VANCOUVER -- Three years to get a lot better, three days to get a little worse.
The lustre from the Canucks’ surprising summer playoff run, when they won two series during their first Stanley Cup tournament appearance in five years, was largely dulled by the opening weekend of National Hockey League free agency in October.
Losing starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, veteran defenceman and leader Christopher Tanev, and first-line winger Tyler Toffoli to Canadian rivals reframed the conversation about the team’s short-term future.
Vancouver appeared to take a step back after steady improvement under coach Travis Green. The question: How far back? In some predictions, the Canucks are listed as low as sixth in the seven-team Canadian division.
But the regression, including in goal, may not be as significant as some think. Former Cup winner Braden Holtby and excellent prospect Thatcher Demko will form a goaltending tandem under crease guru Ian Clark, and the addition of defenceman Nate Schmidt from Vegas gives Vancouver its best top four on defence since the Canucks’ 2011 Stanley Cup Finals team was dismantled.
But the Canucks’ greatest assets – and reason for hope this season -- remain brilliant young players Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and both of them should be even better in 2021. With Schmidt on the top blue line pairing and Holtby-Demko capable of providing at least league-average goaltending, Pettersson and Hughes are good enough to make up this season whatever the Canucks lost from last season.
Green has training camp to audition replacements for Toffoli and must fill out his defence with prospects. But nobody on the Canucks is expecting a step back.
Available Cap Space: -$1.5 million
GM: Jim Benning
Head Coach: Travis Green
Assistants: Nolan Baumgartner, Newell Brown, Ian Clark, Jason King, Darryl Seward, Chris Higgins
Unsigned players: None
Who's your starter?
GM Benning moved quickly to sign Holtby when it was clear the Canucks couldn't match the Calgary Flames’ $36-million offer to Markstrom. The former Vezina Trophy winner had a dismal final season in Washington, posting a career-low save percentage of .897. Holtby admitted afterwards that he allowed his uncertain future with the Capitals to affect his play, and believes he can bounce back. Obviously, so do the Canucks.
The ideals of goaltending coach Ian Clark, whose counsel has helped every netminder he has worked with in Vancouver get better, closely align with Holtby's former goalie coach, Mitch Korn. And it’s hard to believe that Holtby, at only 31, is already beyond repair while still carrying a career save rate of .916.
Demko, meanwhile, has been groomed to become an NHL starter since he was drafted in 2014 during Benning's first summer with the Canucks. After a solid if unspectacular first full season in the NHL, in which he posted a .905 save percentage, Demko converted a lot of non-believers with a fantastic playoff cameo in September when the 25-year-old stopped 128 of 130 shots to carry the Canucks to Game 7 against the Golden Knights. He did this under immense pressure after Markstrom was injured for the second time that season.
Demko sacrificed an off-season at home in the San Diego sunshine to train in Vancouver and be ready for his big opportunity. It feels unwise to bet against him.
Whether it is Holtby-Demko or Demko-Holtby, the Canucks will need both goalies during this condensed season -- a 56-game sprint through Canada.
How young can you go?
Until the arrival last season of the remarkable Hughes, who finished second to Cale Makar in Calder Trophy voting after being the first defenceman since Brian Leech in 1989 to lead NHL rookies in scoring, the renovation of Vancouver's defence lagged behind the improvements up front.
But the team is being forced to go young, or at least without experience, at the bottom of their defence this season.
After four years of development made more difficult by injuries, former fifth-overall draft pick Olli Juolevi, 22, looks finally ready for the NHL and is likely to be the team's fifth defenceman this season, replacing the departed Troy Stecher.
Whether veteran Jordie Benn, a frequent healthy scratch last season, is the sixth D-man remains to be seen. Benn will be on the roster but pushed in training camp by minor-leaguers Jalen Chatfield, 24, and Brogan Rafferty, 25, as well as former college star Jack Rathbone, 21, who chose to sign with the Canucks in July rather than return to Harvard.
That is a lot of NHL inexperience to incorporate on one blue line even if the top four is excellent with Hughes, Schmidt, Alexander Edler and Tyler Myers. If Benning makes another roster move before Jan. 13 – he can probably afford at least one when forward Micheal Ferland and his $3.5-million salary goes to the injured list -- expect it to be for a defenceman to help at the bottom of the lineup.
Where does Nils Hoglander fit?
It is not often that a 20-year-old, second-round pick who stands five-foot-eight is as great a wildcard as Hoglander will be at this training camp. The dynamic winger arrives halfway through an impressive season in Sweden and with opportunity screaming in Vancouver.
The loss of Toffoli to Montreal in free agency leaves a significant hole among the Canucks’ top-six forwards. The top candidate for promotion is Jake Virtanen. Re-signed after the Canucks shopped him unsuccessfully on the depressed trade market, the fastest skater on the team scored 18 goals last season and will get yet another chance near the top of the lineup. But the inconsistent winger showed poorly at training camp twice in one season in 2019-20, and the mercurial Hoglander drips offensive potential and could dislodge Virtanen from the right side of either Bo Horvat or Pettersson.
If the sturdy Swede is not quite ready for prime ice time, does Hoglander’s strength on the puck, mobility and potential allow him to play a depth role? Or does he become a focal point of the six-man taxi squad, which essentially extends the Canucks’ 23-man roster to 29 players this season? There are some dominoes wobbling around Hoglander.