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Pacific Peeks: Vancouver Canucks

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Is the young talent in Vancouver enough to pull the Canucks out of rebuild mode?

Vancouver Canucks Center Elias Pettersson (40) is congratulated after scoring a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on September 17, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver won 4-2. Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a long, long time since you could mention the Vancouver Canucks and “playoffs” in the same sentence. And yet, here we are.

The Canucks have a very clear vision on how to celebrate their 50th anniversary season properly; a season full of commemorating the past, a few throwback jersey nights and an exciting young team that looks poised for a breakthrough. Vancouver might not have turned many heads in their two visits to SAP Center last year, but this time there’s reason to expect a real battle when the blue and green come to town.

The Sharks and Canucks will play each other five times this season, with three games in San Jose on Nov. 2, Dec. 14 and Jan. 29, and two in Vancouver on Jan. 18 and Mar. 25.

Most teams that finish nine points out of a playoff spot and fourth last in the Western Conference would consider that season a disappointing one. But the Canucks’ eight point improvement from 2018-19 have fans dreaming of a very bright future, thanks in large part to the work of one player: Elias Pettersson.

Where we left off

To say Pettersson’s team-leading 66 points as a 19 year-old rookie has changed the Canucks’ basement dwelling reputation would be a criminal understatement. Pettersson’s impressive season not only earned him the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, but also pushed Vancouver management to speed up their rebuild.

With the off-season acquisitions of Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller, the latter of which cost Vancouver a conditional first round pick to nab from Tampa, the Canucks made a firm commitment to putting their young stars alongside talented veterans. The blue line also saw some major upgrades; Tyler Myers, Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenburg joined the club on July 1, but the biggest change came when 2018 first round pick Quinn Hughes made his NHL debut against the Kings last March.

In goal, Jacob Markstrom is looking to build off his breakout year in 2018-19, where he posted a .912 save percentage and stole a number of games down the stretch for an injury riddled Canucks squad. But there’s a little more at stake for Markstrom this season, with UFA status looming next summer and San Diego product Thatcher Demko looking to push for more ice time.

2019 NHL Draft

As the hosts of the 2019 Draft, the Canucks intended on making a splash in front of the home fans with ten selections in their pocket, including 10th overall. It was there that the Canucks took 17 year-old Russian winger Vasily Podkolzin from Neva St. Petersburg in the Russian second league.

While Podkolzin’s offensive numbers aren’t sensational, his overall work ethic and generally complete game at both ends of the ice has experts believing the points will eventually catch up. Dobber Prospects’ Cam Robinson described Podkolzin as “An absolute pit bull. Podkolzin offers high-end offensive awareness, lightning quick hands and a confrontational style. Despite some muted point totals coming from his club team, he’s made a habit of showing up in a big way on the international stage.”

In the second round, the Canucks took Swedish winger Nils Hoglander at 40th overall, then added two Canadian prospects, winger Ethan Keppen and center Carson Focht, in the fourth and fifth rounds respectively. In the sixth round, Vancouver made three selections; Latvian goaltender Arturs Silovs (156 overall), Czech right winger Karel Plasek (175 overall) and American forward Jack Malone (180 overall). With their final two picks in the seventh round, the Canucks took American left winger Aidan McDonough at pick 195 and Swedish center Arvid Costmar at no. 215.

Roster

The Canucks used the summer to take a budding young lineup and add an infusion of skill to the lineup with Miller, Myers and Ferland. After starring on the Carolina Hurricanes last year, Ferland is expected to start the season on the first line alongside Pettersson and Brock Boeser, who just signed a three-year bridge deal worth $17.625 million on Monday.

Miller comes to the Canucks as a victim of the Lightning’s cap issues, but will get the opportunity to play a bigger role in Vancouver. Miller and potential future captain Bo Horvat have had some success early in the preseason, with their linemate spot up for grabs between the likes of Sven Baertschi, Tanner Pearson and former Sharks prospect Nikolay Goldobin.

The depth roles at center still belong to Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle, but youngster Adam Gaudette is hoping to force the Canucks into making a tough decision before opening night. The Canucks glut of forwards means some bigger names like Loui Eriksson and Tim Schaller will need to step up their intensity to match their cap hits, or risk being sent down to the AHL’s Utica Comets.

The defense is more or less set in stone, with returning players Alex Edler, Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher being joined by rookie Hughes and free agent signings Myers and Benn. Canucks bench boss Travis Green does have some early decisions to make with his goalies, Markstrom and Demko, who’ll likely enter the season as a “1A and 1B” tandem.

Forwards

Micheal Ferland — Elias Pettersson — Brock Boeser
Sven Baertschi — Bo Horvat — J.T. Miller
Tanner Pearson — Brandon Sutter — Jake Virtanen
Josh Leivo — Jay Beagle — Loui Eriksson

Nikolay Goldobin
Antoine Roussel* (injured)

Defense

Alex Edler — Troy Stecher
Quinn Hughes — Chris Tanev
Jordie BennTyler Myers

Oscar Fantenberg

Goaltenders

Jacob Markstrom
Thatcher Demko

What can we expect in 2020?

There’s no doubt about the fact that the Canucks are a much better team this season than last; just how much better is the real question.

The team’s success this season will be carried by the young forward core. And with a high flying top six finally forming around the likes of Pettersson, Boeser and Horvat, Vancouver has at the very least built a team that can compete with the league’s best.

Defensively, the team is much more sound and assuming Markstrom doesn’t take a massive step back in goal, the Canucks could realistically see themselves competing for a playoff spot thanks to a top heavy Pacific Division. They’ll likely have to fight with the Arizona Coyotes for a wild card spot, but Vancouver’s sudden depth in skill might catch enough teams by surprise to earn something better.

But regardless of where they end up this year, two things are certain; Vancouver has a solid chance of pulling out of their rebuild with their young stars, and this 2019-20 edition of the Canucks should at least be fun, if not also a threat to the division.