NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams from Nov. 16-Dec. 16. Today, three important questions facing the Vancouver Canucks.
1. Will they have a clear No. 1 goalie?
The Canucks appear content to have Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko split starts evenly to begin the season. Holtby, who won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018, signed a two-year contract Oct. 9. Demko broke out during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, going 2-1 with a 0.64 goals-against average, a .985 save percentage and one shutout in four postseason games, including three starts facing elimination in the Western Conference Second Round against the Vegas Golden Knights with former No. 1 goalie Jacob Markstrom unfit to play.
With Markstrom signing a six-year contract with the Calgary Flames on Oct. 9, along with the potential for a condensed schedule this season, Vancouver signed Holtby to shore up its goaltending depth, but he had his highest GAA (3.11) and lowest save percentage (.897) in the NHL in 48 games for Washington last season.
“You just can’t be a playoff team and get where you want to be [without goalie depth],” general manager Jim Benning said. “That was part of our team-building strategy. We want two good goalies, and on any given night we want them to be able to play and help us win games. I believe we have that this year.”
2. Who will play on the top defense pair with Quinn Hughes?
Hughes is coming off a historic rookie season when he led first-year NHL players in scoring (53 points in 68 regular-season games) and set League records for assists (14) and points (16) by a rookie defenseman in a single postseason. Christopher Tanev was a big part of Hughes’ success as his frequent defense partner, but he signed a four-year contract with the Flames on Oct. 9.
The departure of Tanev and Troy Stecher (agreed to two-year contract with Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 10) left the Canucks with Tyler Myers as their only experienced right-shot defenseman, but Nate Schmidt, who shoots left and was acquired in a trade from the Golden Knights on Oct. 12, could fit well on the top pair with Hughes.
“Nate always, the last few years [with Vegas], has played the right side; he plays his off side and has been really good there,” Benning said. “He can play either side. … He could turn out to be our best all-around defenseman.”
3. Who will play right wing on the second line?
The Canucks have plenty of options to replace right wing Tyler Toffoli, who agreed to a four-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 12. After being acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 17, Toffoli played on the top line with center Elias Pettersson and left wing J.T. Miller and on the second line with center Bo Horvat and left wing Tanner Pearson, scoring 10 points (six goals, four assists) in 10 regular-season games and four points (two goals, two assists) in seven postseason games
With Brock Boeser likely to play right wing on the top line, Loui Eriksson and/or Jake Virtanen could take Toffoli’s place on the second line.
“Eriksson has played with [Horvat and Pearson] in the playoffs and has been good defensively; they always seem to play well as a line together,” Benning said. “I think (coach) Travis [Green] is going to try Virtanen there. Jake’s going to get an opportunity to see where he fits in that group.”
Other candidates for the second line include top prospects Vasily Podkolzin (Kontinental Hockey League contract expires April 30, 2021) and Nils Hoglander, as well as Zack MacEwen, Justin Bailey (fourth in American Hockey League with 28 goals last season for Utica) and Jayce Hawryluk (signed one-year contract Oct. 19).