Six Takeaways From Canucks Preseason

By: Trent Leith / October 11, 2023  

On Wednesday, October 4th, the Canucks wrapped up their six-game preseason schedule. The Canucks ultimately won only two of their six contests and were outscored by 20-11, largely due to the 10-0 loss to kick off the preseason against the Calgary Flames on Sept. 24th.

However, the final scores are not the whole story. Wins and losses aren’t what preseason hockey is about. Preseason is about evaluations, tryouts, and experimentation from the coaching staff.

So, what are the takeaways from this year’s preseason?

Arshdeep Bains Showed He Has What It Takes

Arshdeep Bains’ performance is a preseason highlight worth mentioning. He was an undrafted free agent who had a fantastic camp and demonstrated an improved level of skating. Bains was given an opportunity to show off his skillset, and he took advantage of it. While he might not make the opening night lineup, he showed he is more than capable of playing in the NHL this season (and I think he will). Bains had 38 points in 66 games playing with the Abbotsford Canucks last season and was routinely in the top-six.

Bains led the WHL with 112 points in his final year, which caught the eye of various NHL clubs and ultimately got him a contract with the Canucks. But Bains isn’t your classic CHL scoring leader who relies strictly on talent. Bains is a physical, hard-to-play-against winger. He battles on every shift, fights for every inch of ice, and scores in the “dirty areas”. Bains has the qualifications to be a meaningful player anywhere he is put on the ice.

Nothing will be handed to Bains in the NHL, and he plays like he knows it. And did I mention Arshdeep Bains is BC-born and bred? A possible hometown hero in the making.

Podkolzin Still Has a Way To Go

On the flip side of the standout performers like Bains, there are those who fell short. One example is the Canucks’ 2019 10th overall selection, Vasily Podkolzin. Podkolzin struggled throughout the preseason, almost unrecognizable to the player we know he can be.

Podkolzin had a reasonably strong rookie season after arriving in Vancouver in 2021. His time in professional hockey beforehand consisted of two seasons in the KHL and a politically driven demotion to the 4th line. Both fans and coaches were hoping for Vasily’s career to move forward as he entered his sophomore year season. Unfortunately, that hasn’t panned out yet. Podkolzin was demoted to the AHL, in a move intended to bring out his full potential. Now, this preseason Podkolzin once again found himself being sent to the AHL. This time, before preseason even ended.

Podkolzin has all the tools to be a strong, top-six winger in the NHL, but he needs to be able to put it together effectively. He has the size, the skating, the shot and the talent. The issue he faces is one of the hardest issues to fix in professional sports: the mind game.

Podkolzin appears to be so afraid to make a mistake with the puck that he doesn’t want to try and do anything as a result. And can you blame him? He was demoted to the fourth line in the KHL, then went to the WJC and played a top-line role, then back to the fourth line. He came to North America and would be in the top-six one night, scratched the next and then on the fourth line after that. Podkolzin has had no consistency since he was drafted leaving him not knowing what kind of player he is.

Hopefully, getting a full training camp in Abbotsford and a long stretch of playing time will remind Podkolzin that he is a capable professional hockey player, and rebuild his confidence. Podkolzin needs consistency, and starting the season in the AHL is the best way to do that.

Cole McWard and Defense By Committee

The dialogue that dominated social media during the summer was “Who is going to play with Quinn Hughes”. Will it be steady veteran Ian Cole? Maybe Carson Soucy? Or will the Canucks load up and put Filip Hronek on a pairing with him? Well, it was none of those… but sort of all of those?

For the majority of training camp, Cole McWard has been given the chance to be the steadying presence on Hughes’ flank and he has risen above the pack in doing so. Cole and Soucy are both natural LHD with experience on the right side, Jet Woo and Filip Johansson bot weren’t ready for the task, and Noah Juulsen struggled previously alongside Quinn Hughes. Cole McWard rose above the rest to earn his shot.

McWard is looking to make his first full professional season out of the NCAA. He has taken a lot of penalties and has a few warts in his game, but as a 22-year-old RHD, there is lots of room to grow and mature.

That said, McWard likely won’t be the only person playing alongside Hughes according to head coach Rick Tocchet.

“I know you guys want (to know) ‘who’s the guy?’,” Tocchet told the media, “Right now we don’t have that guy per se, but to me, we do have that guy. We have a bunch of guys that can do it. That’s how I look at it. Just like in baseball, you have a bunch of relievers that are great relievers.”

This approach allows the Canucks to ride the ‘hot hand’ in any given moment and let the guys play to their strengths. If there is an offensive zone draw late in the game, Hughes and Hronek can go out together and lean on their offensive upsides. If there is a defensive zone draw, you can put steady, defence-first, defenders out there to try and lock it down and run out the clock.

If you have buy-in from your entire defensive group, this is a highly advantageous deployment when you’re hoping the total can be greater than the sum of your parts.

One thing to watch is what might change when Ethan Bear becomes healthy. Bear is an RHD who has shown he can play alongside Hughes, as well as further down the lineup. Bringing in a third RHD may allow the Canucks to steady their pairings and create a more traditional defence corp. It is reported that Bear sees Vancouver as his first choice and the Canucks remain open to making a deal with the UFA.

Soucy Starting Injured

As if the defence needed more issues. Carson Soucy will miss the beginning of the season with a lower-body injury that has him listed as “week-to-week”. Soucy got tangled along the boards and fell awkwardly In Vancouver’s final preseason game of the year against Calgary.

Tocchet said, “I don’t think it’s [Soucy’s absence] too long, but if I had to say it would be week-to-week”. That is not great news for a player who is an important piece on the back end and a pivotal cog in the revamped penalty kill. Add this to the injured Guillaume Brisebois, and the defensive depth is already looking quite thin despite management’s efforts to address the back-end by bringing in two free agents and a major trade acquisition.

Penalty Kill Looks Much Stronger

We need not highlight how abysmal Vancouver’s penalty kill has been over the last few seasons. It was the main area of focus this offseason for Patrick Allvin and Jim Rutherford, bringing in Soucy, Cole, Suter, Blueger, and, most recently, Lafferty. The additions are showing promise in the early returns with Vancouver having killed 87% (20/23) of penalties in the preseason. This is a great sign for a team whose penalty percentage has sat at the basement (71.6% & 74.9%) over the past two seasons.

I do have to highlight the obvious, it is still preseason. With that said, we can see a notable improvement that we can safely expect to come back down to earth but still level out much better than before. For context, last season the Boston Bruins led the NHL with an 87.3% PK. No one expects the penalty kill to be that strong in the regular season, but even being league-average would be a game-changer. It might even be enough to put the team over the top and get them into the playoffs. Unfortunately, a big part of that penalty kill just got hurt and is currently listed week-to-week (Carson Soucy).

Goals May be in Short Supply

In the preseason as a total, Hughes, Pettersson, and Kuzmenko each only scored one goal. JT Miller and Brock Boeser didn’t score at all. While on the defensive end (minus the 10-0 game against Calgary) things seem to be trending in the right direction, the cost seems to be coming from the offensive side of the game. Again, it’s only preseason but in years past, the Canucks are not defensively sound enough to win a game 1-0 by not allowing opposing opportunities, they need scoring. A full season under coach Tocchet’s new systems might prove otherwise, but until then the low goal totals are something to be concerned about.

Typically, your top-end players, the ones who you rely on for offence, don’t go all out in preseason games. As I said earlier, these are evaluation games, they are games to find your legs. Top-end players like Miller and Pettersson are less likely to play 100%. They are making the roster whether they have a strong camp or not. Players are focused on getting back into game rhythm and not getting injured before the season starts. I will hold out hope until the puck drops in Edmonton on Wednesday that our star players shine and show what they can do when games start to matter.