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Canucks might finally have the depth on defence to deal with injuries next season

Addition of Brogan Rafferty on right side could play a key role.
Brogan Rafferty at Canucks 2019 development camp.

The Paper Feature is a weekly column and sidebars that appears in the print edition of the Vancouver Courier newspaper. Track it down!

It’s been an annual refrain for Jim Benning: this year, when the injuries inevitably come, the Canucks will have the depth to handle them. And yet, at the end of every season, there’s another annual refrain: the Canucks had too many injuries and not enough depth.

“A big part of it, and I don’t like using it as an excuse, is injuries,” said general manager Jim Benning when asked about the Canucks struggles to finish the season. “Take the top two defencemen off any team and it’s tough, because it pushes other guys into minutes and situations they wouldn’t normally play.”

This coming season, those top two defencemen that missed significant time with injuries, will still be with the team and expected to play big minutes. Alex Edler and Chris Tanev are still at the top of the Canucks’ depth chart on defence, which is a problem, as both have had issues staying healthy.

Edler has played a full 82-game season just once in his career and missed 26 games last season. Tanev has never played 82 games — his career best is 70 — and he missed 27 games last season.

It would be a safe bet that the aging Edler and Tanev can be pencilled in for another handful of injuries for the coming season. That’s not cynicism; that’s just being realistic. The question is whether the Canucks are better prepared if and when those two come out of the lineup.

The addition of Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn will help. Both have experience playing in a top-four role and should represent an upgrade on Erik Gudbranson and Ben Hutton. As that implies, however, they don’t really represent more depth, as they’re replacing two defencemen that have departed. Perhaps they’ll be more capable at playing more minutes, but do the Canucks actually have better depth?

The addition of depth defenceman Oscar Fantenberg will help, as will the graduation of Quinn Hughes to the NHL, representing a big upgrade on the departing Derrick Pouliot. But the improved depth has to come from underneath, via the development and addition of prospects.

Olli Juolevi, the Canucks’ first-round pick in 2016, will start the season in Utica, but should get NHL games next season. Behind him, the Canucks have good options on the left side in Ashton Sautner, Josh Teves, and Guillaume Brisebois. The biggest question marks have always been on the right side, but the signing of Brogan Rafferty as a college free agent will help significantly.

Rafferty made his Canucks debut in two games last season and impressed head coach Travis Green with the nuances of his game.

“I thought Rafferty made some subtle, really some nice plays in the last few games, especially the last one in St. Louis,” said Green. “Liked his size, like the stiffness of his stick. He made a crisp pass, he handled the loose puck cleanly — these are little things that you might not see just watching the game, but I liked what I saw.”

Rafferty’s ability to adjust to the speed of the NHL, particularly with no actual practices with the Canucks, didn’t go unnoticed. Having him in the AHL with the Utica Comets has to give the Canucks a little more confidence heading into the season, as he is a lot more NHL-ready than their other right-side depth in Utica, Jalen Chatfield and Mitch Eliot.

“I think that a very short time ago, we looked at a group that didn't have much in the way of defensive depth or prospects,” said Canucks’ senior director of player development Ryan Johnson. “But all of a sudden when you've got Juolevi and Rafferty and Teves and Chatfield and Brisebois and Sautner and Eliot. We're talking about a competitive environment and I think that's what makes players better.”

The Canucks have to hope that this time around, the depth will be there when they need it.

Big Numbers

319 - The Canucks had 319 man-games lost due to injury in 2018-19, the fifth highest total in the NHL.

26 - The two Canucks hardest hit by injuries last season were Brandon Sutter and Sven Baertschi. Each played just 26 games, meaning they missed 56 games each due to injuries.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

A tap of the stick to the Canucks for hosting an EA Sports NHL 19 tournament, as that should attract and engage a younger audience. I’m dropping the gloves with them for calling it “Chel,” however.

A tap of the stick to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ William Nylander, who offered to pay for fans to get their Nylander jerseys recrested when he changed his number to 88. More than that, he offered to pay for new shoes for one particularly dedicated fan that had custom Nylander shoes made with his old number.



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