Canucks Enter Season in No Man’s Land

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As the Vancouver Canucks enter their 46th NHL season Saturday night I can’t recall so many fans and prognosticators ever before predicting a year full of woe and hopelessness as we have seen these last few days. Many seem to think last year’s team that missed the post-season by 12 points finishing just ahead of the lowly Oilers in the Western Conference will be even worse in 2016-17. Then we also have the eternal optimists of which there many within every fanbase across the league when everyone is undefeated before the puck drops to open regular season play. These optimists believe the Bo Horvats, Sven Baertschis, Jake Virtanens, and Ben Huttons will take huge steps forward this year having learned some valuable lessons. They believe the acquisition of prized free agent Loui Eriksson will give the Sedins some added spark. They believe Jakob Markstrom is ready to usurp Ryan Miller and become a solid starting goaltender. All of these may indeed turn out to be true, but so might the predictions of the pessimists who worry about defensive gaffes and lack of offensive depth. To borrow a phrase from former NHL’er and current TSN panelist Jeff O’Neill, I believe the true Vancouver Canucks are “hovering” to enter this season. You can slot me into an apparently small group who believe the Canucks will do much better than many pundits believe they will, but will see the team fall short of a wild card playoff berth.

One thing many pundits have said that I do agree with is that overall team health will go a LONG way to determining the fate of this season’s Canucks. Obviously this is true for any team but particularly so for one that doesn’t have a lot of depth or experience.

Goaltending is likely a strength for the Canucks this season. You have the veteran Miller entering the final year of his contract and also coming off a quietly strong previous season in which he went 17-24-9 with a 2.70 GAA, neither of which are good but can be largely attributable to a brutal overall team defence. But if not for his .916 save percentage the Canucks’ league worst -52 goal differential could have been a whole lot worse. Miller’s strong play also allowed the Canucks to settle in Markstrom who proved his own worth going 13-14-4 with a 2.73 GAA and a .915 save percentage. To me, there’s no question Markstrom is not only the long-term solution for the Canucks’ net but he should be the current solution. GM Jim Benning’s assertion that Miller is the hands down number 1 was a big mistake. Other than stroking Miller’s ego, which he doesn’t need at this stage in his career, that comment is simply unwarranted. But then again, Benning has never been one to hold his tongue when he should and it’s got him into trouble with the league office at times as well. Simply put, the 26 year-old Markstrom is more than ready to get the Lion’s share of starts for Vancouver this year. For a team that continues the rebuilding process, why not give him the reins now? Either way the Canucks will need both Markstrom and Miller to at least repeat last season’s successes in net in order to have a fighting chance at a playoff berth.

While the goaltending tandem remains the same, the defence corps has a decidedly different look to it with the additions of Erik Gudbranson and Philip Larsen. In the latter the Canucks gain a youngish blue liner with tremendous skating ability and offensive upside but who lacks size and commitment to his own zone. At 6’1″ and 185 pounds he’s by no means small, but the 26 year-old Dane looks absolutely nothing like his fellow new D man Gudbranson. The 6’5″ 220 pound native of Ottawa looks to replace Dan Hamhuis as a top 4 blue liner. But given his size and commitment to solid play in the defensive zone, I’d actually consider this an upgrade over the deteriorating Hamhuis, as likeable a character as the Smithers native is. A ferocious hitter and a physical presence like few possess in today’s NHL, Gudbranson should go a fair ways to improving the Canucks’ horrific play in their own zone last season.

The decision to send 22 year-old free agent signing Troy Stetcher to Utica has been met with mixed reviews but I definitely agree with this decision. Yes the Richmondite looked very comfortable in each of his pre-season appearances making brilliant pass after brilliant pass. But given his lack of size and experience at the pro level and given that you want to have him playing healthy minutes on a regular basis eventually in the NHL, why not allow him the opportunity to get plenty of ice and PP time in the AHL? It’s a classic no rush needed scenario in my opinion so this seems to be a good compromise. And it likely won’t be for that long anyway.

Aside from the Canucks’ inability to keep opposition offences out of their own zone last year the team also struggled to put pucks into the net. Eriksson should certainly help in that category but he is only one man. A healthy Brandon Sutter and more experience in Horvat, Baertschi, and Virtanen should also result in an increase in offence but just how much of an increase will it be? All in all I suspect the Canucks will score more and get scored on less but not enough of either to make for a healthy playoff contender. And in all honesty, that’s totally fine. This team remains in a rebuilding mode and as long as there is noticeable improvement in results and more importantly in the play of young talent, that’s all an educated fan should really ask for. My hope is also that management and Head Coach Willie Desjardins stay on this path. There will be a huge target on Desjardins’ back this season, now his third behind the Canucks bench. How will he handle this pressure and how will a potential rough start affect decision making not only by him but by GM Jim Benning? Every season begins with question marks, but this one seems to have more than ever before.

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