VANCOUVER — A single word resonates for the Vancouver Canucks heading into a new NHL season — playoffs.
The team should be vying for a spot in the post-season every year, said captain Bo Horvat, and the expectation has only been raised after a summer that saw Vancouver bolster its roster with a flurry of big moves.
"I think we’ve got a really good core group, a lot of good hockey players and I think we should set our expectations at making the playoffs," Horvat said. "That’s what we want to do and that’s how we have to play right off the bat.”
The Canucks are coming off a disastrous 2020-21 campaign where little went right. The team battled through a gruelling condensed schedule, injuries, and a mass COVID-19 outbreak that saw 25 people — 21 players and four coaches — test positive for the virus, shutting the group down for several weeks.
Vancouver finished the year at the bottom of the all-Canadian North Division with a 23-29-4 record.
The team simply didn't play to their capability last season, said Brock Boeser.
“It was a letdown for our team so we have a big year ahead of us. We know we’re a lot better team than that," said the right-winger, who led the Canucks in scoring with 49 points (23 goals, 26 assists) in 56 games.
"I think we need to be ready to go starting (in training camp) and work each day as hard as we can to get better individually and as a team.”
Heading into the off-season, general manager Jim Benning declared he'd be aggressive in revamping the roster — and he lived up to the promise.
Benning bought out the contracts of veteran goalie Braden Holtby and homegrown winger Jake Virtanen. He leveraged the expansion draft to add forward Jason Dickinson in a deal with the Dallas Stars. He signed depth talent in free agency, including netminder Jaroslav Halak (formerly of the Boston Bruins) and defenceman Tucker Poolman (Winnipeg Jets).
But Benning's biggest move came shortly before the NHL entry draft when he dealt Vancouver's first-round pick — ninth overall — to the Arizona Coyotes for defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and winger Conor Garland. The agreement also saw the Canucks free up cap space by sending underperforming forwards Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson and Antoine Roussel to the desert.
The GM still had work to do, though, as training camp opened late last month. Centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes, two of Vancouver's biggest stars, had yet to sign new deals and were absent as the team returned to the ice.
The agreements were finally inked on Oct. 3, with Pettersson getting a three-year deal worth US$7.35 million a year and Hughes signing a six-year contract for $7.85 million a year.
Now Benning is counting on his off-season transactions to generate on-ice results.
Winning feels particularly urgent for the GM heading into his eighth season. The Canucks have made the playoffs just twice during Benning's tenure.
He feels this year's group has what it takes to make a post-season push.
“If we don’t make the playoffs, it’ll be a disappointment," Benning said.
"I think our younger players now, they’ve gotten older now. They’ve been in the league now two, three, four years. It’s time for them to step up. We’ve seen some guys step up from our younger group last year and they’ve got to continue to get better. But our goal this year is to be a playoff team.”
Who, exactly, will skate alongside Hughes remains unclear heading into the regular season. Last year, the young marquee defenceman was often paired with veteran Travis Hamonic, who signed a two-year, $6-million deal with the Canucks in June but didn't join the team for training camp. Benning has said the 31-year-old right-shot defenceman from St. Malo, Man., is dealing with a personal issue and has not opted out of playing in the NHL this season. The GM said the team has to "be patient and support the player."
Injuries have already cut into the Canucks' depth chart ahead of the season. Benning said centre Brandon Sutter won't be available to start the season as he undergoes testing for ongoing fatigue. Fellow depth forward Tyler Motte is still rehabbing after undergoing off-season surgery for an upper-body injury and no timeline has been set for his comeback. Boeser, the Canucks' top scorer last season, missed five pre-season games with an undisclosed injury, but Benning has said he hopes the right-winger will be ready to return for opening night.
One of the new faces who impressed at training camp this year was 20-year-old Russian right-winger Vasily Podkolzin. Vancouver selected the six-foot-one, 190-pound Moscow native 10th overall in the 2019 draft. Podkolzin spent the past three seasons playing in the KHL and put up 11 points (five goals, six assists) for SKA St. Petersburg last year.
The Canucks are counting on 30-year-old defenceman Ekman-Larsson to bounce back from his lacklustre play in Arizona. The team's also hoping Garland can use his slippery play in a top-six role after signing the 25-year-old former Coyote to a five-year deal worth $4.95 million annually.
The Canucks kick off the 2021-22 campaign with their longest road trip of the season, a six-game swing through Edmonton, Philadelphia, Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago and Seattle. They'll battle the Minnesota Wild in the home opener on Oct. 26.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2021.
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Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press