Can they cope with the losses of free agencies?

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VANCOUVER – After four years of stumbling through the wilderness, the Vancouver Canucks were found alive and well last season, younger, better and hungrier after their ordeal.
Driven by young stars Elias Patterson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, and backed by a few key mid-career veterans, the Canucks returned to the National Hockey League playoffs for the first time since 2015 and won two rounds – Vancouver’s first postseason success since the 2011 Stanley Cup Final race.

The challenge now, of course, is to stay out of the woods and start over. Heading into a season where many people outside BC expect the Canucks to fall back, coach Travis Green must find a way to improve his team’s win rate. for a fourth consecutive year. No one on the Canucks plans to step back, and their re-energized fans are unlikely to accept one.

Regular season record 2019-2020: 69 GP, 36-27-6, 78 pts

End of the 2019-20 season: 7th Western Conference

Best pick in the 2020 draft: Joni Jurmo (82e)

Additions: Nils Hoglander, F; Nate Schmidt, D, Olli Juolevi, D, Travis Hamonic, D, Jalen Chatfield, D; Braden Holtby, G.

Subtractions: Tyler Toffoli, F, Josh Leivo, F; Chris Tanev, D, Troy Stecher, D, Oscar Fanteberg, D; Jacob Markstrom, G.

PERSPECTIVE

No team seemed to lose more ground in free agency than the Canucks, who in October saw all of their unrestricted free agents rushing out, including starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom and veteran defense leader Chris Tanev.

Even after GM Jim Benning made what could be his best trade in six years at the helm, the acquisition of top-pair defenseman Nate Schmidt at liquidation prices from the tight Vegas Golden Knights salary cap, the predictions and projections for the 2021 season almost universally have the Canucks missed the Canadian Division playoffs.

The team fed on external skepticism about their ability last year, both before the regular season and the summer playoffs. Hardly anyone picked them to even be close to the playoffs, but they thrived as underdogs, which wasn’t surprising to anyone who understands the fierce dynamism of their top players and especially Pettersson and Hughes.

But the challenge that awaits them this season is considerable.

With no deadline to hire Tyler Toffoli on the front row, the Canucks must keep scoring like they did last season (eighth in the NHL with 3.25 goals per game, fourth on the power play at 24.2%) while finding ways to be better and tighter defensively (19th at 3.10 PO / LF, 28th at 33.3 shots allowed per game).

The blue line has been revised with Schmidt, Travis Hamonic and Olli Juolevi replacing Tanev, Troy Stecher and Oscar Fantenberg. On paper it looks like an upgrade and Schmidt, certainly, is better than anyone the Canucks played behind runner-up Calder Hughes last season. But the bigger question is in the goal, where former Capital Braden Holtby is counted on to return to something close to career form after a rather bleak last season in Washington. His tandem partner is Thatcher Demko, whose magnificent playoff appearance last September in place of an injured Markstrom left him just 41 NHL appearances.

Even if the score holds up and their defense is better, well, no one is successful in the NHL without a strong goalie. If Holtby and Demko deliver it, the Canucks will surprise people again by making the playoffs in the North Division, which does not have a dominant team, and will make opponents uncomfortable once they get there. .

Factor X: Braden Holtby

Even with his Stanley Cup victory in 2018, Holtby hasn’t been the same goaltender in the past three seasons as he has been in the previous six years. His .897 save percentage last season – just .906 evenly matched – was by far the worst of his career, and his goals recorded of minus 16.8 above expectations made Holtby a handicap.

Holtby admitted upon signing a two-year ($ 4.3 million on average) deal with the Canucks that he let the uncertainty of his last season with the Capitals affect his game. His decline has also coincided with the departure from Washington three years ago of goaltending coach Mitch Korn.

Happy to be in Vancouver close to his roots in Western Canada and to work with Canucks goaltending guru Ian Clark, whose ideals are closely tied to those of Korn, Holtby believes he will have a season of rebound. Obviously, the Canucks too. The goalkeeper might never return to his Vezina Trophy form from five years ago, but his save percentage could be much closer to his career average of .916 than it was last year’s .897. . It will be up to the Canucks to make the playoffs.

PLAYER WHO COULD SURPRISE: Nils Hoglander

Just as it looked like the young talent flowing into the Canucks would slow to a net in 2021 after the emergence of consecutive seasons of Boeser, Pettersson and Hughes, comes this five-foot eight-inch Swedish dynamo.

The 2019 second-round pick, who just turned 20, has yet to be a part of the Canucks roster and roster. But he was the story of the opening week of training camp, scurrying around the ice and playing confidently with the puck after an eyebrow-raising deployment from Green alongside Horvat on the second row. Vancouver.

Having started this season with Rogle of the Swedish Hockey League, Hoglander is not expected to follow Boeser, Pettersson and Hughes to the (virtual) awards podium as a finalist for the Calder Trophy. But he’s excellent on his skates, surprisingly strong on the puck, loves playing in the attacking zone and could close the gap in the top six left by Toffoli. He can even score a lacrosse goal – perfect for an all-Canadian division.

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