VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks were going to be better this season, no matter what, because they couldn’t possibly be as bad as they showed last year.
An exhibition-less training camp with new players, followed by a starting schedule that looked like an elementary-school dare – 16 games in 27 days, 10 of them on the road, with four sets of back-to-backs – an avalanche of injuries, and then the most debilitating coronavirus outbreak of the NHL season, which left the hollowed-out Canucks to play their final 19 games in 32 games.
Seriously, good luck with all that.
The only thing they survived was COVID although six months later, Brandon Sutter is still out indefinitely with what general manager Jim Benning confirmed Monday are “long-haul” symptoms from the virus.
“There were so many obstacles that went into last year, so much stuff that happened,” captain Bo Horvat said during training camp. “It was almost like a perfect storm against us last year.”
Florida may be hurricane alley, but there sure has been some inclement weather around the Canucks the last 50 years or so.
But nothing has buffeted them like last season, which is why this year must be better.
Even had the roster remain unchanged, the team couldn’t be that bad again – plummeting the pro-rated equivalent of 20 points in the standings over an 82-game season when its foundation of young stars should have been getting better. Could it?
And things aren’t unchanged. General manager Jim Benning added from Arizona top-pairing defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and scoring winger Conor Garland at considerable financial risk but without surrendering anything of value from his roster. Big, checking centre Jason Dickinson was acquired from Dallas. Organizational depth was super-sized on the opening day of free agency when the Canucks signed 17 players.
Everyone was excited about a full training camp and pre-season and escaping the pall of last season by generating some momentum and positivity.
And then foundational stars Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes missed the first half of camp while they waited for new contracts, and their first-line buddy, Brock Boeser, missed the second half with an undisclosed injury that makes him doubtful for Wednesday’s season-opener in Edmonton.
Sutter and second-pairing defenceman Travis Hamonic, waived Sunday by the team amid his unexplained absence for “personal” reasons, never made it to camp.
And Vancouver went 2-5-0 in the pre-season, saving its most disappointing performance for last when the Canucks lost 3-2 Saturday to an under-staffed Oilers team despite dressing close to their full lineup.
There may be excitement within the Canucks, but there certainly is no momentum.
“It would have been nice to have everybody here right from the start,” Benning said of camp. “That didn't happen. (But) I think the guys are excited about the additions we made this summer. It gives us more depth, I think, in our top nine. Adding OEL to our group, we've all seen what he can bring to the team. So you know, there's an excitement within the group. The guys are super positive.
“I like our team going into the season. I think we've addressed some needs in depth up front and... bringing in OEL on the back end. But that's why we play the games here; we'll see where we're at once we get started.”
The Canucks open with a six-game road trip, which suddenly feels uncomfortably similar to last season when Vancouver fell behind early in the standings and never caught up.
“We just look a little faster,” veteran forward J.T. Miller said Monday after practising back on Pettersson’s left wing despite spending the entire pre-season at centre. “Fresh, hungry, excited. I think we’re just so ready to play. It sucks to see guys go. But at the same time, it’s good to have a fresh look, a fresh start. We’re a little younger now, too, and that’s exciting.”
The Canucks do have more skill and speed up front. Besides adding the dynamic Garland, rookie Vasily Podkolzin is expected on the 23-man opening-night roster, and there is better depth at the bottom of the lineup.
Ekman-Larsson was one of the most impressive Canucks during the pre-season, and newcomer Tucker Poolman looked steady and responsible on defence. Hughes and Pettersson already look near top form. An injured wrist that reduced Pettersson’s season last year to just 26 games has fully healed.
Vancouver also appears to be more efficient in goal with veteran Jaroslav Halak backing up and rising star Thatcher Demko.
Even if coach Travis Green abandons his experiment with Miller at centre, the Canucks should be stronger down the middle with the addition of Dickinson.
“Making the playoffs (in 2019-20) and then having a letdown year like last year, we obviously were not happy at all -- the guys coming back,” Boeser said. “We know we have to be better. With the additions we’ve made, I think we're right there again.”
Horvat said: “We don't have to sugar coat it; last year wasn't a good year and we want to come back flying. I want to make the playoffs. That should be everybody's mindset here. I think we brought in the right pieces to do that and we've just got to go out and prove it.”
There is a lot to like about the Canucks, even if they didn’t show enough of those good things the last three weeks.
Benning said he believes the Canucks are a playoff team. In the Pacific Division, they should be.
• The team made no announcement Monday about Alex Chiasson, who has spent all of his professional tryout on the top power-play unit. Coach Travis Green seems to want the veteran power forward, but there is a question about how much Chiasson might help if he plays a depth role. And the Canucks will have to waive or move a player to make room on the roster for Chiasson.
• With Boeser still missing from practice on Monday, the forward lines and defence pairings were: Miller-Pettersson-Chiasson, Tanner Pearson-Horvat-Garland, Matthew Highmore-Dickinson-Nils Hoglander, Justin Dowling-Nic Petan-Podkolzin; and Ekman-Larsson-Tyler Myers, Hughes-Poolman, Brad Hunt-Luke Schenn. The extra skaters were Zack MacEwen, Jack Rathbone and Kyle Burroughs. . .
• Green said forward Juho Lammikko, acquired from Florida in Sunday’s trade for Olli Juolevi, will practice with the Canucks on Tuesday.
• Benning said the Canucks waived Hamonic and officially assigned him to the minors because the team needs his roster spot for someone else on the season-opening road trip. There is no timetable for Hamonic’s return. “When we say personal matters, it's bigger than what you guys think it is,” Benning said. “There's not too much more that I can say on it. We're working with him to get him the help that he needs.”