Welcome to the first edition of the 2019-20 season of my ten weekly random thoughts. These posts, to be released every Monday morning, will provide injury updates, give my opinion on the news that comes up during each week and award a Canuck of the week. I will try to keep these posts about mainly the Canucks, but some weeks more stuff happens than others.
OK, let’s get right into it. The Canucks enter the 2019-20 season with a sense of optimism, certainly more than their expansion cousins in Buffalo. The Canucks had a busy off-season, landing several big free agents, including Victoria, BC native Jordie Benn. The Canucks also bolstered their blueline with the addition of the much-coveted Tyler Myers and depth player Oscar Fantenberg. At the draft, the Canucks made a splash, trading for forward JT Miller, who is expected to start on the top line with Bo Horvat and one of Tanner Pearson or the rejuvenated Sven Baertschi. Stars Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser will be better protected with the addition of pit bull Michael Ferland. It’s a big year for the organization as the Canucks celebrate their 50th season in the league. While they’ve yet to win a Stanley Cup, there is lots of hope on the horizon with lots of exciting young players already on the team or expected to come on board in the next year or two. Among those exciting new players is this year’s first round selection of Russian RW Vasily Podkolzin, who’s been compared to the Russian Rocket Pavel Bure, who was a prolific goal scorer during his time in Vancouver. With that anticipated excitement, here are 10 random thoughts from week 1 of the NHL.
1. Let’s start off with the biggest and last signing the Canucks made. Brock Boeser, who was the first of three highly anticipated prospects to make their Canucks debut (he joined the team in his hometown of Minnesota after leading North Dakota to the Frozen Four and scored in his first career game. Adam Gaudette made his much anticipated debut a year later and Quinn Hughes stepped on the ice for the first time last year). Boeser followed up the 9 game cup of tea with a great rookie season, going skate to skate with eventual Calder trophy winner Mathew Barzal. In a cruel twist of irony, Boeser’s rookie season came to an early end when the Islanders visited the Canucks. He fractured vertebrae in his lower back on this reverse hit by Cal Clutterbuck. He finished the year with 55 points (29G 26A) The following season brought about more injury concerns, this time with his groin. The injury affected Boeser’s skating ability and he eventually missed several weeks. His season was virtually the same as his rookie year with Boeser scoring 56 points (26G 30A) over 69 games. The problem with the current CBA is players have no arbitration rights after their entry level deal ends. The players are basically left to either accept the qualifying offer or negotiate with the team. If they can’t come to an agreement, players are forced to sit out until a deal is done. Obviously the Canucks factored in the injury concerns with Boeser and had different comparable players than Boeser’s camp. The 22-year old ended his brief holdout Monday and rejoined the team a couple of days later. He’s signed through the 2021-22 season. It could well prove to be a steal of a deal.
2. With Boeser and Mitch Marner inking new contacts, there remains eight key RFA’s who have yet to sign a contract: Kyle Connor and Patrick Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche, Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames, Julius Honka of the Dallas Stars, Saku Maenalanen of the Carolina Hurricanes. All these teams should be hating on the Toronto Maple Leafs for the lucrative deal they gave to Austin Matthews, because that has effectively upped the price. While I’m sure everyone wants to see these RFA’s signed and playing, there’s not enough pressure yet to get things moving. For one thing, it’s still preseason and the games over the next ten days or so don’t matter in the standings. I think you’ll see teams feel a little more urgency to sign these players if their team gets off to a bad start when the games start counting. Some of the European players: Laine, Rantanen, Honka and/or Maenalanen could opt to sign in a European league. If negotiations really go sour, there is a pending December 1st drop dead date if the players want to play this season. Last year, William Nylander signed his deal with hours to spare. It’s worth noting that Nylander scored 20 points (7G 20A) in 54 games last season and his Toronto Maple Leafs were knocked out in the 1st round of the playoffs. Laine hasn’t done himself any favors, griping the whole summer about his displeasure playing in Winnipeg. This week, he kind of threw his linemates under the bus by inferring that he’d rather be on a different line. I think his contract stalemate will take the longest to resolve and could end with a sign and trade. Rantanen had a monster year playing on the line with Nathan McKinnon. The sticking point appears to be a question of if he made MacKinnon better or MacKinnon made him a better player. Stay tuned, these stalemates may continue a bit longer.
3. It’s looking almost certain that Olli Joulevi will begin the season in Utica and he won’t play until October. The Canucks prospect is recovering from major knee surgery last December to repair a bucket handle tear. No doubt, the Canucks will exercise extreme caution with Joulevi. Besides, the Canucks have good depth on defense this year with the additions of Myers, Benn and Fantenberg. Assuming they are healthy, Alex Edler and Chris Tanev will be key players for the Canucks. Troy Stetcher is looking to build on a great year last season. Assuming all goes well with the rehab, Joulevi should be an option pretty early for recall in the event of injury. He has been fully participating in training camp drills and is cleared for contact. The Canucks just don’t want to play him in games just yet.
4. Goaltending has been one of the early pluses in preseason action. The Canucks have a wealth of goaltending depth that hasn’t been seen since Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider were the goalies with the Canucks and Eddie Lack was the “goalie of the future” in Utica. This year, Jacob Markstrom are the 1A and 1B options in Vancouver with Zane McIntyre, Richard Bachman, Michael Dipietro and Jake Kielly in the minors. Bachman, who’s been with the Canucks since the 2015-16 season, brings the most NHL experience to the table with 40 NHL games under his belt. He has a 20-18-2 career record. Bachman is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury. Dipietro gained a game of NHL experience in extenuating circumstances when Markstrom was unable to play and Thatcher Demko was injured. He was shelled for 7 goals on 24 shots. Zane McIntyre played 8 games for Boston in 2016-17. He stopped 13/14 shots Monday. It seems likely Kielly and Dipietro will play in Kalamazoo with Bachman and McIntye the goalie duo in Utica. Demko and Markstrom both looked sharp in their 1st preseason action this week.
5. Preseason is still pretty young, but here’s three players who have impressed so far in training camp:
- Jake Virtanen the Canucks right-winger comes into this season needing to prove he is a long-term fit with the team. Virtanen is entering the final year of a 2-year contract that pays him $1.2million. Virtanen’s shown flashes of what he can bring (he scored 25 points last season). In his first preseason action, Virtanen came up big late, scoring the game-tying goal and then scoring the OT winner a few minutes later. He was held pointless in Vancouver the following night
- Jordie Benn As mentioned above, the Canucks were busy this off-season, and early on the newbie who is making an early name for himself is Victoria, BC native Jordie Benn. He has been physical and blocking plenty of shots in the first two games he played. He’s sure to be a fan favorite as long as he’s a Canuck
- Sven Baertschi For Sven Baertschi, the litmus test will be his health over performance. The first couple of games have proven that when healthy, Baertschi can generate scoring chances and plays a solid 2-way game. Baertschi missed the majority of last season with post-concussion syndrome on two separate occasions. He was first injured October 24 against Vegas on a bit of a nothing play. Baertschi missed 2 months, returned December 29 against Calgary, played another five weeks before getting shut down again after not feeling right after a game in Colorado February 2. He then missed another 6 weeks before returning for the final 4 games of the season last year. Here’s hoping Baertschi can maintain his health because he now has a young family to worry about.
6. These three players have room for improvement
- Jake Virtanen Sadly Virtanen has also been one of the more disappointing Canucks. Day one of training camp, his physical testing was not up to par and he was relegated to the 3rd group of skaters, compromised mainly of players who were expected to be cut. This is Virtanen’s 6th training camp, so he should know by now what is expected of him. He should also take heed that Sam Gagner was a final cut last year. A roster spot isn’t going to be handed to him on a silver platter. Virtanen needs to earn that spot in the lineup and it starts with coming into camp in shape and ready to work.
- Tim Schaller Like Virtanen, Tim Schaller is in a contract year. Schaller spent much of last season riding the pine in the press box. Most nights that he played, he got under ten minutes of ice time. In 47 games last season, he scored 10 points (3G 7A), he wasn’t a big shot blocker (18 for the season) and he had a physical game (66 hits). In his first couple of preseason games, he really hasn’t separated himself from the other players battling for a roster spot. If he does make the team, Schaller will probably be a healthy scratch most of the time.
- Loui Eriksson One of Jim Benning’s biggest mistakes was signing Loui Eriksson to a massive 6-year deal 3 seasons ago. The hope was that Eriksson and the Sedins would rekindle the chemistry they possessed at international tournaments largely played on larger ice surfaces, which appears to be where Eriksson is best suited. His best season points-wise was last season where he tallied 29 points (11G 18A). He was also -11 and most nights he barely registered in the stat line at the end of the night. Over the summer, he told Swedish reporters that he and Travis Green weren’t seeing eye to eye. It’s been much of the same in his first couple of games in the preseason. If he wants out of Vancouver, Eriksson has to show teams what he can bring because he has a hefty contract that won’t expire for another three years.
7. The Canucks had one player in training camp on a professional tryout, Landon Ferraro. Unfortunately he did not make the team and was released from the PTO Saturday. The 28-year-old forward has largely been a career minor leaguer. He’s played 77 NHL games over parts of 5 NHL seasons with the Minnesota Wild, Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.
8. Ex-Canuck Ben Hutton signed a 1-year show-me deal with the LA Kings this week. The Canucks declined to give Hutton a qualifying offer for fear that Hutton would garner a sizable raise in arbitration. Hutton was drafted in the 5th round (147th overall) of the 2012 NHL entry draft. In 4 seasons with the Canucks, Hutton scored 70 points (11G 59A) over 276 games. He was also a dreadful -75. Hutton will make his return to Roger’s Arena October 9th when the Canucks play their home opener.
9. This week offered some hopeful news for Canucks fans as Canadian NHL team power rankings were released and the Canucks were 3rd behind Calgary and Toronto but ahead of Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Ottawa. Toronto has heaps of pressure to win this season as they will be in tough with the salary cap after next season with a third of their salary space allocated to forwards Austen Matthews, William Nylander and the newly inked Mitch Marner. On paper, they look like a strong team, but can they get past the like of Boston and Tampa Bay? Calgary is coming off a disappointing 1st round exit and their off-season consisted of swapping goalies with the Oilers signing Mike Smith and Calgary inking Cam Talbot. The Oilers and Flames also traded struggling forwards with James Neal heading north to Edmonton and Milan Lucic heading south to Calgary. The Habs are coming off just missing the playoffs, being eliminated a few days before last season ended. The Habs will continue to rely heavily on Carey Price and his play will largely determine Montreal’s playoff fortunes. The Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers are two teams heading in seemingly opposite directions. The Jets are struggling to retain their free agents and are mired in ugly contract disputes with Patrick Laine and Kyle Connor. Laine has voiced his displeasure with his role on the Jets recently. Tyler Myers (Canucks), Brandon Tanev (Penguins), Par Lindholm (Bruins), and Ben Chariot (Canadiens) all left via free agency. The Jets also traded Jacob Trouba to the NY Rangers. Matt Hendricks retired and now Dustin Byufglien is seriously contemplating retirement and apparently barely skated in the off-season. Winnipeg is in tough in one of the strongest divisions in the NHL. Edmonton’s hopes rest on the health of Connor McDavid, who is recovering from a sprained PCL that occurred when he slammed into the goal post in the last game of the season last year. McDavid has yet to play in the preseason and the Oilers are significantly weaker without him in the lineup. Finally, there’s Ottawa who actually managed to keep one of their star players, inking D Thomas Chabot to an 8-year deal this week. The Senators are expected to be in the basement of the league again, but for the first time in a long time there is a light at the end of the tunnel
10. Canuck of the week: Adam Gaudette who scored three goals this week and played in more games than any other Canuck as management takes a long look at him. He may not make the team for the simple fact that he doesn’t require waivers to be demoted, but he’s sure making the decision a difficult one.