Every offseason, the trades made across the NHL continue to prove that salary cap space is the most crucial non-superstar asset. Teams with cap space can upgrade much more easily by taking advantage of other teams and acquiring assets for cheap.
It’s been a long time since the Vancouver Canucks have had a significant amount of salary cap space to spare. Therefore, the organization has been forced to get more creative in order to improve. With no end date in sight for the Canucks’ salary cap issues — upcoming extensions for Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson make that tricky — this conundrum will not subside.
This means that the Canucks are reliant on internal improvement. They need the players within the organization to continue to take steps forward in their development in order to push the team forward as a whole. It’s clear that unless the team manages to clear out a bunch of salary, something that is clearly proving to be more difficult than many thought, internal improvement is key for the Canucks.
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The Canucks had a nightmare start to the 2021-22 NHL season and that meant it was difficult for many players to get off on the right foot. For some, the start of last season derailed their entire season. Heading into the 2022-23 NHL season, there are six players who will be expected to step up and have better years.

The Young Guns

Jack Rathbone

One of the Canucks’ prized prospects for the past few season, Rathbone is finally arriving at a make-or-break stage where he is expected to make the jump to becoming a full-time NHLer. He managed to play in nine NHL games last year but those were during the dumpster fire that was the beginning of the season, resulting in Rathbone being thrown into some tough situations.
This season, the Canucks will hope that Rathbone can make a smoother transition to the top rank of professional hockey. If everyone is fully healthy, the organization can choose to sit him for more physical matchups, helping the young defenceman stay fresh for the full 82 games.
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After leaving the NHL last season, Rathbone dominated the AHL with the Abbotsford Canucks. He managed to record 40 points in 39 games, scoring over a point-per-game as a 22/23 year-old defenceman against men. That stint surely helped Rathbone gain some more confidence and the Canucks are hoping that the patient development strategy starts to pay dividends this season.

Vasily Podkolzin

Last season was Vasily Podkolzin’s first in the NHL and the transition went about as smooth as anyone could have hoped. He played in 79 games, recording 14 goals and 12 assists. He also provided a strong, physical presence and was effective on the forecheck. Podkolzin showed chemistry with a variety of important Canucks forwards throughout the year including Pettersson and J.T. Miller.
As long as he can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, Podkolzin looks ready to take a step forward during his second year in the NHL. He was a very effective 5-on-5 player last season as the Canucks scored 56.35% of the goals while he was on the ice during those minutes.
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Podkolzin is a crafty player that visibly improved as the season went on and he got more comfortable. Watch for him to flourish more as a playmaker this season because of his underrated passing and vision that were just starting to show last year.

Nils Höglander

Nils Höglander has experienced a bit of a fall from grace within the Canucks organization. After an excellent rookies season where he blew everyone away and shattered expectations, Höglander had a very disappointing second campaign. He ended the 2022-23 NHL season with nine fewer points than the previous one despite playing in four more games.
To make matter worse, Höglander never seemed to be able to get into head coach Bruce Boudreau’s good books. While last year’s midseason coaching change helped reinvigorate certain struggling players, it did not do so for Höglander. Now that the Canucks have added a few new pieces to the forward group, Höglander is in a tricky situation and it’s not quite clear where he fits.
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However, at just 21 years old, Höglander is still extremely young. He broke into the NHL very early because of an impressive training camp and is still the second youngest player on the roster. He also possesses a very impressive work ethic, a quality that is sure to see him come to Vancouver fired up to improve upon last season.

Spencer Martin

Perhaps the most unlikely breakout star of last season, Spencer Martin enters this year’s training camp having to battle only Collin Delia for the NHL backup job, a battle that he is likely to win. The Canucks feel confident going into this season with Martin as their full-time backup because of his incredibly impressive numbers last season, both in the AHL and the NHL.
Martin appeared in six NHL games for the Canucks, finishing with a 3-3-0 record, a 1.74 goals against average and a .950 save percentage. Those eye-popping numbers are likely not sustainable over a long time frame but the fact that he did that in his first six NHL games, with the Canucks defence in front of him, is impressive.
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Martin has all the skill and opportunity to have another breakthrough season and firmly establish himself as a full-time NHLer behind Thatcher Demko. If he does do so, that would give the Canucks one of the top goaltending duos in the league at an extremely affordable price point.

The Veterans

Conor Garland

Conor Garland is an oft-under appreciated forward that manages to post some of the best 5-on-5 metrics across the entire NHL. An analytics darling, Garland doesn’t have the same raw point totals as other elite forwards because of a lack of power play usage. Garland also plays a very sideways game, not in the North-South style that many NHL coaches prefer.
The transition to Vancouver wasn’t super easy for Garland. During an April interview with Harman Dayal of The Athletic, Garland had the following to say.
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“I don’t love change, I like having the same thing over and over again and it’s been tough to adjust to that. But that’s on me, I have to be a lot better. I’m confident next year I’m going to be a lot better.”
Another season in Vancouver with some continuity should be huge for Garland’s play on the ice.

Brock Boeser

Brock Boeser enters the 2022-23 NHL season with lots of expectations placed on his shoulders because of a brand-new three-year, $6.65 million AAV contract. The goal-scoring winger had a down season last year, scoring just 23 goals and adding 23 assists across 71 games.
When on his game, Boeser is one of the most lethal scoring threats in the league. However, he’s been inconsistent throughout his time in the NHL, partially due to a complicated mix of injury issues and a lack of elite skating ability. He’s recorded more than 20 goals four times during his NHL career and this should be the season in which he finally cracks the 30-goal barrier.
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With an improved forward group, Boeser should be able to find two talented linemates. While the Canucks were not deep enough up front to run “The Lotto Line” last season, especially considering the mixed results from the trio last year, this season will be a different story.

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