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The 9 biggest questions for the Canucks in the 2020 offseason

Will they re-sign Jacob Markstrom? Is it time to move on from Jake Virtanen? Can they fit Tyler Toffoli under the cap? These questions, and more, face the Canucks this offseason.
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Will Jake Virtanen still be a Canuck next season? photo: Dan Toulgoet

Consider the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs a proof of concept for the Vancouver Canucks. 

They proved their young stars, particularly Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, could survive and thrive in the playoffs despite their size. They proved their young captain, Bo Horvat, could lead a team through unusual and difficult circumstances. They proved their riskiest move, the trade for J.T. Miller, was, in retrospect, worth the price they paid. And they proved that they have two goaltenders capable of coming through on the league’s biggest stage.

Still, the job of creating a true Stanley Cup contender is only half done. The Canucks have a promising young core with plenty of potential; the next step is building a championship team around that core.

It’s arguably the far more difficult half of the job. 

That makes the 2020 offseason a particularly important and challenging one for the Canucks, especially when you consider the unusual circumstances. They face a shortened offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a compressed schedule for the draft and free agency. Any moves the Canucks do make will potentially be hindered by a flat salary cap.

Let’s take a look at the nine biggest questions the Canucks will have to answer this offseason.

1 | Should the Canucks go with Markstrom or Demko?

Jacob Markstrom was the Canucks’ MVP during the regular season and was instrumental in their playoff run, making more saves than any other goaltender in the postseason.

Meanwhile, Thatcher Demko was below average in his first full season as an NHL backup, but was incredible when called upon in the postseason, making 128 saves on 130 shots. He carried the Canucks to Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights and nearly won that game too.

Having two reliable goaltenders is ideal for a team like the Canucks that has a tendency to bleed shots against, but the issue is that Markstrom is an unrestricted free agent and needs a new contract. Given how good he was this season, he’s due for a significant raise from his $3.67 million cap hit over the past three seasons.

So, do the Canucks pay the man his money, which will potentially be complicated given the flat cap, or do they turn to the younger Demko, who is still entirely untested as a starter, thereby saving some money to upgrade the roster in other areas?

That question is complicated by the next one:

2 | How does the Seattle Kraken expansion draft affect the Canucks’ offseason?

The Canucks will have a new geographical rival in a little over a year’s time, as the Seattle Kraken are slated to officially join the NHL in the 2021-22 season. That means there will be an expansion draft during the 2021 offseason, allowing the Kraken to pick through the rosters of the rest of the NHL (except for the Golden Knights) to build their new team.

Each NHL team will be able to protect 11 players — 7 forwards, 3 defencemen, and 1 goaltender — or one goaltender and eight skaters regardless of position. That could affect how the Canucks handle the current offseason, particularly when it comes to their goaltenders.

If Markstrom does re-sign with the Canucks, the key question then becomes whether or not he gets a No Movement Clause in his contract. Players with an NMC have to be protected, which would force the Canucks to expose Demko in the expansion draft.

The upcoming expansion draft should be in the back of the Canucks’ minds in these and other decisions they make this offseason

3 | Can the Canucks re-sign Tyler Toffoli?

At the trade deadline this year, Jim Benning made a bold move to acquire a rental player even as the playoffs were in doubt. With injuries mounting, he felt they needed a top-six winger to keep the team afloat and in the hunt, so he sent prospect Tyler Madden, a second-round pick, and Tim Schaller to the Los Angeles Kings for Tyler Toffoli.

The veteran winger made an immediate impact, scoring 6 goals and 10 points in 10 regular season games. Unfortunately, he played just 7 postseason games while battling through injuries, but did have 4 points, including a three-point night in his first game back from his injury.

The Canucks paid a high price for just 17 games from Toffoli, but the sting would be lessened if they can find a way to re-sign him in the offseason, turning him from a rental into a core player.

The question is whether the Canucks can make that work under the salary cap, given the other players they need to re-sign and other areas where they would like to improve.

4 | Should the Canucks re-sign Chris Tanev?

Speaking of other players that need a new contract, Chris Tanev is an unrestricted free agent. The veteran defenceman has played his entire NHL career with the Canucks and is the second-longest serving player on the roster.

In some ways, Tanev had the best season of his career in 2019-20, playing every single game for the first time in his career, albeit with an assist by a global pandemic. Tanev was injured in the final game of the regular season before it was suspended due to COVID-19 and he was healthy enough to return and play every playoff game for the Canucks.

The question, however, is how much more Tanev has to give at this point in his career. While he’s just 30 years old, there’s a lot of wear and tear on Tanev due to his tendency to block a ton of shots and take a ton of hits to make plays. He’s a valuable leader in the room, however, particularly to the younger players, who have taken to calling him “Dad” in the locker room and on social media.

If the Canucks re-sign Tanev, will they get diminishing returns on the ice as the injuries continue to pile up? If they don’t re-sign him, who will replace his minutes on the blue line?

Once again, the flat cap comes into play: if they re-sign Tanev, will they also be able to afford Markstrom and Toffoli? Which players are more important to the Canucks’ future success?

5 | Can the Canucks improve the defence from within?

The Canucks’ series against the Golden Knights put their biggest need in stark relief: they need to improve their defence.

Against the Golden Knights in particular, but really all playoffs, the Canucks gave up a ton of shots and scoring chances, creating a heavy workload for their goaltending duo of Markstrom and Demko. That’s an area where the Canucks need to improve, but will be hard-pressed to do so given the constraints of the salary cap.

That means any improvements will likely have to come from within. The question is whether the Canucks have the prospect depth to make that happen.

The Canucks signed prospect Jack Rathbone in July and he has the upside to play NHL games as early as next season. 

There’s also Olli Juolevi, who made his NHL debut in the playoffs and did not look out of place. The time is definitely right for Juolevi to break through: he’s 22 and was drafted four years ago; he’s one of just four players from the first round of the 2016 draft that has yet to play a regular season game in the NHL.

Beyond those two top prospects, the Canucks have Brogan Rafferty available in the AHL, along with Guillaume Brisebois and Jalen Chatfield, who are both restricted free agents. There’s also the wild card of Jett Woo.

Are any of those players good enough to represent a real upgrade for the Canucks on defence? That’s a harder question to answer, as there’s always uncertainty when it comes to prospect defencemen and how they adapt to the speed of the NHL. 

6 | Is it time to move on from Jake Virtanen?

Jake Virtanen is a polarizing figure in the Canucks fanbase. Some fans love him, are happy with his 18 goals this season, and are willing to patiently wait for him to break out as a true power forward. Others question his commitment and consistency and wonder if he’ll ever figure things out.

Virtanen started the playoffs as a healthy scratch after a dismal training camp, though he did work his way into the lineup and occasionally got looks in the top six. His GM didn’t give him the most ringing endorsement after the playoffs were over.

“To be perfectly honest with you,” said Benning, “I was expecting more from Jake in the playoffs.”

Combine that with some other decisions the Canucks need to make this offseason and there’s a chance that they’ll be willing to move Virtanen to solve some of their other problems. Benning did suggest they would have to make tough decisions with some of their young players.

That could mean re-signing Virtanen, who is a restricted free agent, and then packaging him in a trade to clear cap space.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not time to give up on Virtanen just yet. As mentioned, he had 18 goals in the regular season, which isn’t easy to replace. Perhaps the playoffs were a wakeup call that sparks something in Virtanen, motivating him to improve his conditioning and preparation for next season. Maybe he has another gear and can find that consistency necessary to become an essential player. That’s the dilemma facing the Canucks.

7 | Can the Canucks move an expensive bottom-six contract?

The Canucks have an expensive bottom-six; that’s just a fact. Between Brandon Sutter, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and Jay Beagle, the Canucks are spending $16,375,000. That’s not including Micheal Ferland and his $3.5 million contract, complete with No Movement Clause, nor is it including Sven Baertschi and his $3.367 million contract buried in the minors that still has a hefty cap hit attached.

If the Canucks can move one of Sutter or Eriksson — or even Baertschi — that would certainly help their cap problems, but that’s not an easy task. With the flat cap, there are not a lot of teams with available cap space to take on one of those problem contracts. It could require some real creativity to get a deal done.

This question might be related to the Virtanen question, as the young winger could find himself packaged as a sweetener in a deal to help clear up some of the Canucks’ cap problems.

The other option is a buyout, likely for Sutter. That’s not as easy as it seems either: asking the Aquilinis to shell out millions of dollars to send a player packing, only to replace that player for millions more dollars, at a time when NHL teams are bleeding money due to the COVID-19 pandemic? That might be too much to ask. 

8 | Can the Canucks find a gem in the draft without a top pick?

The Canucks’ playoff success was driven by their two youngest players, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, both of whom were top-ten draft picks. The likelihood of them picking another player of that caliber in the 2020 draft is essentially nonexistent, as they don’t have a pick in either the first or second round.

Their first-round pick was sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the trade for J.T. Miller and now resides with the New Jersey Devils. Their second-round pick belongs to the Los Angeles Kings thanks to the trade for Tyler Toffoli.

With the Canucks making the call to let go of Judd Brackett, their Director of Amateur Scouting during their recent success at the draft table, they enter the 2020 Draft with some uncertainty. In recent drafts, the Canucks have been able to dig up some intriguing prospects in the third round and beyond, like Michael DiPietro, Jack Rathbone, Tyler Madden, and Aidan Mcdonough.

Can they find a similarly promising prospect again? 

9 | What in the world is the 2020-21 season going to look like?

The NHL pulled it off: they put on a thrilling playoff tournament in a quarantined bubble in two cities without — knock on wood — a single positive COVID test during the playoffs. There was well-founded skepticism that they’d be able to do it, but, so far, it worked.

An entire 2020-21 regular season? That’s a much bigger problem to solve. It’s simply not practical to ask players to quarantine themselves for that many months, especially since the initial talk has suggested the NHL intends to play a full 82-game season.

Will there be fans in Rogers Arena or will buildings be empty? Will teams travel to every NHL city or will they be limited to certain cities? What will happen if a player or someone else connected to the team contracts COVID-19? Will the border between Canada and the US even be open in time to have a proper season?

Those are all questions the Canucks and the rest of the NHL need to wrestle with as they plan out how next season will happen. Best case scenario, the 2020-21 season starts in December. Worst case, it gets pushed back to February or even March, but with hopes of being able to have fans attend the games.