VANCOUVER — Making predictions for the Vancouver Canucks in recent years has not been too difficult. The team was bad, rebuilding and wasn’t going to make the National Hockey League playoffs. Simple.
The Canucks continue to trend in the right direction and have an excellent group of young foundational players that should shepherd in better seasons ahead. But this season? It could go either way.
Here’s one bold prediction for the New Year: the franchise’s 50-year-old Stanley Cup drought isn’t ending this spring.
As for these three other bold predictions for 2020, we’re pretty sure you won’t print them at home to stick on your fridge and check for accuracy 12 months from now.
Quinn Hughes will not only make the Canucks the first organization since the 1969-70 New York Rangers to have a player finish in the top three in Calder Trophy balloting for three straight seasons, he will be part of the closest rookie vote since 2013.
Hughes and fellow defenceman Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche have been front-runners since the season began, but Buffalo Sabres forward Victor Olofsson has charged past them in scoring this month and looks like a formidable contender for the Calder.
Makar has lost a little ground due to an upper-body injury sustained in early December, while Hughes’ ice time spiked during the injury absence of top Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler. Hughes, 20, and Makar, 21, are two of the most exciting defencemen to enter the NHL in years, but Olofsson has the advantage of playing with star Sabres Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart near the eastern hub of awards voters.
Age should count against Olofsson – but it doesn’t always with the Professional Hockey Writers Association – because he is 24 and prepped for his “rookie” NHL season by spending the last four years in the elite Swedish Hockey League. Makar and Hughes, by contrast, are true freshmen who were still in college hockey this time last season. That doesn’t make for an apples-to-apples comparison.
Hughes could lose some support because, until now, more of his points have come on the power play than at even-strength.
In 2013, Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers edged Montreal Canadien Brendan Gallagher for the Calder Trophy after tying with 54 first-place votes. Huberdeau received more second- and third-place votes in balloting that saw the Chicago Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad finish a relatively close third with 30 first-place ticks.
Canuck Elias Pettersson won the Calder Trophy last season, a year after Vancouver’s Brock Boeser was the runner-up to Matt Barzal of the New York Islanders.
In 1971, Rangers goalie Gilles Villemure finished third in Calder voting, one year after teammate Bill Fairbairn was the runner-up. New York’s Brad Park was third in rookie balloting in 1969.
Trivia footnote: Villemure was a 31-year-old “rookie” in 1971 because he spent most of the 1960s in the minors, including three seasons in Vancouver when the Canucks were in the old Western League, at a time when the NHL had only six teams.
Olli Juolevi, the fifth-overall pick from 2016 who remains the Canucks’ best defence prospect (after Hughes), will either be a regular in Vancouver by the end of 2020 or playing for another organization – possibly in Europe.
Neither Juolevi nor general manager Jim Benning will ever escape the indictment of the Finn being chosen one spot before the Calgary Flames grabbed winger Matthew Tkachuk in the 2016 draft, but the blue-liner still possesses a solid all-around game that should translate to the NHL if he stays healthy.
A serious knee injury ended his season last year after only 18 games when it appeared Juolevi was on track for an NHL call-up after Christmas. He still wasn’t fully fit when he reported to training camp this fall, was kept out of pre-season games late in September and sent back to the American League. He was briefly shut down again in late November, this time with a mysterious hip injury that caused deep concern within the organization before specialists in Vancouver cleared the 21-year-old to resume playing in the minors.
If Juolevi stays healthy, he should continue to progress the way he did at the start of last year and get at least a call-up with the Canucks before this season ends. But if his lower-body medical problems persist or he plateaus with the Utica Comets, it’s difficult to see him spending a third season in the American League while the Canucks move on with other players.
2020 is a huge year for Juolevi.
MARKSTROM THE MAN
We’re not sure how bold this prediction is since Benning told Sportsnet in December that re-signing starting goalie Jacob Markstrom is a priority even though it would complicate the Seattle expansion draft for the Canucks in 2021, but the Swede will not only be back next season, he won’t be surrendering the No. 1 spot to elite prospect Thatcher Demko for the foreseeable future.
With Demko only in his rookie season – after two-and-a-half years in the AHL – and just back from his second concussion from friendly fire in as many years, there is just too much uncertainty over the talented Californian to anoint him Markstrom’s replacement. And since Markstrom has proven himself a solid NHL starter and is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1, it’s unreasonable to think the Canucks will have things all their way in negotiations on an extension.
Markstrom turns 30 on Jan. 31 and since becoming an NHL regular with the Canucks has posted save percentages the last four seasons of: .915, .910, .912 and .912. He may not be the at the top of anyone’s list of free agents, but someone is going to pay the goalie.
Chances are the Canucks will have to give Markstrom a contract that binds him to Vancouver well beyond the Seattle expansion lottery. It doesn’t mean they can’t have both Markstrom and Demko two years from now, but it’s complicated. And until then, the order is clear: Markstrom No. 1, Demko No. 2.