Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

For Better or For Worse: Did the Canucks’ offence get deadlier or dudlier this offseason?

The 2020 offseason was one of great change for the Vancouver Canucks. But was it a caterpillar-to-butterfly sort of transformation, or a metamorphosis of the Kafkaesque variety?

In our For Better or For Worse series, we’re holding the 2021 Canucks up against the standard set by the 2019/20 roster to answer the offseason’s burningest question: did the Canucks get better, or did they get worse?

First up, we looked at the goaltending, and last week we examined the defence.

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Lastly, it’s time to tackle the forward corps.

The Lotto Line remains intact

Elias Pettersson Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 68 27 39 66 18:32 55.2%
Career 139 55 77 132 18:23 53.2%
JT Miller Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 69 27 45 72 20:06 54.2%
Career 504 122 187 309 15:39 50.2%
Brock Boeser Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 57 16 29 45 18:34 53.2%
Career 197 75 86 161 18:20 51.1%

The most important component of the Canucks’ offence remains intact in the form of the Lotto Line. One of the NHL’s top units in 2019/20, this trio is poised to at least reproduce the success they enjoyed in their first season together, and there’s plenty of room for another step forward or two.

Boeser is the most obvious candidate for a “bounce back,” if such a term can really be applied to a 23-year-old in their fourth NHL season. In 2019/20, Boeser’s two-way game improved greatly, but his overall production dipped slightly from his career average and his goal-scoring was way down. Now just entering his prime, expect Boeser’s numbers to start inching back up toward point-per-game status, something that should elevate the Canucks’ top-six as a whole, even if Boeser ends up spending time alongside Bo Horvat on the second line, and someone like Jake Virtanen fills in on the top unit.

Speaking of a PPG rate, Pettersson achieved one in the 2020 playoffs with 18 points in 17 games, and one has to think he replicates that pace in 2021, at the very least. At some point, it seems inevitable that Pettersson will progress beyond that and truly enter the upper echelons of NHL scorers, and it could happen as early as this upcoming season.

Miller, then, seems like the only top-line player who could feasibly experience regression next season. His team-leading PPG+ performance in 2019/20 was well over and above his career average, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that Miller can’t sustain it. His debut season with the Canucks saw Miller given significantly greater opportunity than he ever has been at any of his previous NHL stops — nearly a full extra five minutes in ice-time over his career average — and his chemistry with Pettersson is undeniable. At 27, Miller is still firmly ensconced within his prime, and his scoring certainly didn’t slow down in the postseason with 18 points in 17 games despite a hand injury.

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Miller might not lead the team in scoring again, but that doesn’t mean that he — or the Lotto Line as a unit — has to take a step back.

Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson are locked into the top-six

Bo Horvat Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 69 22 31 53 19:44 49.7%
Career 446 120 155 275 17:57 48.1%
Tanner Pearson Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 69 21 24 45 16:31 48.6%
Career 457 108 107 215 14:59 52.8%

Captain Horvat remains locked in as the Canucks’ number two center, a position in which he has quietly cemented himself as one of the best in the entire league. With 53 points in 69 games, Horvat paced for a career-high for the sixth consecutive season, and his goal-scoring exploded in the playoffs with ten in 17 games, a total that held on as tops in the NHL postseason until well into the Stanley Cup Finals, despite Horvat being eliminated in the Western Semis.

That torrid rate will probably not continue through 2021 — Horvat would be in line for the Rocket Richard Trophy if it did — and he might not increase his scoring pace for a seventh straight year, but that’s quite alright. With the Canucks’ top line poised to take on even greater offensive responsibility, Horvat should be able to focus more on his shutdown duties, a task that may result in a production drop, but should help the team increase their totals in the win column.

Riding shotgun with Horvat will almost certainly be Pearson. The duo have developed an impressive level of chemistry and cohesion since Pearson’s deadline acquisition in 2019, with Pearson racking up a career-high in points this past season despite the shortened schedule.

Pearson’s scoring rate dipped in the playoffs, however, and expecting him to continue to break new ground at the age of 28 — and with the second line presumably taking on even tougher defensive matchups — may be asking too much. If there’s room for regression in the Canucks’ established top-six, it’s probably going to come from Pearson, though it may not end up being all that much of an issue.

Again, the second line is very likely to score fewer points in 2021 than it did in 2019/20, especially once Tyler Toffoli’s departure is considered, but that doesn’t mean that their overall importance to Vancouver’s success will be diminished. Stronger two-way play from the second unit is vital to a team that still doesn’t possess a true checking line.

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#2RW: Jake Virtanen vs Tyler Toffoli

Jake Virtanen Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 69 18 18 36 13:05 48.8%
Career 279 50 45 95 12:49 48.9%
Tyler Toffoli Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 68 24 20 44 16:51 56.7%
Career 525 145 155 300 15:57 55.9%

This is where it gets a little trickier to stay positive.

On the surface, it looks entirely possible for Virtanen to achieve in 2021 what Toffoli did in 2019/20. Toffoli only outscored Virtanen by nine points last season, while receiving an average of almost four extra minutes of ice-time each game. Toffoli also has four years on Virtanen, so there’s a strong element of upward potential on Virtanen’s side here.

But that’s talking about Toffoli’s 2019/20 performance as a whole. When it comes to his time in Vancouver, where Toffoli racked up ten points in ten post-trade games, it’s a different kettle of fish. Toffoli was an immediate revelation upon his arrival, clicking with Pettersson like few have before. His playoffs were disappointing, but injury was clearly a major mitigating factor, and Toffoli still outscored Virtanen by a single point, despite playing in nine fewer postseason games.

The job is, as it currently stands, Virtanen’s to lose. Whether he’s lining up alongside Horvat and Pearson, or whether he’s fortunate enough to swap with Boeser, Virtanen is pencilled into the top-six.

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A big year from Virtanen would go a long way toward re-establishing his hometown reputation. But no one is expecting “a big year” to constitute anything approaching point-per-game play, and thus Virtanen has to be considered a downgrade on Toffoli.

Now, there are a handful of things that may help close the gap. There’s the question of whether Toffoli’s production would have been sustainable long-term (probably not). There’s the fact that Virtanen is significantly cheaper at the moment, allowing for money to be spent elsewhere.

Most important to consider is that for most of the 2019/20 season the Canucks did not have Toffoli, and instead rotated a number of other wingers through the #2RW spot; including Loui Eriksson, Josh Leivo, and Virtanen himself.

So, the Canucks’ top-six may not be as strong as it was when the previous regular season came to an end, but it has every chance of being just as strong, if not stronger, than it was to start 2019/20.

#3/4RW: Zack MacEwen vs Josh Leivo

Zack MacEwen Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 17 5 1 6 9:37 42.9%
Career 21 5 2 7 9:09 43.7%
Josh Leivo Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 36 7 12 19 15:01 52.3%
Career 169 31 34 65 13:10 52.7%

The only other forward of significance who departed Vancouver this offseason is Leivo. Ostensibly, he’s going to be replaced by MacEwen, who more-or-less filled in for Leivo after the latter broke his kneecap, ending his season in December.

Again, this looks to be an automatic downgrade. While both Leivo and MacEwen saw minutes in the Canucks’ top-six, Leivo was significantly more effective there. Actually, he was one of the Canucks’ most effective forwards, period, from October into December, and there really isn’t much chance of MacEwen ever replicating Leivo’s roughly 50-point pace.

There’s something to be said about MacEwen potentially being a better fit in the bottom-six — though Leivo’s defensive metrics were also quite sound — and he certainly brings an element of physicality that Leivo could not, but the fact remains that the Canucks’ forward corps are a less talented group minus Leivo and that MacEwen doesn’t do much to make up for it. MacEwen definitely has the potential to put up more points than he did in 2019/20, but not an exceptional amount more than the 30 or so he paced for.

Here, the Canucks have downgraded, though it may not end up being all that consequential.

Is anyone in the bottom-six capable of chipping in more?

Aside from the addition of MacEwen and the midseason departure of Tim Schaller, the Canucks’ bottom-six will consist of the same set of players in 2021 that it did at the outset of 2019/20. With a couple of offensive downgrades higher up the depth chart, it’s necessary to ponder whether any of these bottom-sixers have more to give in terms of production.

Trusty veterans like Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle have almost certainly topped out. Injuries aside, Antoine Roussel paced just below his career average last season, so one can’t expect much more out of him, either.

Adam Gaudette seems the most likely candidate to experience a significant surge in scoring, entering his third NHL season and on the heels of a disappointing playoffs. Whether he does so in the bottom-six, or as a winger in the top-six, remains to be determined, but a serious uptick in production from him would go a long way toward making up for the loss of Toffoli and Leivo. Conversely, a better defensive performance from Gaudette, especially in the center position, would free up some offensive opportunities for Horvat, helping out the team’s offence in a roundabout way.

Tyler Motte also has the potential to do more, but his ever-growing fanbase should be cautious with their expectations. Even through his dynamite playoff run, Motte scored at a clip only marginally better than his regular season rate. He’s ready for more minutes, to be sure, but the majority of those minutes are still going to be played in his own end of the ice.

With Virtanen in the top-six and Leivo out of the picture, the Canucks’ bottom-six will struggle to maintain their previous level of production, never mind improving on it. And if there is any upswing to be had, it’s going to have to be on the back of Gaudette.

No pressure.

The Wildcards

There are a few wildcards waiting in the wings to make an impact on the Canucks’ forward corps, and we’ll discuss them in brief here.

First and foremost is one Micheal Ferland, who, if healthy, instantly becomes the most dangerous scoring threat in the bottom-six. If healthy, however, Ferland would also wreak havoc on the team’s cap structure. For now, we’ll avoid speculating until his future becomes clearer.

Kole Lind is the forward prospect most likely to see minutes in 2021, and he certainly brings more offence to the table than some of the crusty vets slotted ahead of him. His opportunities will be limited, though, until there’s an injury to fill in for. Don’t expect Lind to make a significant dent in the lineup until 2021/22.

Lastly, there’s Nils Hoglander. 2021 will mark his first season in North America, and he’s expected to play the majority of it in Utica. A stellar training camp could win him a spot, and that would definitely lend some dynamism to the lineup, but as of now the plan is for him to get acclimated in the AHL. Like Lind, Hoglander and his production should be expected to start making a difference in 2021/22, not next season.

Final Verdict:

The departures of Toffoli and Leivo, and the lack of any real new arrivals, makes it quite clear that the Canucks’ forward corps got worse in the 2020 offseason.

There is still potential for them to live up to the lofty standards of the 2019/20 team — which was ninth in the league in goals-per-game — and perhaps even surpass them, but that would require some serious improvement from within. Fortunately, there’s plenty of room for that in the form of Pettersson, Boeser, Virtanen, and Gaudette, among others.

Until that comes to pass, we’ll have to rule the offence as downgraded on paper, but we’re not entirely confident we’ll be saying the same thing once the games start to actually be played.