VANCOUVER – None of the bold hockey predictions for 2020 included a once-in-a-century global pandemic that would not only shutter the NHL but pose an existential threat for all of us.
And if you predicted for the Vancouver Canucks that J.T. Miller would outscore Elias Pettersson, defenceman Quinn Hughes would lead all rookies in points and still not win the Calder Trophy, and that the team would not only make the Stanley Cup playoffs but win two rounds — in a summer bubble in Edmonton — your hot takes would have gotten you shamed off Twitter (if such a thing is possible).
We can guess and project and try to look ahead, but you never really know what’s coming. That’s what makes sports such fun and life so difficult.
The NHL is about to stage a 56-game season without fans; its bedrock Canadian franchises are grouped together in a historic North Division, and the Canucks could finish anywhere from first and last. Here are three bold predictions for 2021.
1. Brock Boeser will outscore Tyler Toffoli
Given the profile of these players and their NHL histories, this seems a lot more like a lock than a wild prediction.
But consider Boeser is coming off an injury-interrupted season that saw him go goal-less in his final 12 games before a 17-game playoff run that included just four goals and 11 points. Toffoli, meanwhile, was everybody's favorite new Canuck after he arrived from Los Angeles last February to replace the injured Boeser on the top line — promptly scoring six times in 10 games alongside Pettersson and Miller.
None of the free-agent departures from the Canucks in October seemed to distress the fan base as much as Toffoli, who signed a relatively modest four-year, $17 million contract to play for the Montreal Canadiens.
Toffoli is a career 20-goal, 45-point player who does so much more than score that it's foolish to argue his exit is not a setback in Vancouver.
But let’s remember a couple of things: Boeser has proven he is the better offensive player — even if his 200-foot game is still evolving — and most of the Canucks’ success last season, including those playoff series wins against Minnesota and St. Louis, was achieved with Boeser and without Toffoli. And the Canucks were already 10th in the league in scoring before the Toffoli trade.
Toffoli isn't going to be playing with Pettersson and Miller this season. Boeser will be, and at age 23 he should be better than he was in 2020. If he stays healthy, Boeser is getting 30 goals and 70 points.
2. Braden Holtby could be one-and-done as a Canuck (meaning Thatcher Demko will start the season after, if not this one)
We expect a bounce-back season from Holtby who, comfortable with his new surroundings and goalie coach Ian Clark, should be closer this year to his .916 career save percentage than the uncharacteristic .897 he posted last season in Washington.
Ironically, this makes the 31-year-old goaltender less likely to stay in Vancouver for the second and final year of the contract he signed this past off-season. That deal came without any trade or movement restrictions -- key obstacles during the team’s failed negotiations to retain starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, who eventually got in Calgary both the money and protection he was looking for.
There is finally a date for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft — July 21, 2021 — and if Holtby plays as well as he and the Canucks expect before then, he will be an ideal candidate to move down Interstate 5. Think about it: Holtby is a great teammate, proven winner, likes the Pacific Northwest and, when back in form, his $4.3 million cap hit will be an attractive, portable bargaining chip for an expansion team.
The reason Canucks general manager Jim Benning was unwilling to grant expansion immunity to Markstrom is the presence of Demko, who isn't going anywhere.
3. Josh Leivo is the ex-Canuck the team will miss the most
There was always a financial inevitability to the Canucks losing Markstrom and defenceman Chris Tanev if those players were able to leverage full market value elsewhere during the NHL recession. The team actually upgraded from Tanev by acquiring Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights, and as long as goalie guru Clark works a little magic with Holtby and Demko, the downgrade in goal for Vancouver should not be fatal.
The Canucks mishandled negotiations for third-pairing defencemen Troy Stecher. But he was a 15-minute player for coach Travis Green, and the Canucks should be able to replace him internally. We have already mentioned that, at least offensively, Boeser will minimize the loss of Toffoli on the top line. But Leivo, who followed Markstrom and Tanev to the Flames, would have been a prime candidate to move into the vacant right wing spot in the top six.
As it is, the enigmatic Jake Virtanen appears to have the best chance of getting promoted to Bo Horvat’s wing on the second line, or even beside Pettersson on the top unit if Green chooses to play Boeser with Horvat and Tanner Pearson. But candidates for the job are so thin that even six-goal scorer Loui Eriksson will be considered (if he’s not in the press box) and it’s not impossible that raw rookie Nils Hoglander is rushed into a prime role.
Leivo, who had seven goals and 19 points in 36 games before his season ended last December with a shattered knee, could have filled the void with his savvy and heavy two-way game, especially since playing with Horvat comes with difficult matchup minutes.
But Leivo, his feelings hurt by the offer of a substantial pay cut from last season’s $1.5 million salary, chose to leave Vancouver for Calgary on a one-year, $875,000 contract that was a paltry $50,000 more the Canucks were offering. The opportunity Green would have given Leivo was worth exponentially more than that.
Leivo might have scored 20 goals this season had he stayed. Both he and the Canucks may regret he didn’t.