Ask a Sharks fan for their thoughts on the Vancouver Canucks, and the answers probably won’t be very positive. Memories of a once dominant franchise featuring some of hockey’s most hated pests like Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows have left San Jose’s fanbase with a very foul taste in their mouths, even though the Canucks of today are nothing like the ones that turned a deflection off a stanchion into a Stanley Cup Final berth in 2011.
Not many people know this rivalry better than myself, and that’s because — truth be told — I relocated to the Bay Area in 2009 from my hometown of Vancouver.
I might be a Canuck first and foremost, but during my decade here I’ve effectively adopted the Sharks as my second team. San Jose is a fascinating NHL city that has all the passion and stability of an Original Six franchise and none of the distracting noise off the ice. The passion of the fans made it impossible not to root for the team in teal, despite the Canucks being a division rival.
Improving relations between Sharks fans and Canucks fans is something I hope to achieve through my time here, but right now Vancouver has a bigger problem; they’re in the doldrums of the National Hockey League.
Where we left off
Even though the Canucks finished 2017-18 dead last in the Pacific Division, they had the the entire NHL’s attention in the final week of the season after franchise legends Henrik and Daniel Sedin announced they’d be retiring at the end of the year. In their final home game against the Arizona Coyotes, they put on one last performance to prove why they’ll be heading to the Hall of Fame.
The Sedins’ final games saved the Canucks from ending on a completely sour note: in particular, the season ending back injury to Calder Trophy candidate Brock Boeser. The 20-year-old sniper was on pace to break the Canucks’ record for points by a rookie, set by Pavel Bure in 1991-92, before a freak collision with Islanders’ grinder Cal Clutterbuck sent him back-first into an open bench door. Boeser’s 55 points tied him with Daniel Sedin for the team lead in points, but his injury was one of many that derailed Vancouver’s first season under head coach Travis Green.
The Canucks are a team in transition, as the team rebuilds around the likes of Boeser, top notch centre Bo Horvat and a newcomer named Elias Pettersson. The long term plan hasn’t been smooth sailing, and recently saw a seismic shift after the team parted ways with President of Hockey Ops Trevor Linden in late July. This leaves general manager Jim Benning as the lone head of the Canucks’ front office, and after signing a multi-year extension in February, it’ll be his choices alone that dictate the future in Vancouver.
2018 Entry Draft
Even though the Canucks fell to seventh overall in the draft lottery, the team still managed to get the big piece they desperately need: University of Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes. Hughes won’t don a Canucks uniform until March at the earliest, as Vancouver’s already set defensive group led him to stay in Michigan for another season.
Adding to the team’s list of defensive prospects was the main goal at the 2018 draft, as Hughes was joined by Moose Jaw Warriors standout Jett Woo in the second round and Finnish blueliner Toni Utunen in the fifth. The Canucks also selected USHL forward Tyler Madden at 68th overall, Russian winger Artyom Manukyan at No. 186 and netminder Matthew Thiessen with the 192nd choice.
With the possible exception of Hughes, don’t expect to see any of these players in Vancouver blue and green this season. The Canucks have preached patience with their prospects over the last few seasons, and the early results of that philosophy have been a success. It’ll likely be a season or two before these players make their way into the Vancouver system, be it the Canucks or their affiliates in Utica and Kalamazoo.
With the Sedin era coming to an end, the Canucks have overhauled a lot of their depth in 2018, starting with two trade deadline moves sending Thomas Vanek to Columbus for Tyler Motte and moving defenseman Philip Holm to Vegas for Brendan Leipsic. In late March the team added 2015 fifth-round pick and Hobey Baker winner Adam Gaudette, who’d led the Northeastern University Huskies to the first round of the NCAA tournament with 60 points in 38 games.
When free agency rolled around, Jim Benning and his staff felt the Canucks needed to add grit and a veteran presence to their bottom-six, leading them to sign recent Stanley Cup champion Jay Beagle and super pest Antoine Roussel to identical four-year deals for the premium cost of $12 million each. They also picked up former Bruin Tim Schaller on a two-year, $3.8 million contract and acquired Tanner Kero from the Blackhawks in exchange for Michael Chaput.
The Canucks additions have given them a wealth of forwards to choose from, and so far in the preseason the young guns have been making the most solid case. One of them is former Shark Nikolay Goldobin, who has really improved his play away from the puck and seems to have earned the confidence of Travis Green over the last two weeks. Goldy appears to be a lock for Vancouver’s top-six to start the season, with only Sven Baertschi in front of him on the left wing depth chart.
One name you’ll hear a lot this season is rookie Elias Pettersson, the Canucks’ fifth overall pick in 2017 who shattered the Swedish Hockey League record books last year. Pettersson’s team leading 56 points for the Vaxjo Lakers were the most points by a player under 20 in the league’s history, putting him ahead of elite company like Peter Forsberg, Niklas Backstrom and a whole lot of former Canucks.
Elias Pettersson breaks the #SHL all-time scoring record by a junior! With two goals and two assists (game is still in progress), Pettersson tops an impressive list of former greats!https://t.co/CdQbEF4aSK pic.twitter.com/nfSyeaEnx3— Eliteprospects (@eliteprospects) March 8, 2018
Pettersson has already showed flashes of brilliance at both ends of the ice in his short NHL career, and has been one of the few bright spots in a dismal Canucks preseason. If he and Vancouver’s other budding stars like Boeser and Bo Horvat continue to lead the team in the right direction, their teammates might follow suit.
What can we expect in 2019?
The Canucks’ rebuild is in full swing, and as their talent matures and improves they’ll become a bigger threat in the Pacific. But this season is going to be about patience and hope, as Vancouver will likely finish near the bottom of the standings once gain.
Without the Sedins, the Canucks’ scoring is going to rest firmly on the shoulders of Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, who’ve each led the team in scoring during the last two seasons. If Vancouver is going push its way out of the basement, they’ll need older players like Sven Baertschi, Loui Eriksson and Brandon Sutter to step up their game.
The defense is a massive question mark for Travis Green and his staff. The team made no changes to the core that finished tied for 26th in goals against, and there’s concern that the blue line’s older members like Alex Edler and Michael Del Zotto are due to regress. The Sharks offense has only improved since the teams last met, and has the legs to wear out the Vancouver defense over the course of the game.
If the Sharks want a repeat of last year’s season sweep, containing Boeser, Pettersson and Horvat will need to be their main focus. The Canucks’ newest additions will definitely make them a tougher opponent on a nightly basis, but without enough scoring depth they’ll be hard pressed to win any shoot-out affairs.
The Sharks will face the Canucks four times this season, with the first game at the SAP Center on November 23.