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2021-22 Vancouver Canucks Preview: A roster full of potential rebounds

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Roster additions, young talent and management will be looking for significant improvement compared to last year in the 2021-22 season. 

J.T. Miller #9 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against Andrew Mangiapane #88 of the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome on May 19, 2021 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

The Vancouver Canucks are searching for a sign that last year’s less-than-stellar season is the exception, not the rule to Canucks hockey. The 2021-22 season should be synonymous with the word “rebound” — new additions, young talent and even management are going to be working towards a significant improvement compared to last season.

The San Jose Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks will meet each other three times during the regular season, twice in December and once in April.

Where they left off

We can’t talk about the Canucks 2020-21 season without first discussing their playoff performance in 2019-20. Sure, the team lost in the second round to the Vegas Golden Knights, but the main takeaway from that season was how comfortable the team looked with each other. On-ice production is obviously essential, but the behind-the-scenes team dynamics are what create a successful team on the ice.

However (much to the chagrin of Canucks fans everywhere) Jim Benning stepped in ... and the makeup of the team changed. Suddenly, the Canucks who had formed close bonds in the bubble were a changed roster. The new Canucks were then stifled by a 2020-21 season where strict COVID-19 protocols in Canada prevented the usual team bonding exercises and close contact in daily life, a brutal schedule exhausted players and new faces struggled to fit in.

The confused culture shift of the Canucks was evident in their slow, resigned performances, defensive hesitation and inconsistent production, all of which led to a record of 23-29-4.

2021 Entry Draft

The Vancouver Canucks are in an interesting position where the team has struggled to maintain consistent postseason success, but haven’t begun hoarding draft picks the way other teams (such as the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings) have. Sure, the Canucks are a few steps ahead of their actively rebuilding counterparts, but if nothing changes in Vancouver in the next three to five years then the Canucks will have to revisit their long-term plans.

The 2021 Entry Draft wasn’t the most exciting of Vancouver performances. Years past saw huge talents like Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, but there doesn’t seem to be one superstar out of this years’ bunch yet. That’s not to say that none of these players don’t have the potential to be breakout stars — objectively, they’re all exciting, young prospects who have great optics and NHL futures — it’s just that there isn’t a player who will be the missing energizer bunny the team desperately needs.

Of the 2021 draft picks, center Danila Klimovich is the player to get excited about. Sure, his 2020-21 U18 performance was something to behold (6 goals in five games), but his regular season stats show a more complete picture. Klimovich probably won’t be a top-line center, but the Canucks don’t need him to be. Instead, he has creativity and shot that will make him a powerful second or third line addition in the next few years. He played the majority of the 2020-21 season with Minskie Zubry of the Belarus Vysshaya League, where he totaled 28 goals, 24 assists, 40 penalty minutes and a +8 rating in 37 games.

In total, the Canucks drafted six players:

Round 2 (41st overall): Danila Klimovich
Round 5 (137th): Aku Koskenvuo
Round 5 (140th): Jonathan Myrenberg
Round 6 (169th): Hugo Gabrielsson
Round 6 (178th): Connor Lockhart
Round 7 (201st): Lucas Forsell

Roster

Quite a few Canucks players left during the season and in the off-season, with a few notable faces such as Nate Schmidt, Braden Holtby and Alex Edler moving on from the team.

Nate Schmidt and his infectious laugh struggled in Vancouver, with some reasoning being that Schmidt is a people-person — and it was difficult for the team to spend time with each other and develop chemistry due to the pandemic. During the season, Schmidt was traded to the Winnipeg Jets for a third-round pick in 2022. While his presence is a loss for the Canucks, his absence shows just how hard a season can be when the locker room doesn’t quite know each other.

Goaltender Braden Holtby came to Vancouver for a fresh start, but his redemption arc didn’t go as planned. For the Canucks, Holtby posted a 3.67 Goals-Against Average (GAA) and 0.889 save percentage (SV%) in 21 games. His numbers can be chalked up to a variety of reasons; scrambling defense, a bad year in a string of bad years, team chemistry, all of it led to the Canucks buying out the rest of Holtby’s contract, and releasing him to free agency. Holtby has now signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Dallas Stars, while the Canucks have attempted to level up their goaltending in the off-season.

Alex Edler spent his entire career with the Vancouver Canucks. Among defenders, he leads the organization in all-time goals (99), assists (310) and points (409), with his assists and point totals listing him in the Top-10 Vancouver Canucks of all-time for any position. As an unrestricted free agent, Edler and the Canucks parted ways this off-season, and he signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings. His dependable, stalwart presence is difficult to replace for the Canucks, although it seems like they’ve brought in Oliver Ekman-Larsson (OEL) to be his de facto replacement for next season.

For new faces, the Canucks have a filled-out roster, but the most notable are OEL and Jaroslav Halak.

At 30 years old and five years younger than Edler, Ekman-Larsson brings his steady, reliable skillset and veteran presence to the Canucks. OEL has a mobility and smoothness on the ice that will hopefully ground the Canucks’ sometimes-confused defense. For the Arizona Coyotes, OEL served as captain and earned 3 goals, 21 assists, 32 penalty minutes and -17 over 46 games. His numbers coming into Vancouver aren’t fantastic, so along with the rest of the Canucks roster, OEL will be looking to rebound from last season’s labors.

We’re unsure of exactly how the goaltending in Vancouver will shake up with the team’s variety of goal-tenders currently listed in the organization, but new addition Jaroslav Halak certainly makes things interesting. Will he split the net with Thatcher Demko?

For Bruins fans, losing the Halak and Rask tandem signifies the end of an era. For Canucks fans, Halak’s need for a rebound (there’s that word again) after a down year makes him a wildcard. Halak played 19 games with a 2.53 GAA and 0.905 SV% in the regular season with the Bruins, and in nine postseason games, he had a 2.76 GAA and 0.902 SV%.

There’s a couple of returning faces who are destined for a rebound in the 2021-22 season as well, all of whom are young players.

For the forwards, Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson are the big names. Boeser’s name has been unfairly thrown around in trade rumors basically since he was drafted by the Canucks, and Pettersson’s injury struggles this year made it difficult for him to hit his stride. For Boeser, last season was a taste of what he can do. In 56 games he had 23 goals, 26 assists, 16 PIMs and a -3. While definitely not a terrible year, Boeser has a suspected high-ceiling that Canucks fans know he’ll be able to hit once the team itself solidifies its identity. For Pettersson, his agility and end-to-end creativity revitalize the Canucks when he’s in the lineup. All things considered and if he’s able to stay healthy, his 10 goals, 11 assists, 21 points and 6 PIMs in 26 games from last season will be an appetizer to what he should be able to do in the 2021-22 season.

Defense has been a continuous struggle for the Vancouver Canucks, and bright, young defenseman Quinn Hughes has been touted as the future of the Canucks blue line. I’m not going to disagree with that take because, despite a down year, defenseman can often take longer to develop than forwards, and Hughes is still growing as a player. His proactivity, speed, and yes, his size, make him a skills-based defenseman that the Canucks sorely need. Last season, Hughes played 56 games culminating in 3 goals, 38 assists, 22 PIMs and a -24. Can someone say “rebound year” for his 2021-22 season?

What can we expect in 2021-22?

The Vancouver Canucks could either surprise us by getting an early jump in the Pacific Division, or they could continue last year’s spiral in the standings. The sweeping roster changes may help heal the Canucks of the losing bug they had last year, or it will only perpetuate the problems the Canucks faced in the 2020-21 season.

Special teams will need to improve for the Canucks if they want to battle against the bigger beasts in the Pacific division, like Vegas and possibly Seattle (hey, you never know). The Canucks’ 2020-21 powerplay was 25th overall in the NHL at 17.4 percent, and their penalty kill was 17th at 79.8 percent.

Defense will be a big issue that in the 2021-22 season the Canucks will have to contend with, as well. Defensive coverage has led to too many odd-man rushes during the season, but with the hopeful addition of OEL in place of Edler and the entire Canucks defense searching for (you guessed it) a rebound year, the overall assumption is that however bad the D looked, they can only look better this season.

The entire team is searching for a sign that last season’s distress was just a fluke, and so the expectation is that the Canucks have to be better. And if they’re not, then the roster won’t be the only thing changing in Vancouver.

The Sharks will face the Canucks three times in the 2021-22 season. Their first two games will be played at SAP Center on December 16 and 21, both at 7:30 p.m. PT. The two will then play each other for the final time on April 9, 2022 in Vancouver at 7 p.m. PT.