deals go. Markstrom signed a 6 year 6 million dollar deal that left a lot of Canuck fans sighing in relief. With Thatcher Demko coming into his own in the playoffs last year, the Canucks were right to not handcuff themselves to the 30-year-old. Further to that point is that in the next offseason the Canucks will have to expose one of their goalies. Should the Canucks have matched that Flames deal, they would be forced to let Demko go to expansion as Markstrom has a full no move clause. That was a large factor in negotiations. Markstrom wanted security, the Canucks wanted flexibility. The Canucks were not in a place where they wanted to lose their “goalie of the future”.

In comes Holtby who is on an, albeit, expensive 2 year deal, with no expansion protection. When the Canucks inevitably expose him in the 2021 expansion draft, either they lose a goalie that does not hurt the future of the team, or the price scares Seattle and the Canucks have a bonafide 1a/1b situation for one more year before he comes off the books.

What has the potential to be another thorn in the side of the Canucks is the loss of Loui Domingue. “Wait, the baking guy?” Yes, the baking guy. This is because as we stand, Michael DiPietro is the 3rd goalie for the team, but he is not NHL ready. The Canucks are faced with the options to send him to the AHL for development, but have him be a 2 week quarantine away from the line-up should there be an injury. *Knocks on wood*. Or, should they keep him on the Taxi squad, seeing almost no game time for what could be another full season. It seems like a lose-lose.

Benning stressed all summer off-season that he was going to give the young talent in the wings a chance to join the roster and that will be the make or break for the defense. Schmidt is an upgrade on Stetcher and Hamonic is a lateral move on Tanev. Schmidt is a top pairing defenceman on many teams across the league and he will help spread the offence throughout the lines on the back end. While trailing a lead, Schmidt and Hughes would make for one of the most mobile, exciting pairs in the NHL to watch try and tie a game late. 

Tanev and Hamonic is less of a homerun upgrade, in fact the margins on that are so tight we might not even notice a difference other than an increase in Teeth-Per-60. Chris Tanev was among the league’s 5th percentile as far as that goes. If Quinn can find on-ice chemistry similar to what he had with Tanev, and Hamonic can stay the course defensively, we may never even notice a difference. 

Then we have Olli Juolevi, and Jack Rathbone. While Juolevi has the inside track to take the last spot on the third pair, by the time the season shakes out it will likely be one of these two in the bottom pair. This is Olli Juolevi’s best chance to crack the line up and stay in it after a brief appearance at the end of last season. If all goes well, both will be lineup ready for the start of the 2021-22 campaign.

As for the forwards, well the age old question seemed to be back “who will play on Horvat’s wing?” I was not happy to ask it or think about it, I thought we were past it. Toffoli was such a perfect fit in the top 6 both at 5-on-5 and on the power play. He made the forward crops so much more dynamic. But he’s gone. And Leivo, if he could get healthy and get in the line up again, he had success in that role too, to a lesser extent but it was there. Leivo was good for about 20 points and a 55%-59% Corsi, all signs of a half decent shutdown winger. 

With the seeming emergence of Nils Hoglander and the demotion of Loui Eriksson, Horvat’s wing seems like it’s Hoglander’s for the taking. This would imply that the Lotto line would take on the toughest matchups leaving the second line to feast on lesser competition. If the second line will be out to score, and not play a match up roll, that makes the sting of losing Leivo more bearable. And if Hoglander has a good rookie year offence wise, the loss of Toffoli will sting less as well. 

Final Thoughts

Jim was right, this is the year the young guys need to step up and make the best of their chances. And that could be the difference between taking a step back, and keeping the course. Hoglander may prove to be a decent (and much cheaper) Toffoli replacement. Demko could step up and take the crease to replace Markstrom, while Holtby isn’t a bad fall-back option, as I expect a bounce back season from him with the help from Ian Clark. On defence, Schmidt is an upgrade on Stetcher, Hamonic is a comparable replacement for Tanev, Hoglander likely won’t fill Toffoli’s shoes in his first year, but if he can be an upgrade on Eriksson, he will be an upgrade on what was in place for a large part of last season. 

The only bonafide upgrade was on the back end, and the upside for the rest of the roster is likely comparable to the end of last season, whereas the floor is much lower. I  have long referred to myself as a “tragically optimistic Canucks fan” so I am in the belief that this team can maintain course, and the young stars that lead this team will take a step forward. Boeser will take a step back on track, Pettersson and Hughes will somehow find another gear and potentially elevate the team higher.

I would say that the team will make the playoffs at the end of the year, and hindsight will look fondly on this summer, despite the tragic trajectory it seemed to start on. I don’t think the Tanev and Markstrom contracts will age particularly well, and the young players set to step up in those roles will only get sweeter with time.