Elimination Eval: Vancouver Canucks

For the final Elimination Eval of Round 2, in their first playoff appearance in three years, just their second in the last nine years (does the COVID one even count?) we have the Vancouver Canucks. What a long, strange trip it’s been, right? This team has sort of been all over the place this last decade, really ever since the Sedin era came to an end. Will they, won’t they, make the playoffs, trade JT Miller, trade Bo Horvat (they did that one). All of a sudden, they went from zero to hero as they not only put up a 50-win season, but were in serious contention for the Presidents’ Trophy for a good portion of the season. That alone, makes what they accomplished this year a success and for Canucks fans, hopefully a step in the right direction. 

Going back to round one, Vancouver was pretty clearly the favorite in their series with the Nashville Predators. On paper, and certainly how the games were played, it wasn’t much of an exciting series but as it went on, there was no question it was heading in that direction. The biggest story surrounding this team that began in this series was goaltending. Thatcher Demko is one of the most promising starting goaltenders in the league but dealt with some injuries for key parts of the stretch. Low and behold, after Game 1 of Round 1, it was announced he was out with a lower-body injury that eventually kept him out of their playoff run altogether. 

Now before we pick up with that narrative, Vancouver had a great start to the postseason otherwise. After giving up a late goal from Jason Zucker towards the end of the first, Elias Lindholm quickly answered 47 seconds into the second period. The teams exchanged another pair of goals to make it 2-2 but a huge third period from Dakota Joshua propelled the Canucks to their first win of the postseason. All well and good, but how much would change now that Rick Tochett and his staff were forced to turn to their backup goaltender in Casey DeSmith? 

It turns out a lot would change, at least through Game 2. Anthony Beauvillier put the Predators on the board 74 seconds into play and another pair early in the second had the Canucks down 3-0. Nikita Zadorov stopped the bleeding with a big goal but an empty netter from Nashville helped even up the series, 1-1. Game 3 would be a step in the right direction but as I mentioned in Nashville's eval, there was some truly boring hockey being played and that was evident in the shot differential. 

Elimination Eval: Nashville Predators
You know what they say, the playoffs go on With Or Without You. It may be a Beautiful Day but there can only be One, Stanley Cup Champion. As a result, the Nashville Predators Still Haven’t Found What They’re Looking For. The Predators were far from the playoff

Vancouver got the win in Game 3 but only registered 12 shots on goal. Yes, that is across the entirety of the game. Miraculously in spite of the low shot total, the Canucks went up by two in the second period before a garbage time goal from Luke Evangelista brought the Preds within one, making for a stressful finish. To make matters worse for the Canucks in terms of their goaltending depth, Casey DeSmith was now dealing with a groin issue which left his status for Game 4 unclear. That’s where many hockey fans would be introduced to Arturs Silovs who would end up stealing the show for Vancouver’s playoff run.   

While Silovs was the story going into the game, Brock Boeser would quickly become the story coming out of it as he completed a hat-trick to send the game to overtime where the Canucks came out on top. Nashville would force them to Game 6 but an outstanding team effort gave hockey fans the impression that this team could be working towards something special. That would become a real test in Round 2 as they would take on the Edmonton Oilers. 

The first all Canadian battle in these playoffs did not disappoint as it was exciting hockey right from the start of Game 1. Zach Hyman put the Oilers on the board just over two minutes in, which sparked a 2-0 opening period from Edmonton. Dakota Joshua, who was without question one of the bright spots for this Vancouver team in the postseason, came up with a big answer 53 seconds into the second but another pair of goals from Edmonton in a span of 45 seconds left the Canucks trailing 4-1. Elias Lindholm stopped the bleeding while three unanswered goals in the third completed the comeback to put Vancouver up in the series. 

They were able to build off that momentum as Elias Pettersson put his team up early in Game 2 but Edmonton wasn’t going to make it easy. After a pair of back and forth goals, Edmonton trailed 3-2 heading into the final period of regulation. Connor McDavid picked up his second of the postseason five minutes into the third to tie the game up which would inevitably force a decision to come in overtime. About five and a half in, Evan Bouchard beat Arturs Silovs to tie up the series, bringing it back to Alberta for Game 3. 

It can’t be overstated how important Brock Boeser was to this team’s success and perhaps that’s what led to their downfall. After Mattias Ekholm put the Oilers up by one, a pair of goals from Boeser helped put his team up 3-1. The Oilers made it interesting but the Canucks weathered the storm to take Game 3 and go up in the series 2-1. Game 4, would be one of the game changing moments in the series. After trailing 2-0 after two, the Canucks again showed signs of a comeback, tying the game up after a massive goal from Dakota Joshua. It looked as though that was enough to send the game to overtime but a late goal from Evan Bouchard put that to bed, 3-2 Edmonton, series tied. 

Game 5 would be the high moment for the Canucks. Game 5’s with the series tied are so critical and they would have all the momentum by the end of it. After another close game with the score tied across the third period, JT Miller found the back of the net with 33 seconds to go for another night of late heroics. The Canucks were now one win away from the Western Conference Final. 

With the score tied 1-1 after the first period of Game 6, the Oilers put up four unanswered goals to force Game 7, proving they were far from ready to let their season end. Given its outcome, Game 7 was clearly the low point for the Canucks but frankly, the real low point came just prior to it as one of their best players received some awful news. In 12 playoff games with the Canucks, Brock Boeser had 7 goals and 5 assists making him the team leader in both goals and points. However, he would not play in Game 7 as he was diagnosed with a blood clot issue that immediately put an end to his season. 

We all have teams and players we don’t like around the league, it’s the nature of being a fan. But Brock Boeser is one of those guys that doesn’t give you an easy reason to hate him. Seeing him have the year and postseason he had after so many struggles on and off the ice, dealing with the loss of his father, he was truly a feel good story in these playoffs and to have it end like this is just completely brutal. It only upped the ante for the Canucks going into Game 7, win it for your teammate or fall trying. 

After a scoreless first, three unanswered goals from the Oilers really put the Canucks in a tough position. Would twenty minutes be enough for them to claw their way back? Close but no cigar.. A big goal from Conor Garland gave the team some life and with two and half to go in the game, Filip Hronek brought them within one. They gave it all they had but the Oilers powered through and that was all she wrote for the Canucks. A bitter ending to an otherwise sweet season in Vancouver. 

The biggest question for Vancouver moving forward will be regarding their capability of running it back in this capacity. There’s no question they were one of the top teams in the Western Conference all season long but it did come as a bit of a surprise. There wasn’t doubt that they were capable of taking a step in the right direction but the jump they took from where they finished last season was quite significant. With that in mind, you have to think this team did some overachieving and can view this year as a success. However with that, comes greater pressure for next season. Will they have what it takes? 

Patrik Allvin and the rest of the management team have a lot of major decisions to make this summer. The Canucks are at the risk of losing a ton of UFA’s to the open market and have one of their top defensemen in Filip Hronek set to become a RFA. With roughly $24 million in projected cap space, it’s going to come down to who is absolutely essential for the future of this franchise versus who they are going to have to find a way to replace. Their UFA’s include Elias Lindholm, Dakota Joshua, Teddy Blueger, Nikita Zadorov, Sam Lafferty, Tyler Myers, Ian Cole, Mark Friedman and Casey DeSmith. They also have Arturs Silovs as an RFA. 

Lots to unpack there. Again, under the assumption all the UFA’s walk, this is a projected lineup of what the Canucks could have to work with to start next season:

Miller - Pettersson - Boeser*

Mikheyev - ? - Garland

Hoglander - Suter - Podkolzin

Di Giuseppe - Aman - ?

Hughes - Hronek

Soucy - Juulsen 

? - ? 

In a perfect world, that’s a decent foundation to ice a team next season but there are plenty of question marks. The most serious question mark surrounds Brock Boeser who’s health could be in question heading into next season as well as further down the road. Ilya Mikheyev is another wildcard who not only has a history with injuries, but other inconsistencies in his production. Nils Hoglander is another player that hasn’t necessarily panned out the way they had hoped up to this point but will be relied on if he’s going to stick around. The same could be said for Vasily Podkolzin. 

The biggest need for the Canucks this summer will certainly focus on the back end. With Zadorov, Myers, Cole and Friedman all hitting the open market, they’re going to need to find a way to fill out their second and third pairings. Hronek alone could require close to a third of Vancouver’s budget for next season so any dollars spent this summer are going to need to be done so with plenty of caution. Zadorov and Myers both expressed their love for Vancouver as well as some interest in potentially returning but it’s hard to see that happening. Zadorov will likely make more money elsewhere and I’m not sure Myers is the best investment for where this team is currently at. 

The list of projected free agent defensemen this summer isn’t anything close to otherworldly but there are enough names available for Vancouver to refill the tank. Mark Friedman could potentially return on a cheap enough deal but if this team wants to improve, they’re going to need some reinforcements. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Canucks shopped Hoglander, Mikheyev or even Connor Garland who was in trade rumors earlier in the season if it meant acquiring an affordable top-four caliber defender. 

This isn’t a team that is particularly heavy with offensive talent but Pettersson, Miller and Boeser is a good trio to build around. Realistically, they have enough of a returning cast to limit their biggest needs to a second or third line center and another bottom-six forward but that’s again assuming the best out of everybody. Regarding their pending free agents, you have to think they’ll at least explore a potential Lindholm extension but he’d be better suited financially to hit the open market. Dakota Joshua should be one of their highest priorities after the season and playoff he had as he’s exactly the type of guy you want on your team. Outside of that, I’d be surprised if they kept any of Blueger, Lafferty, or Lindholm around. 

There are some exciting names in the pipeline for the Canucks. Jonathan Lekkerimaki is a dynamic forward with loads of talent that could be closer to the NHL than people realize. They also have an exciting right handed defenseman with a high ceiling in Tom Willander which could make for a fantastic core of defense with Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek. Aatu Raty is another highly regarded forward that could make an impact despite falling off closer to his draft year, not to mention Podkolzin and Silovs are still technically prospects. 

With a healthy squad, you have to think Vancouver will be able to run it back as a competitive playoff team next season. They may not find themselves in the Presidents’ Trophy conversation, but this season was a crucial stepping stone in helping them get to where this organization wants to be. Rick Tochett had an unbelievable year at the helm of this team and with the right moves this summer, the pieces are certainly there for this to be an excitable team for the foreseeable future.