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What is the Canucks’ potential this season?

Vancouver Canucks

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 15: Elias Pettersson #40 of the Vancouver Canucks watches a loose puck during their NHL game against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena on February 15, 2021 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

The Jim Benning era Vancouver Canucks have been one of the more, let’s say, fascinating teams in the NHL over the past few years.

In his seven years as the team’s general manager they have made the playoffs two times and only once played in the Second Round (the bubble season). They also completely fell flat in the North Division, missing the playoffs entirely in what should have been a great opportunity to make some noise.

So they have not really been anything close to a Stanley Cup contender. Despite that, they always seem to want to operate like they are a Stanley Cup contender and just a couple of depth veterans away. That has resulted in some overpayments in free agency and taking on significant contracts to the potential detriment of their own salary cap situation.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Despite all of that, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about them because they do have what should be the most difficult pieces for any contending team to acquire: Cornerstone, franchise talent. The group of Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and J.T. Miller is absolutely good enough to be the foundation of something great.

They just have not been able to build anything meaningful around them yet. Making matters worse, the salary cap situation is so tight that they only have $10 million in salary cap space to re-sign Pettersson and Hughes (their two best players) this offseason.

So what is this team’s potential here?

The forward depth does look much better

This has been a big problem in recent seasons. For as good as Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat, and Miller have been the Canucks have not had enough secondary talent around them. They invested a lot of money in players like Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland, Brandon Sutter that were not giving them a return on that investment (though Ferland’s case was a bit of bad luck given his injury situation; nothing you can do about that).

This offseason they were able to shed the contracts of Beagle and Roussel and get Sutter to re-sign for a quarter of his previous rate, going from a $4 million salary cap hit to a more manageable $1.25 million.

Some other important developments among the forwards...

• Nils Hoglander was one of the bright spots for the Canucks in 2020-21 as the 20-year-old rookie posted solid possession numbers and scored at a 20-goal, 40-point pace over 82 games. If he can build on that he suddenly becomes an intriguing part of the team’s core.

[Related: Can Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs finally make Playoff run?]

• Jason Dickinson was a solid pickup from the Dallas Stars and should be an upgrade as the team’s third-line center, allowing Sutter to center the team’s fourth line where he should be far more effective.

• Vasily Podkolzin, the No. 10 overall pick in 2019 and the team’s top prospect, has signed his entry-level contract and is ready to make the jump to the NHL. He has enormous potential and could be a significant addition to the team’s core.

• While Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s addition stole all of the headlines, Conor Garland might be the more significant addition. He is just entering his prime years in the league, drives possession, and is one of the most efficient 5-on-5 scorers in the league. Of the 481 forwards that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time the past three seasons, Garland’s 1.04 goals per 60 minutes are 31st in the NHL. And he did that playing on a team without much offensive skill around him.

• The most important development: A healthy Elias Pettersson after he was limited to just 26 games a year ago.

It is a much deeper, talented, and better group of forwards.

There are still some concerns elsewhere with the roster

Specifically on defense and with the salary cap, where they have close to $14 million dollars going to the duo of Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers over the next few years.

They managed to dump a lot of their undesirable contracts on Arizona in the Garland/Ekman-Larsson deal, but may have taken on an even more undesirable contract in the process.

A few years ago adding Ekman-Larsson would have been a major move. But his play has rapidly declined the past two seasons, he is now into his 30s, and his contract carries a huge salary cap hit for the next six years. Maybe a change of scenery and a new collection of teammates helps him get back on track a little. But it is not a stretch to think his best days are in the rear view mirror.

That is a problem for two reasons. The first is because by almost every objective measure the Canucks were one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL this past season.

Their 5-on-5 numbers...

  • 60.2 shot attempts against per 60 minutes (31 out of 31 teams)
  • 32.9 shots on goal against per 60 minutes (30 out of 31 teams)
  • 2.65 expected goals against per 60 minutes (31 out of 31 teams)
  • 31.6 scoring chances against per 60 minutes (31 out of 31 teams)
  • 11.7 high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes (30 out of 31 teams)
  • 2.93 goals against per 60 minutes (28th out of 31 teams)

They were also 17th out of 31 teams on the penalty kill. Will a 30-year-old, declining Ekman-Larsson and a 31-year-old Travis Hamonic coming in to replace Alex Edler and Nate Schmidt be enough to dramatically fix that? We will have to see, but it does seem like the goalie duo of Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak are going to have to be fantastic every night to give them a chance.

The other problem is the elephant in the room where Pettersson and Hughes still remain unsigned and they may need another move elsewhere on the roster to make room for them.

What is the potential here?

The good news for the Canucks is they play in the right division.

Vegas is a playoff team. Edmonton should be a playoff team if for no other reason than it has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but even that is not a guarantee. Beyond that every other team in the division (Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary, San Jose, Seattle) has some kind of significant flaw. After Vegas there is not a team in the division (including Edmonton) that makes you say “this is a definitely playoff team.”

That leaves the door open for a team like Vancouver. The forward talent and goaltending make the Canucks an intriguing team. But the defense and lack of flexibility within the salary cap are two significant Achilles heels that are going to stick with them. As long as they do it is difficult to see the Canucks emerging as anything more than the third playoff team in the Pacific or a fringe wild card team. At least their games should be high scoring and entertaining.