Vancouver Canucks: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

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The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Vancouver Canucks.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 23-29-4 (50 points), finished seventh in North.
• Postseason: Missed playoffs, traded first-round draft pick
• Offensive leaders: Brock Boeser (23 goals, 26 assists for 49 points in 56 games).

• Free Agent Additions: Conor Garland (trade from Coyotes), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (trade from Coyotes). Jason Dickinson (trade from Stars), Jaroslav Halak, Brad Hunt, Phillip Di Giuseppe, Justin Dowling, Tucker Poolman, Luke Schenn
• Free Agent Subtractions: Nate Schmidt (traded to Jets), Alex Edler (Kings), Braden Holtby (Stars), Kole Lind (Kraken expansion draft), Jalen Chatfield (Hurricanes), Antoine Roussel (traded to Coyotes), Loui Eriksson (traded to Coyotes), Jay Beagle (traded to Coyotes).

Biggest question for Canucks

• Can they play some defense — or at least overcome that weakness?

To some extent, the Canucks’ bold offseason feels a lot like a desperate quarterback lobbing a last-second Hail Mary pass. And Jim Benning is no Aaron Rodgers.

When most people picture the Canucks succeeding (in 2021-22, and generally), it’s largely based on a combination of explosive offense and hot goaltending. That formula fails more often than it works in the modern NHL, though. For the 2021-22 Canucks to succeed, they at least need to improve on defense.

As promising as Thatcher Demko‘s breakthrough was, they need to rely less on him in 2021-22.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

For many of us, Conor Garland is the most exciting part of the Canucks’ big trade with the Coyotes. Even so, the Oliver Ekman-Larsson gamble is still the most important part of that deal for the 2021-22 Canucks.

This isn’t the first time the Canucks rolled the dice with a defenseman. It didn’t work out with Tyler Myers, and the Nate Schmidt experiment was short-lived. OEL ranks as the biggest gamble yet, and it sure feels all-or-nothing.

At some point, Travis Green needs to find some answers, though, right? No, Benning isn’t providing perfect ingredients for a gourmet meal. Still, the NHL’s brightest coaches resemble especially spry cooks on “Chopped.” At some point, you need to show that you can make the best of less-than-ideal situations.

The 2021-22 Canucks either need to make fewer mistakes than recent Vancouver teams, or create so many solutions on offense that it all works out. It’s all possible, but is it plausible?

What’s the salary cap situation?

For better and mostly worse, Jim Benning doesn’t just sit idly by. Every offseason, it feels like the salary cap should leave the Canucks stuck. Instead, they tend to make splashy moves, even if it mostly translates to treading water.

On the (very) bright side, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes signed for about $15 million combined. Those are promising deals, even if the 2021-22 versions of those two look a lot like last year’s players who were letdowns for the Canucks.

Would it be more comforting if Pettersson was locked down for more than three years? Sure. Did it feel like Benning’s salary cap mismanagement opened the door for these bargains, making Benning feel like hockey’s Mr. Magoo? Maybe a bit.

In the salary cap era, don’t blame the Canucks for just taking a W or two.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Especially when you look at recent L’s, and how history could repeat itself.

If things go sour, the Oliver Ekman-Larsson trade could combine the mistakes of Benning’s past (Beagle, Roussel, Eriksson) with gaffes of the present. Even with Garland being a nice find, the Canucks are taking a massive swing at OEL turning his career around at age 30.

Overall, the Canucks’ salary cap outlook reeks of sloppiness. You won’t see many team buying out a player who only signed a two-year contract, but Vancouver did that with Braden Holtby.

Should the 2021-22 Canucks really scrape the salary cap ceiling? Heading into 2022-23, Cap Friendly estimates the Canucks spending $65.8 million on just 14 roster spots. About $13.3 million in projected cap space goes fast; could that force Brock Boeser out next offseason? What about Bo Horvat (26, $5.5 million) after the 2022-23 season?

Maybe the Canucks keep those players. After all, the Canucks wiggled out of salary cap jams before … at least in the short term. Big-picture-wise, they’ve stacked mistakes on top of mistakes. Perhaps those errors won’t force top players out. It might clog things up enough that the Canucks simply can’t surround Pettersson, Hughes, and other top talents with enough talent to actually contend, though.

Breakout Candidate

Nils Hoglander

Along with Boeser, Pettersson, and Hughes, Nils Hoglander exemplifies one thing the Canucks frequently did right under Benning: drafting. (Is it possible that’s over after Judd Bracket left town? Maybe.)

Hoglander already showed promise last season, collecting 27 points in 56 games. That should just be the tip of the iceberg.

Ideally, the 2021-22 Canucks will boost Hoglander from last season’s 15:27 TOI average. Even if that’s largely unchanged, Hoglander’s likely to spend that ice time with superior players. Most likely, Hoglander will line up with Bo Horvat and Conor Garland. There’s a chance he’ll get some reps with Pettersson and Boeser, though, and that’s where business could really pick up.

Either way, the skill’s there for a breakthrough.

If you think Hoglander already broke through, there’s also Vasily Podkolzin.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Canucks

Getting out of Arizona unlocks Norris-era Ekman-Larsson. Pettersson knocks on the door for the Hart, while Demko earns serious Vezina consideration. A dazzling, talented team makes up for any mistakes — and more. Benning’s vindicated with a deep playoff run.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Canucks

It turns out Ekman-Larsson’s just never going to return to that prior elite form. Demko caves under intense pressure from a garbage defense. Pettersson and Hughes absorb the blame that should go to Benning and Green. The 2021-22 Canucks end up just as bad as last year’s debacle of a team.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Vancouver Canucks: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview originally appeared on NBCSports.com