With summer officially coming to an end and training camps set to open across the National Hockey League this week, TSN is getting ready for the preseason by looking at the three biggest questions facing each of the seven Canadian franchises.
The Vancouver Canucks are coming off a disappointing 2020-21 season where the team finished in last place in the North Division with a 23-29-4 record.
1. Is Oliver Ekman-Larsson the answer on defence for Vancouver?
The Canucks’ biggest addition this off-season was the acquisition of the Swedish blueliner who heads north after 11 seasons with the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes.
Ekman-Larsson will be expected to bolster the team’s new-look blueline that also sees the arrival of Tucker Poolman, signed from the Winnipeg Jets to a four-year deal, and the departures of Alex Edler and Nate Schmidt. The question of what kind of value Ekman-Larsson brings remains to be seen.
As TSN’s Travis Yost documented earlier in the summer, the numbers are not on Ekman-Larsson’s side with a steady deterioration in his play defensively suggesting that OEL as a reliable defensive defenceman might be a spent force. His 47.2 per cent Corsi For last season was fifth-best on what was a middling Coyotes blueline. Ekman-Larsson’s usage also fell last season, averaging 20:58 of ice time a night, the lowest mark since his rookie season, with Jacob Chychrun (23:23) and Alex Goligoski (23:00) leading the way for the team.
But Ekman-Larsson isn’t coming in to be the Canucks’ No.1 blueliner. That role very much still belongs to Quinn Hughes, who remains unsigned as a restricted free agent. Ekman-Larsson is a supplemental piece, albeit an expensive one, whose greatest contribution to the team will likely be on offence. Ekman-Larsson is unlikely to score the 23 goals he did in 2014-15, but his booming shot makes him a likely candidate to quarterback what was mostly an anemic power-play last season that finished the year at 17.42 per cent, the seventh-lowest mark in the league.
While Jim Benning’s trade with the Coyotes was undoubtedly a gamble, modest expectations for what Ekman-Larsson brings to the table in 2021-22 will go a long way to mollify an increasingly restless fan base.
2. How will Bo Horvat’s second line shape up?
With the Canucks enduring a 24-day break in between games due to a COVID outbreak and then finishing the season with 19 games in 31 days, there was one constant in Bo Horvat’s offence. The 26-year-old centre scored 19 goals in 56 games in 2020-21 – a scoring clip that would have produced 28 goals over 82 games, which would have been a career high.
While Horvat hasn’t turned into the elite two-way centre that some had forecasted, the arrival of Jason Dickinson from the Dallas Stars as a defensively reliable third-line centre likely means that Horvat can focus on offence. With Elias Pettersson between JT Miller and Brock Boeser on the top line, Horvat will get first crack at playing with new acquisition Conor Garland.
Garland was the other major component of the Ekman-Larsson deal with the Coyotes and is an intriguing addition to Travis Green’s team. By signing Garland to a five-year, $24.75 million extension after the trade, the Canucks believe that he has only scratched the surface of what he’s capable of in the NHL heading into his fourth season. Posting back-to-back 39-point seasons, he has already proven to be effective on the forecheck and a capable facilitator of the puck, based in a strong possession game. Clicking with Horvat could see him surpass his career-high of 27 assists last season.
The third component of the second line is likely to be Tanner Pearson. The 29-year-old, in his fourth season with Vancouver and 10th NHL campaign, also has a new contract after signing a three-year, $9.75 million deal in the spring. That deal was offered with his 2019-20 season in mind, when he scored 21 goals and had a career-high 45 points, and not last year’s when his offensive output was limited to 18 points. Though they were somewhat alleviated over the summer, the Canucks are still not without cap issues going forward and will expect Pearson’s performance to reflect their outlay of money.
3. Is the uber-talented Pettersson ready to shine again?
Speaking of contracts and money, that brings us to Elias Pettersson. One of the most skilled forwards to ever wear a Canucks uniform, the 22-year-old Swede is in the same camp as Hughes and still currently unsigned as training camp nears.
Pettersson says he is fully recovered from the wrist injury that kept him out of the last 30 games of the Canucks’ schedule last season and will look to pick up where he left off. In his 129 regular season games, he has already proven himself to be an elite puck distributor, racking up 86 assists. His short playoff experience, 17 games in 2020, also showed that Pettersson was ready for big games, playing at almost a point-per-game clip with two goals and 14 assists.Neither side appears to be concerned over a lengthy stalemate, but it’s obvious that the Canucks need Pettersson (and Hughes) in their lineup for opening night on Oct. 13 against the Edmonton Oilers. They have roughly $10.6 million of cap space available with Pettersson and Hughes unsigned. At this point, would a bridge deal be in the best interest for both parties? It would buy time for both the Canucks and Pettersson, allowing the team to continue to build towards contending and for the player to gauge that things remain on the right path. While a lack of enmity in the current process certainly bodes well for contract dealings down the road, time is not on the Canucks’ side with its preseason schedule set to kick off on Sept. 26.