VANCOUVER – With negotiations on a contract extension for Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green “in a holding pattern,” it’s fair to ask: will the team he returns to next season be as good as the team he left after last summer’s surprising playoff run?
There was significant upheaval through free agency with four Canucks, including starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and veteran defenceman Chris Tanev, skating across the Rockies to sign with the rival Calgary Flames.
But the biggest hole in the roster was created by the free-agent departure of first-line winger Tyler Toffoli, who left for Montreal. Toffoli’s exit was essentially a byproduct of general manager Jim Benning trading for Nate Schmidt — as an upgrade over the departed Tanev — along with his $5.95 million cap hit from the Vegas Golden Knights.
After replacing Markstrom with Washington Capitals free agent Braden Holtby, it would have been difficult for the Canucks to afford both Toffoli and Schmidt, although Benning told Sportsnet this week that he was working on a deal to open up more cap space when the winger signed with the Canadiens on the fourth day of free agency.
Benning prioritized upgrading the top four on defence over maintaining his top six forwards. But it leaves Green one less weapon to work with when he returns next season for the final year of his contract.
Due to the NHL's recession in the year of COVID-19, and uncertainty regarding what next season will look like, Benning said talks with Green are on hold — even if both sides want an extension for the coach responsible for developing the Canucks’ young stars during the team’s evolution.
Clearly, Green has earned a multi-year extension and a significant raise from an entry-level NHL coaching salary of about $1 million.
“Travis is a good fit for our group, our team,” Benning said. “I think he’s gotten better and better as a coach every year. He has real good communication skills with our players to get the best out of them. Our intention is to re-sign Travis. But he has another year left on his contract and ... we’re kind of in a holding pattern to try to see what the landscape looks like as we get closer to starting up again. I’ve had those conversations with Travis. He’s aware of that.”
The Canucks are going to be a younger team when Green returns, so his job isn’t getting any less important. Here is what the lineup will look like.
Vancouver has five superior forwards for their top two lines: centres Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, and wingers J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser and Tanner Pearson. Acquired in a February trade from Los Angeles, Toffoli turned into an expensive rental and his departure gives the enigmatic Jake Virtanen another chance to play on the top two lines.
At this stage, Virtanen simply isn’t Toffoli — even if their goal-scoring efforts last season weren't alarmingly dissimilar: 18 for Virtanen, 24 for Toffoli.
Toffoli possesses a full 200-foot game that coaches, including Green, love. He drives possession and in 10 games alongside Pettersson and Miller scored six goals and 10 points. That said, it was only 10 games for Toffoli, who was injured in the Canucks’ playoff opener and sat out Vancouver’s impressive series wins against the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues.
For most of the season, Brock Boeser – a younger, better offensive player than Toffoli but lacking a complete game – lined up beside Pettersson and Miller and the trio was one of the NHL’s best.
If Virtanen doesn’t stick with Pearson and Horvat, then newcomer Jayce Hawryluk could get an audition. Or Green could see again what he can wring from the untradeable Loui Eriksson, who is good defensively but long ago lost his scoring touch. A far happier prospect is the idea that Nils Hoglander, the Swedish dynamo who is one of the Canucks’ best prospects, could make the NHL team at training camp and be ready to play on the second line.
Winger Micheal Ferland, who missed most of last season with concussions that threaten not only his career but quality of life, is a wildcard. But honestly, setting aside the paramount importance of Ferland’s well-being, the 28-year-old could most help Vancouver by going on long-term injured reserve, which would save $3.5 million and make the Canucks cap-compliant.
There’s a big crowd of forwards competing in the bottom six, but the locks are centres Adam Gaudette and Jay Beagle and winger Tyler Motte. Converted centre Brandon Sutter is close to a lock, given his ability to kill penalties and win faceoffs. Antoine Roussel and Zack MacEwen are the likeliest other wingers, although Roussel needs a bounce-back year after a devastating knee injury in 2019 delayed and hindered him last season. Signed as a free agent, Hawryluk is also in this mix, along with Eriksson.
Led by potential superstar Quinn Hughes, the Canucks have arguably their best top four since they went to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Schmidt is an upgrade on Tanev and joins Alex Edler and Tyler Myers among 20-minute-plus defencemen.
The questions are who plays with whom, and what happens to the third pairing?
Losing versatile depth defenceman Troy Stecher to Detroit in free agency could be costly, given his experience and ability to play up the lineup.
But former fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi is finally ready to play in the NHL at age 22 – he had a one-game cameo during the playoffs – and veteran Jordie Benn, who can kill penalties and play either side, gives the Canucks some options.
Benn, however, was a healthy scratch for most of the second half of last season, and Green has been reluctant to play a lefty on the right side. The other right side options are minor-leaguers Jalen Chatfield and Brogan Rafferty, who were excellent last season in the American Hockey League.
Highly-regarded collegian Jack Rathbone could also push for an NHL spot, and the bottom of the defence corps may yet be upgraded with a value signing or trade before next season begins.
“These guys, once they get up and going and get their confidence ... they could be better than the guys we had in the five- and six-hole last year,” Benning said of the prospects on defence. “We don’t know yet. They could have a higher ceiling.”
It hurts losing Markstrom, who was fourth in Vezina Trophy balloting last season and developed into a top-10 starter with the Canucks. But snaring Holtby on a two-year deal appears to be an excellent countermove.
A former Vezina and Stanley Cup winner, Holtby attributed his poor 2019-20 season to uncertainty over his future in Washington and believes he can recover his form training under Canucks goaltending guru Ian Clark, whose ideology closely aligns with the beliefs of former Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn.
But the reason Benning chose not to match Markstrom’s six-year, $36-million deal from Calgary is goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko, who had a solid first season in the NHL but was brilliant during a three-game playoff run that extended the Canucks’ season against the Golden Knights.
“Depending how we’re going to play games this year, if we’re going into hub cities or playing a condensed schedule ... we’re going to need two good goalies and these guys are two good goalies,” Benning said. “Holtby has more experience (than Markstrom) and he has won a Stanley Cup. He’s got a resume that’s impressive. Ian is going to work to get him back to where he’s one of the better goalies in the league. They’re both No. 1 guys.”
For now, it’s a slight step back in goal for the Canucks. But Holtby, who is still only 31, could make up that gap working with Clark.
The same assessment applies to the team: a small step back from the end of last season. But that gap could be more than bridged by the natural improvement expected from Pettersson, Hughes, Boeser and Demko, as well as other young players like Gaudette, MacEwen and Juolevi.
Free agency hasn’t darkened the Canucks’ bright future.
J.T. Miller - Elias Pettersson - Brock Boeser
Tanner Pearson - Bo Horvat - Jake Virtanen
Antoine Roussel - Adam Gaudette - Zack MacEwen
Tyler Motte - Jay Beagle - Brandon Sutter
Quinn Hughes - Tyler Myers
Alex Edler - Nate Schmidt
Olli Juolevi - Jordie Benn
Jayce Hawryluk, Loui Eriksson, Jalen Chatfield