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Photo Credit: © Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

A way too early analysis of the newest Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks opened their 2021 season at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the same arena in which they ended the last. They split the back-to-back against the Oilers, winning the first game 5-3 before succumbing 5-2 in the second one. While it was only two games, the short series offered the first look at the many newcomers to the team and a glimpse at their potential impact moving forward.

Finding ways to replace departed impact players in a cost-effective way was going to be key if they wanted to build upon last season’s strong playoff showing. To do this, the Canucks exhausted all avenues. This included promoting rookies, signing free agents and making trades acquisitions in an attempt to replace the departed contributors.

While it hasn’t been long enough to make solid conclusions about how the rest of the season will go, these first two games have allowed for first impressions of each of these newcomers and provided a glimpse at how they fit into their given roles. With the Canucks in for a battle in the all-Canadian division, it may just be the performance of these players that makes the difference between getting a chance to return to the postseason and missing out.

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Braden Holtby

Holtby got the nod to start the season opener and he was quickly introduced to the Canucks’ defensive structure, or lack thereof. According to naturalstattrick.com Holtby faced 11 high-danger shot attempts but he managed to turn away ten of them. Considering Jacob Markstrom, a goalie that many thought to be the team’s MVP last season, left in free agency, it was encouraging to see Holtby perform so well against a team with so much offensive firepower.

In fact, in that game alone, Holtby saved 1.44 High Danger Goals above Average, showing that he’s on his way to proving that his down year last season was an aberration. The Canucks allowed 77 shots over the first two games, showing that while they may have revamped their defence group they still are going to be relying on strong performances from their goaltenders to be a successful team. Holtby’s first game was an encouraging start and it seems as if he is first up in the net moving forwards.

Nils Höglander

Höglander has been the biggest storyline from the moment he touched down at Canucks’ training camp and over his first two NHL games he has proven that he’s here to stay. There were some concerns over if Höglander would be able to translate his training camp success over to the full-speed NHL games, or if he was simply in better shape than everyone due to his SHL experience this season.

It didn’t take long for those questions to be answered, as within a few shifts Höglander was looking like one of the best players on the ice in a game that featured the consensus best player in the world and the reigning MVP, not to mention the stars that play for the Canucks.

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His debut was reminiscent of Elias Pettersson’s as Höglander made an immediate impact, making a strong play along the boards to win a puck battle that led to the first goal before he managed to finish a rebound to get the second one himself. The young Swede has helped the Canucks push play while he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, controlling 63.85% of the expected goals and having a Corsi percentage of 58.21%.

Assuming that Höglander can continue playing at a level somewhat close to this, his arrival earlier than expected helps potentially solve a lot of problems in the top-six. The return of JT Miller will allow the Canucks to ice two strong, balanced lines at the top of their lineup, though figuring out which one will matchup against the opposition’s top lines remains up in the air.

Olli Juolevi

It’s been a long journey to the NHL for Olli Juolevi but five years after being selected fifth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, he finally got to make his regular-season debut for the Canucks. Juolevi has faced significant back, knee, and hip issues in his time since being drafted but despite those setbacks has finally made it to play at the highest level, even if it was a bit later than expected.

The coaching staff was clearly quite cautious with their deployment of Juolevi as the young defender played less than three minutes against Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid over the two games. Juolevi has had his share of low-lights, including a bad turnover that led to an Oiler goal as well as being burned on a few outside rushes, confirming fears about his slow agility.

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Still, Juolevi had more good plays than bad and showed lots of encouraging signs for someone playing in their first few NHL games. The Canucks controlled 72.33% of the expected goals while Juolevi was on the ice at 5-on-5 and had three high danger scoring chances while they allowed zero. His strong advanced stats are an encouraging sign that he can grow into a dependable defenceman who helps push the puck up the ice to the talented Canuck forwards.

Nate Schmidt

The Canucks took advantage of a Las Vegas Golden Knights team in cap trouble and picked up Schmidt, a left-handed defenceman who plays the right side for the small price of a third-round pick. Through the first two games, Schmidt has played mostly with Alexander Edler and the two have performed well together in 20:06 of 5-on-5 time. The pairing has started only 36.36% of their draws in the offensive zone yet have helped the Canucks control over 60% of the expected goals and have a Corsi percentage of 64% during that time.

Schmidt has also gotten to play a little over seven minutes of 5-on-5 time with superstar Quinn Hughes, a defensive pairing that offers an abundance of skating and passing ability. It seems as if coach Travis Green will rely on this pairing when the team is hunting for a goal and so far they have gotten to enjoy 90% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone. Schmidt did score a goal in the losing effort against the Oilers and overall has seemed to have come as advertised thus far.

The only thing that may be larger than Schmidt’s potential impact on this team is his personality. Having someone like that who loves to have fun should only be a positive for a young group still looking to learn how to navigate the ups and downs of an NHL season.

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Travis Hamonic

Hamonic was the last pickup by the Canucks this offseason after playing the last few seasons with the division rival Calgary Flames. He had a bit of a down year last season but has proven to be a reliable NHL contributor over his career and the Canucks were willing to take the chance that he could regain his form.

Hamonic has been tasked with taking over Chris Tanev’s role from last season as the dependable defender next to phenom Quinn Hughes. So far it’s been up-and-down for the pair but considering that Hamonic had little practice time before the season started, it makes sense that it would take him time to adjust to playing with a unique talent such as Hughes.

He makes a nice play in the clip above putting the puck in the perfect place for Tyler Motte to redirect it into the net. Hamonic has also been used as a penalty-killer and if he can help solidify that unit for the Canucks it will add to his value immensely.

What are your thoughts on the Canucks’ new additions? Let me know in the comments section below!