Are the young stars ready to win?
VANCOUVER — Everything has changed about the Vancouver Canucks, and nothing has changed about the Vancouver Canucks.
Less than 10 months since the most sweeping mid-season regime change in franchise history brought coach Bruce Boudreau and president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford to the West Coast, the Canucks lineup’s strengths and weaknesses are largely as they were: lots of offensive skill up front that should make the power play formidable, a young superstar (Quinn Hughes) leading a defence that has questions about its bottom half, and a Vezina-capable goalie (Thatcher Demko) who must stay healthy and be near his best for the team to win.
But there will be a fresh energy to this training camp, which opens Thursday in Whistler, with the new regime, new ideas and a completely rebuilt hockey-ops department.
There are also some new forwards, notably former Toronto Maple Leaf Ilya Mikheyev and KHL free agent Andrei Kuzmenko.
At least for the start of the pre-season, Hughes will be tried on the right side of defence, likely on an alpha pairing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
But the biggest change for the Canucks is the mindset expressed by new general manager Patrik Allvin, who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win three Stanley Cups: Nothing these players have done so far has been good enough, so everyone needs to be better.
It’s time for the Canucks young stars to lead the team back to the playoffs.
Current cap space: $586K (with Micheal Ferland on LTIR)
General manager: Patrik Allvin
Head coach: Bruce Boudreau
Assistant coaches: Mike Yeo, Trent Cull, Jason King, Ian Clarke, Dylan Crawford
Unsigned players: Danny DeKeyser (PTO)
ONE IMPORTANT QUESTION: Are they ready to win?
Had you not witnessed it, it would have been difficult to believe the team that finished last season 32-15-10 under Boudreau was the same one that started 6-14-2 with former head coach Travis Green. Those final 57 games created a lot of excitement and hope in Vancouver, but it also brings significant expectations and pressure to a team that has made the playoffs only once in the last seven years — in the bubble in Edmonton after a 69-game regular season.
No wonder Allvin told Sportsnet: “Whatever people think of those last 50 games, it wasn’t good enough because we didn’t make the playoffs. So let’s stop talking about it.”
The real Canucks are probably somewhere between the two extremes they displayed last season, but potentially much closer to the Boudreau version. They’ll have to be to make the playoffs.
Demko is 26 years old, Brock Boeser 25, Elias Pettersson 23 and Hughes is 22. Leading scorer J.T. Miller is 29 years old, and team captain Bo Horvat 27, still in their prime. Defenceman Ekman-Larsson is 31, Tyler Myers 32.
If they don’t win now, when will they?
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Who plays — and with whom — on defence?
The Quinn Hughes Experiment will get lots of attention, and fans will be obsessed with forward line combinations as Boudreau utilizes upgrades on the wings by trying to create a balanced top nine rolled out with centres Miller, Horvat and Pettersson. But the most important decisions will be on defence, where there is potentially a huge dropoff after Hughes, Ekman-Larsson and Myers.
Can rookie Jack Rathbone, who may be a kind of Hughes Lite, make the lineup and actually play on a second pairing where he could be mentored by Myers?
Travis Dermott will be on the third pairing, but with whom?
Tucker Poolman has reportedly recovered from his neurological problems (severe migraine symptoms) but must play better than he did last season to dislodge dependable, rugged veteran Luke Schenn.
And then there’s local boy Kyle Burroughs, who finally became an NHL regular last winter and will fight to stay there.
Allvin could yet ease some of the quandaries by acquiring another NHL defenceman to upgrade the bottom half of the defence, something he has been trying to do — without success — since last season.
Vasily Podkolzin—J.T. Miller—Brock Boeser
Andrei Kuzmenko—Elias Pettersson—Ilya Mikheyev
Tanner Pearson—Bo Horvat—Conor Garland
Dakota Joshua—Curtis Lazar—Jason Dickinson
Oliver Ekman-Larsson—Quinn Hughes
Jack Rathbone—Tyler Myers
Travis Dermott—Luke Schenn
F Nils Höglander, D Tucker Poolman, D Kyle Burroughs