What Went Wrong: Vancouver Canucks

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Welcome to What Went Wrong where we’ll look at each team that failed to make the playoffs. We’ll also end each article by highlighting some players of particular interest on the squad. Those are players who either left something to be desired during the 2021-22 campaign, have significant untapped upside, or have some big underlining questions surrounding them going into the offseason.

We’ve already covered the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes, Seattle Kraken, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, and Winnipeg Jets. Today we’re looking at the Vancouver Canucks.

The Canucks have such an exciting young core, but they’ve struggled over the last few years to transition from the rebuilding phase to being a true contender. It looked like their window was opening after they made it to the second round of the 2020 playoffs and took Vegas to seven games before finally exiting, but they failed to make the postseason in 2020-21.

Watching goaltender Jacob Markstrom walk in the summer of 2020 hurt them. To be fair, Thatcher Demko did fine as the successor in goal, but he only started in 35 of 56 games in the pandemic shortened season and when Braden Holtby was in net, it was rough. Even more concerning though, Vancouver’s offense, which had been such a highlight for the team in 2019-20, fell off a cliff in 2020-21 and that was a major factor in the team’s 23-29-4 record.

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Still believing in their core, the Canucks largely put forth the same team in 2021-22 with a few notable exceptions. The biggest change stemmed from Vancouver’s trade with Arizona in July 2021, which saw the Canucks gaining defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forward Conor Garland in exchange for Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, and some picks. Vancouver also brought in Jaroslav Halak in the hopes that he would serve as a better understudy for Demko than Holtby.

So how did Vancouver’s attempt to largely run it back go? At first, it went terribly. The Cancuks had an 8-15-2 record through Dec. 4. They were struggling defensively, and their offense was even worse. Vancouver was averaging just 2.36 goals-per-game, which put them in 27th in the league to that point. J.T. Miller and Quinn Hughes were having good seasons with 23 and 20 points respectively and Garland was fitting in nicely with seven goals and 18 points in 25 contests. The rest of the team was lackluster though and the most worrying player of them all was Elias Pettersson. He was supposed to be their headline player, but he had just four goals and 12 points in 25 contests.

With the team looking at the prospect missing the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons and years of rebuilding efforts seemingly unraveling, the decision was made that it was time for drastic changes. Jim Benning was relieved of his duties as general manager and Travis Green was let go as the team’s head coach. Bruce Boudreau took over as the bench boss and later Patrik Allvin was named the team’s new general manager.

With Boudreau helming the team, the change was instant. Vancouver won its seven games under his leadership and while they would have some slumps over the remainder of the season, it was nothing like what proceeded his hiring.

He got the offense going, most notably Pettersson, who scored 28 goals and 56 points in 55 games under Boudreau. Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser also stepped up, recording 39 points in 45 contests and 36 points in 49 games respectively. As a team, the Canucks averaged 3.28 goals-per-game with Boudreau, which was good for 12th place in the league under that span.

What was more impressive though was how their defense responded. Vancouver had the fifth lowest goals against-per-game under Boudreau at 2.67. He leaned on Demko heavily, starting him in 41 of Vancouver’s final 57 games and the netminder responded by posting a 2.61 GAA and .918 save percentage over that span.

Ultimately though, it wasn’t quite enough for Vancouver to dig itself out of its hole. The Canucks ended the season with a 40-30-12 record. They came tantalizingly close to reaching the playoffs but didn’t quite make it. Still, with the resurgence they had under Boudreau, there’s clearly still hope for this group. They’re unsurprisingly bringing him back for 2022-23 to see what he can do for this team when given the opportunity to guide them from Day 1.

Players to Watch:

Elias Pettersson – As mentioned above, Elias Pettersson had a pretty rough start to the season, but he turned things around under Boudreau. Overall, Pettersson had 32 goals and 68 points in 80 contests, which is great, but still not as good as the Canucks are hoping for out of him. Pettersson has the potential to be one of the league’s top forwards, but he hasn’t quite reached that level yet. Still, with four NHL seasons under his belt and him set to turn 24 in November, perhaps the 2022-23 campaign will be the year where he reaches the 40-goal and 80-point milestones for the first time.

JT Miller – Pettersson hitting that top level is especially important because the Canucks don’t know how much longer they’ll have JT Miller. Miller has one season remaining on his five-year, $26.25 million contract and while the Canucks have made it clear they’d like to re-sign him, it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to find a common ground. Miller has been outstanding since coming to Vancouver, scoring 74 goals and 217 points in 202 games over the course of three seasons. That performance though has caused his value to skyrocket. Perhaps Miller will consider taking a bit of a discount for the Canucks, but he’s 29-years-old and is doubtlessly aware that his next contract will be the biggest he ever signs. Especially after being paid below market value for years relative to what he’s brought to the table, I imagine he’ll want to be offered what he’s due and perhaps he’ll price himself out of the Canucks in the process. Keep an eye on this situation because if he doesn’t re-sign, then he’ll be the center of trade speculation. This whole situation will end up impacting Vancouver for years to come no matter what route they go down.

Bo HorvatBo Horvat isn’t going to attract the same kind of attention outside of Vancouver as Miller, but his contract situation is very important to the team in its own right. He’s their captain and gearing up for the final season of his six-year, $33 million deal. He’s served as a bridge from the Canucks’ previous generation to their current one, having started his career at the tail-end of the Sedin-era. He’s never been an elite forward, but he’s been consistently a good one. He had 52 points in 70 contests in 2021-22, including a career-high 31 goals. He’ll probably re-sign with Vancouver, though it’s worth noting that Vancouver has already given Brock Boeser a three-year, $19.95 million contract extension and if they give JT Miller a massive payday and extend Horvat on top of that, Vancouver’s cap situation will be on the tight side. Not counting Horvat or Miller, Vancouver already has $56 million committed to 12 players for 2023-24. So the question isn’t just if they can re-sign Horvat, but if they can lock him into a reasonable deal that will give them the flexibility to still potentially add some depth.

Thatcher Demko – Two years into Thatcher Demko serving as the Canucks starting goaltender and the results have been pretty good. He had a 33-22-7 record, 2.72 GAA, and .915 save percentage in 64 contests last season. When the Canucks signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract on March 31, 2021, they were taking a bit of a risk, but it’s paid off well. If he can continue to play like he did last season through the life of that contract, then Vancouver should be a competitive team. There’s no question that this team is betting significantly on Demko, but it’s looking like a good bet to make.