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Ten random thoughts: A look back at 2020 and a look ahead to 2021

As 2020 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look back at 2020 for the Canucks and look ahead to what 2021 could bring. With training camps set to open on January 3rd (it opened New Year’s Eve, the last day of the year, for the seven teams that did not make the Stanley Cup tournament in July) and the puck dropping on an abbreviated season ten days later, I plan to start posting new material on a more regular basis. As per usual, you can catch my game recaps after each game and I’ll be trying to do weekly random thoughts posts. This past year has been like no other in history for a multitude of reasons, the biggest being a global pandemic that effectively ended the regular season on March 12. We saw athletes take a stand against racism, boycotting games for two days (the NHL screwed the Canucks with the rescheduling of the remainder of the series vs. Vegas with an unheard of 5 games in 7 days, including a pair of back-to-backs). The Sedins had their numbers retired in a moving ceremony in February. Quinn Hughes became the 3rd Canuck in 3 years to be nominated for rookie of the year (Can Nils Hoglander or Olli Joulevi make it a 4-peat?) Thatcher Demko came in cold and stopped an incredible 123/125 shots in three games, nearly carrying his team to the Western Conference Finals, after starter Jacob Markstrom was injured. Elias Pettersson showed that 2018-19 was not a fluke, equaling his output from his rookie year with 66 points (27G 39A). Bo Horvat continued to improve and showed that the Canucks made the right choice in naming him as the 14th captain in team history. On the negative side, Michael Ferland may have played his final game in the NHL. Ferland missed the bulk of the season and had three unsuccessful attempts to come back from a concussion. Also, the Canucks were unable to re-sign any of their free agents and they could not move any of the big contracts that are hindering their ability to sign marque players. Looking ahead, for the first (and probably last) time ever, the Canucks will be playing in a division with the rest of the Canadian teams due to the US/Canadian border remaining closed to non-essential travel and the Canadian government’s requirement of a 14-day quarantine for all visitors (more on that later). The NHL also introduced retro jerseys the teams will wear throughout the season. Also, in an effort to gain back revenue, the NHL will be allowing ads on helmets (for example, you might see the Rogers logo on the Canucks helmet). Here are ten random thoughts to end 2020 and welcome 2021.

In a nutshell, 2020 was a success for the Canucks. When play stopped on March 12 (due to the pandemic), the Canucks found themselves above .500 (and playing meaningful games post all-star break) for the first time since the 2014-15 season, when they went 48-29-5 with 101 points, before losing in the first round of the playoffs. Alex Edler, Sven Baertschi and Bo Horvat are the last remaining Canucks from that roster. Thatcher Demko had a strong rookie season, his first full season in the NHL, going 13-10 with a .905save% and a 3.06GAA. It was his performance in the playoffs that earned him the starter’s job after Jacob Markstrom chose to sign with the Calgary Canucks, I mean Flames. Quinn Hughes had a stellar rookie year as well, leading rookies in points (53) and assists (45). Defensively, he looked like a seasoned vet at times,  with his ability to escape the opposition and transition up the ice. Hughes gave the Canucks a legit PP QB for the first time since Christian Ehrhoff was a Canuck, or maybe Sami Salo. In the playoffs, the Canucks survived a hard-fought qualifying round against Minnesota, then knocked out the defending champs St. Louis Blues, and forced a game 7 against a Vegas team that looked poised to make it to the finals for the second time in three years. All told, the Canucks served notice that they are in or near their window to compete for a championship.

It was not a banner year for the Canucks in terms of re-signing free agents. In fact, all five pending free agents chose to sign elsewhere. Jacob Markstrom, Josh Leivo, Chris Tanev and journeyman backup Louis Dominque are all in Cowtown and poised to face the Canucks 9 times this year, including what could be a crucial tilt to end the regular season, and 4 or 5 times in subsequent years when divisions are back to their usual alignment. Troy Stetcher inked a 2-year deal with the rebuilding Red Wings, who are probably further back in their rebuild than the Canucks. Tyler Toffoli, a trade deadline acquisition, moved to the east to Montreal. The Canucks also saw a potential deal with Arizona to acquire Oliver Ekman-Larsson fall through, after he and his agent imposed a deadline of October 9 (1st day of free agency) to strike a deal. The biggest loss will likely be either Markstrom, who emerged as an elite goalie the past couple of seasons in large part due to the tutelage of Ian Clark, or Tanev, who complimented Quinn Hughes like peanut butter compliments jelly on a PBJ. Josh Leivo would have been a risky signing, given the severity of his injury. The loss of all these free agents will allow some of the rookies, or veteran Sven Baertschi to crack the lineup.

Heading into an unusual free agency period, both in terms of timing (kicking off October 9th, as opposed to the traditional July 1st) and how teams would proceed with a stagnant salary cap, the Canucks hopes rested on targeting Oliver Ekman-Larsson with the Coyotes looking to shed the hefty contract. They were also hoping to retain starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and/or veteran defenseman Chris Tanev, who gelled so well with rookie Quinn Hughes. Sadly, both players opted to sign with Calgary (along with Leivo and Domingue, who has a career as a pastry chef if the hockey thing doesn’t pan out). After losing out on Markstrom, the Canucks quickly pivoted to sign veteran Braden Holtby. Two years removed from winning the Stanley cup with Washington, Holtby should provide competent goaltending in a 1A/1B tandem with Thatcher Demko. The length of this deal is interesting and it’s likely Holtby will be exposed in the upcoming expansion draft. Last season, Holtby was 25-14-6 in 48 games (47 of them starts) with a .897 save% and 3.11GAA. An interesting signing was 25-year old Jayce Hawryluk. One thing about Hawryluk is that he is a right-hand shot, something the Canucks have lacked and maybe be an advantage in certain situations, such as a PK if the opposition prefers to start on his strong side (the NHL changed the rules whereby the team with the man advantage gets to decide where the faceoff occurs). He’ll be in tough to crack the lineup on a nightly basis with the Canucks pretty set at that position. Neverthless, he’ll definitely get a look at training camp. Finally, the Canucks made a trade with Vegas and took Nate Schmidt off their hands so they could sign Alex Pietrangelo. Schmidt is a capable defenseman, who blocks a ton of shots. He’ll likely pair up with Hughes to start with.

Three Canucks to watch in training camp:

  • Sven Baertschi – the grizzled veteran comes into camp looking to fill a top-six spot. Like the aforementioned Ferland, Baertschi is no stranger to the dark uncertainty of concussions, In fact, it looked like his career might have been done in 2017-18 after missing 56 games with a concussion. Thankfully, he appears to have put the issue in his rearview mirror. Baertschi was one of the last cuts in training camp last season, with the team citing concerns for his safety as a big reason why he missed the cut. Being the professional he is, Baertschi went to Utica, after clearing waivers, and had himself a solid season with 46 points (13G 33A) over 43 games. He also played 6 games with the Canucks when injuries were piling up and recorded a pair of assists. With no preseason games, Baertschi will have to be strong in scrimmages and turn some heads in the drills to crack the roster, which will include Jayce Hawryluk and Loui Eriksson fighting for one, maybe two spots on the wing.
  • Braden Holtby – inked to a 2-year deal before the ink really dried on Jacob Markstrom’s contract with Calgary, Holtby’s intro to Vancouver did not get off to a great start. First, he created controversy over his newly designed mask that was intended to pay homage to the great people of First Nations descent. However, he did not use a FN artist to design the mask, and many people found that offensive. The resulting backlash on social media caused his partner to either quit Twitter or make her account private. Then came #turtlegate. Holtby owns a pair of pet turtles, which were held up at the border a couple of days. Eventually, Holtby and his pet reptiles made their way across the border and the veteran goalie has been able to settle into his new home and get ready for the season ahead. Like Markstrom, Holtby will be guided by a new goalie coach. Ian Clark has proven himself to be among the best in the business at developing goalies and I have no doubt Holtby will be fine. Markstrom, on the other hand, is prone to giving up early goals and has let his emotions take over in the past. It also helps that Holtby’s got his old buddy and ex-Capitals teammate center the 4th line and anchoring the PK.
  • Jake Virtanen – If ever there was a player that needed to have a good showing in training camp, it’s Jake Virtanen. Entering his 6th season in the NHL, Virtanen has been controversial to say the least. He’s come into multiple training camps out of shape, he was spotted at a night club just prior to when play restarted in July without a mask and not socially distancing, earlier in the summer he was distracted driving (using his cell phone while driving). The Canucks keep bringing him back because of the potential he has shown on the ice. He’s using his size to his advantage more (102 hits last season). Virtanen also produces offensively enough to be a top 6 or 3rd line option. With the free agency departures of Toffoli and Leivo, there is a spot open on the wing. Now Virtanen has to grab that spot with a strong training camp.

Let’s take a look at this unique all-Canadian division. Necessitated by the closed US/Canada border and the COVID situation throughout the US and Canada, the NHL has realigned the divisions for this season only. For Canadian hockey fans, this will be a treat. Typically, Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa only face Vancouver, Calgary,  Edmonton and Winnipeg twice a season. This season, all teams will face each other 9 or 10 times! Further, to limit travel, teams will play two or three games against each other before moving to the next city. The Tkachuk brothers will renew their rivalry, facing each other five times over a 12 day span late February, early March. How about a battle of the top 2 picks from the  2016 NHL entry draft (Patrick Laine of the Jets and Auston Matthews for the Maple Leafs) nine times this season? Who’s going to win the division? Toronto, on paper at least, looks the strongest and most battle tested. The dark horse in this division could be Winnipeg, who have absolutely dominated the Canucks in recent seasons and reacquired Paul Stastny and have the reigning Vezina winner as best goalie in Connor Hellebuyck. Vancouver is a young up and coming team that could make some noise. Calgary had a very busy off-season, improving in goal and shoring up the defense by signing veteran Chris Tanev. Edmonton still has question marks on their offensive depth and in goal. Montreal could be another dark horse, signing Tyler Toffoli and veteran Corey Perry. The Habs turned some heads in the return to play tournament, winning their Qualifier round series over Pittsburgh before losing out to Philadelphia in the QF. Even Ottawa might not be an automatic win. They have a young and up and coming team with prospects who will only get better as they gain experience. I can’t wait for the puck to drop in 2 weeks.

Let’s look at the other three temporary divisions for the 2021 NHL season.

  • East Division – Here is your division of death. When play stopped in mid-March, Boston had already achieved a hundred point season and Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington were well on their way to that milestone. The Islanders and Rangers represent the next tier of competition (no quite at the level of the aforementioned teams, but fully capable of competing). Buffalo and New Jersey are likely to struggle mightily. No question, Pittsburgh will be motivated to avenge their disappointing showing in the return to play tournament. The Penguins moved goalie Matt Murray in the off-season, making Tristan Jarry the new number one stopper. They acquired veteran Kasperi Kapanen to add depth on the wing. Philadelphia will be looking to build on the success in the RTP tournament, winning a round before losing an epic seven game battle to the Islanders. The NY Rangers will be a sleeper team. They will give up goals with a young goalie tandem and lots of young prospects still learning how to compete in the NHL. At the same time, they may turn some heads if their opponents take them lightly. Washington will have a motivated Alex Ovechkin, who is continuing his quest to break Wayne Gretzky’s goal record. Could he also break Gretzky’s record of fastest to 50 goals? The Capitals will also see a changing of the guard in goal with Holtby now in Vancouver. Unfortunately, the goalie they signed to replace Holtby, Henrik Lundqvist, will miss the entire season after open heart surgery. Boston may be the team to beat in this division. They won the President’s trophy, with the most points when play stopped in March. Boston faced some controversy in the playoffs when their goalie Tukka Rask had to leave the bubble due to family issues. They were easily knocked out by the Lightning after Rask left the team. The Bruins have a high-octane offense that will be tough to stop. They went younger on defense, letting captain Zdeno Chara sign with Washington. In Buffalo, more offense and defense is needed. Jack Eichel is becoming visibly frustrated. He could bolt at the first opportunity. Finally New Jersey’s roster is on the young side and goaltending will be a big question mark. They might be slightly improved with Corey Crawford joining the fold. One huge advantage teams in this division will have is a lot less travel than teams in the other divisions. This will be huge come playoff time.
  • Central Division – Dallas could be the dark horse in this division. They represented the west in the RTP tournament finals, beating a tired Vegas team that had to play 5 games in 7 nights in the 2nd round of the tournament. Goalie Ben Bishop is expected to miss the first couple of weeks of the season after meniscus surgery in November, They largely enter play with the same team that gave the NHL fits in 2019-20. Chicago will have to make do without captain Jonathan Toews,  who is battling an undisclosed illness. They also will have a new goalie tandem after Corey Crawford signed with NJ. They have a number of aging veterans, so this could be a rough year.  Detroit, Florida and Columbus are all in various stages of rebuilds. The Panthers look like they will start with fans in the building. Nashville will be another sleeper team that will rely on strong defensive play and goaltending. Tampa Bay, the defending champs should run the table and are looking like early SC favorites.
  • West Division. Colorado and Vegas will be the teams to beat in this division. The Blues will be a motivated team after the Canucks knocked them out in 6 games. They lost Alex Pietrangelo to free agency and will be missing Vladimir Tarasenko (shoulder) and Jay Bouwemesster for the season. Still, don’t count the Blues out! Arizona ices a young team that could make some noise. Scoring will be a question mark for the Coyotes. Arizona could well lead the league in attendance, as one of the few teams with permission to have fans. The three California teams (LA, Anaheim, and San Jose) are all in the midst of rebuilds. For LA, it could be the last season with Jonathan Quick between the pipes. St. Louis and Colorado will have the toughest travel schedule. Look for Colorado or Vegas to emerge as the west division champs and thus make the semi-finals this year. I give a slight edge to Colorado.

In an effort to re-engaged the fans, the NHL and its teams have introduced retro jerseys. Some of the teams chose to feature previous franchises. For example, the Carolina Hurricanes will feature the Hartford Whalers logo on their reverse retro and Colorado will feature the old Quebec Nordiques logo. Other teams updated previously used 3rd jerseys (the Rangers, Blues and Devils went in this direction. My Canucks opted to update their previous Salmon colored jerseys, keeping the orca logo and using teal and dark blue colors. My favorite jerseys the Canucks, Habs and Capitals retro jerseys. My least favorite are the Ducks, Coyotes and Golden Knights. You can check them out here 

Another change coming for the 2020-21 season is the addition of advertisement on player’s helmets. European leagues commonly have advertisement on player jerseys to a much greater extent. Reportedly, players even have to change jerseys between periods to feature a different set of sponsors. I can see this having an effect on consumer behavior via subliminal messaging, which we are subjected to more than one might think on a day-to-day basis (think of watching your favorite TV program and seeing your favorite actor eating a bag of Lays chips). I definitely don’t want to see the extreme you see in the European league where the players are literally walking advertisements, but a small logo on the side of a helmet or the shoulder of a jersey is acceptable. We want to see the NHL thrive for years to come. If they feel they need to do this to gain revenue, I say go for it.

In an effort to limit traveling, all teams will play only within their own division for the season and the first 2 rounds of the playoffs (hopefully by then the border is reopened or the Canadian team emerging out of the north division might find itself sharing an arena with one of the other division winners). Typically, teams go to a city, play a game then leave that night or the next morning. That won’t be the case this season. The scheduling this season resembles a baseball-like schedule, whereby teams will play each other two or three times in a row over several days before the road team moves onto the next city. There isn’t a ton of wiggle room within the schedule for games to be shifted around in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak among a team. Like in the return to play tournament, players and team personnel will be tested frequently. Unlike in the summer, there is not really any bubble. Players are free to take a walk around quiet parts of the city, but aren’t supposed to enter a restaurant or store. It’s likely there will be positive cases among teams this time around. Hopefully the NHL has watched the NHL, MLS, MLB and NBA closely to see how they have fared and reacted to positives cases.

Canuck of the year (2020): Jacob Markstrom -Even though the ex-Canucks goalie will be plying his trade for the rival Calgary Flames in 2021, Jacob Markstrom had the biggest impact for the Canucks in 2020 and was a huge reason why the Canucks came within a game of the Western Conference finals in the return to play tournament. You want further proof of his impact on the Canucks last season? February 22, Markstrom stopped 34 shots in a 9-3 win over Boston. However, Markstrom injured his knee in that game and needed minor surgery. In his absence, the Canucks went 3-4-1 before play was stopped due to COVID-19. That streak put them out of a playoff spot. Thankfully, Markstrom was healthy when play resumed and he was outstanding, facing less than thirty shots just once in the 14 games he played in the tournament and several of the saves made your jaw drop. At one point, he won 5 games in a row in August, a good streak in the regular season, but even better in a magnified setting with your season potentially over in as little as 4 games as the playoffs are. Of all the free agents the Canucks lost out on, losing Markstrom could hurt the most. By the way, the Canucks and Flames are scheduled to meet in the regular season finale, so Markstrom may potentially have the opportunity to eliminate his former team from the playoffs in about 5 months.

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