Can the Vancouver Canucks find enough secondary offence this season?

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Dave Hall
6 months ago
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Even if you’re new to hockey, the fundamental objective of the sport is crystal clear:
Score more goals.
As the Vancouver Canucks prepare for the 2023-24 season, a pressing question hovers over this group: Can they score more goals? 
The Canucks faired respectably on the scoresheet last year, finishing 12th league-wide with 270 goals.
Unfortunately, they just happened to fall in the bottom half with 296 goals allowed and as a result, were just one of three teams to miss the playoff, despite filling the net at an above (league) average rate.
With this in mind, the emphasis during the off-season was focused on bolstering and prioritizing the defensive side of the game. Which, at the end of the day, is a positive direction and an area of the game that had to be addressed in order to push forward.
But, did they do enough over the off-season to replace, maintain or even boost their spot in offensive production? Let’s check in on all of the factors.

Let’s take a quick look at their preseason performance

I know what you’re thinking, so let me address it immediately: It’s only pre-season.
Yet, after six games, the Canucks have only managed to net 11 goals, three of which have come on the power play. 
While it’s valid to argue that some of the team’s regulars — Pettersson, Kuzmenko, Miller, and Hughes — haven’t consistently been in the lineup, this also applies to all 31 other NHL teams.

Another season, another system

Transitioning to a new system under Head Coach, Rick Tocchet, will undoubtedly offer a significant adjustment period for the Canucks’ core group, as this marks the third consecutive year of such changes.
As we have seen throughout the pre-season, players have a tendency to hyper-focus on systems, which can lead to overthinking on the ice and hindering their natural instincts.
Vasily Podkolzin’s demotion to the AHL, acting as example 1-A.
While these transitions do take time, it’s expected that they will benefit as a more comfortable club within Tocchet’s system in place, winning games as a more structured team as a result. That’s the hope, anyway.
However, it will be interesting to see how the sudden adjustment from former Head Coach, Bruce Boudraues’s more “run and gun” approach to Tocchets defensive structure, affects the team’s offensive ability early on. Could it lead to less creativity? It’s certainly a noteworthy possibility.

Help from the backend

The Canucks’ defensive corps has undergone significant changes this year, with just two players remaining on the “everyday” roster from the previous season. While these changes have bolstered the team’s defensive capabilities, they do raise questions about the ability to increase production from the blueline – an area, which you will see below, is in huge need of boosting.
To provide context, here is the number of goals by a defenceman from teams that hovered around Vancouver’s total goal total (270 goals):
  • Colorado Avalanche*: 49
  • New York Rangers*: 39
  • Vancouver Canucks: 22
  • Vegas Golden Knights**: 36
  • Carolina Hurricanes*: 59
*Indicates making the playoffs
**Indicates winning the Stanley Cup.
Okay, the Canucks actually sat in the very basement in this regard. Even the Chicago Blackhawks, who came last in total goals (202), finished the season with 31 goals from their backend.
Not to mention, out of the Canucks’ 22 total (defensive) goals, 11 came from rearguards no longer affiliated with the club.
The hope is that Filip Hronek, who scored nine goals last season (54 games), can help fill the gap and provide secondary offensive output.  However, with a decrease in powerplay usage, and potential second-pairing deployment, reaching this mark is no guarantee.
With Tocchet’s “committee” approach, he should see minutes with Hughes from time to time, which could lead to some additional production, but likely not enough to significantly move the needle.
Meanwhile, Carson Soucy, known for his strong bottom-four play, is currently the only defenceman on the team to have reached the 10-goal mark in his career, despite a lackluster career-high of 21 points. While we all have time for another 10-goal performance from a third-pairing defender, perhaps that’s a tall order to ask.
Ultimately, Quinn Hughes, coming off a seven-goal, 76-point performance, will likely represent the team’s simplest path to increased defensive production – obviously. If his pre-season is any indication, Hughes appears ready to elevate his game to another level and is currently sporting three of the club’s 11 goals.
While they do need a collective effort, Quinn being able to hit the 15-20 mark, along with Hronek’s additional input, is a large step in the right direction.

Can we get more from their bottom-six?

Look, we can all appreciate the big questions that surround the core of this forward group:
  • Can Andrei Kuzmenko maintain his incredible (and some might argue unsustainable) shooting percentage?
  • Can Elias Pettersson back up his incredible 100-plus season and retain his status as one of the league’s premier point producers?
  • Can JT Miller continue to produce as an 80-plus forward?
  • Can Brock Boeser or Anthony Beauvilier, perhaps even Conor Garland, step in, or at least combine to, fill a gap in the 31 goal-hole left by Bo Horvat?
All of these questions offer significant merit, as each acts as the key to the club’s success this season. No questions asked.
However, it would go a long way if they could get some assistance from the remaining forward group. Something that we just did not see last season.
Looking at each player who skated 15 minutes (or less) last season (25-plus games):
Curtis Lazar (3), Nils Höglander (3), Nils Aman (4), Jack Studnicka (4), Vasily Podkolzin (4), Phillip Di Giuseppe (6), Dakota Joshua (11), and Sheldon Dries (11)
This entire list combined for just 46 goals as a collective throughout the entire 2022-23 campaign.
To go back to the above-mentioned teams, here’s a look at the number of goals from players who saw 15 minutes (or less) last season (25-plus):
  • Colorado Avalanche*: 54
  • New York Rangers*: 53
  • Vancouver Canucks: 46
  • Vegas Golden Knights**: 73
  • Carolina Hurricanes*: 57
*Indicates making the playoffs
**Indicates winning the Stanley Cup.
While these numbers aren’t directly comparable due to differences in games played and other factors, they still illustrate that a boost in secondary production is a must going forward.
The good news? The Vancouver Canucks were not miles away from the rest of the pack, much like we saw from the backend.
The bad news? The bottom half remains relatively similar and through six games of pre-season, we have yet to see anyone step up to offer confidence that we can see a spike in secondary production.
Except for Phil Di Giuseppe.

Upping the ante within

Looking at the two newcomers upfront, Pius Suter, who has consistently posted 14-15 goal seasons, in roles similar to what he’s expected to play in Vancouver, could indeed bring a much-needed offensive boost to the bottom-six.
Teddy Blueger shows glimpses of hope and has looked like a strong addition. However, given his expected deployment, and lack of historic production, a season in which he brings somewhere in the 5-10 range is a reasonable expectation.
Di Giuseppe, despite not being known for his scoring prowess at the NHL level, has garnered significant praise from Rick Tocchet and has found himself in the top-six throughout training camp. He grabbed five points in his three games exhibition games and looks to bring some significant hustle and grit to the second line – allowing Miller and Boeser to focus their attention on getting creative.
Enjoying 13 games as a trio last season, they combined for 13 goals and a 52.6% CF%. Who knows if, and how long, this line will last as we head into the regular season, but as it stands today, he certainly feels like a viable option to up his point totals from last year.
But with a career-high of 17 points, are we willing to make that bet?
Jack Studnicka, who looked well out of place last year, appears to have turned a corner, offering intriguing possibilities. Assuming he makes the team out of training camp, can he step up and bring in 10-plus goals? Possibly. But keep in mind that we are looking at a kid with a high of eight points.
How about Dakota Joshua? With 11 goals, he showed last year that he can provide a meaningful role among this lineup, and even cash in for some secondary output. Yet, as of right now, he is currently fighting for a job on opening night and appears to lack Tocchet-worthy fitness levels. So, we are in no position to guarantee such a thing.
Finally, we have Nils Höglander.
If there was one player that appears to be stuck in limbo, it’s him. It’s hard to pinpoint his place within this club going forward.
While he carries tools that are tailored toward a top-six role, he has shown on multiple occasions that he is simply unable to elevate his play when opportunities come knocking.
Rick Tocchet has admitted that he needs to find his identity and when asked by the media on Friday, he said: “He might play opening night. I am not sure. What I have been told is that he is a buzzsaw out there, and we need him to play that way. I have seen some of it, but not enough”.
This sums it up nicely and so, it feels wrong to hope that he can step in and contribute 15-20 goals this season, regardless of whether he is in the lineup or not.
With a 27-point effort in his rookie season and decent success at the AHL level, we know that the production is lying somewhere in there. It’s just a matter of finding it at the highest level.
Pre-season performances should never be taken as gospel, but they do offer a glimpse into the team’s current condition. And as the Canucks prepare for the upcoming season, valid concerns continue to shape this organization.
How is this team going to score more goals?
In an ideal scenario, the Canucks would simply rely on bolstered defense to win games, making their offensive output much less important. Given their place in goals (12th) for last season, this argument stands.
However, with both Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes coming off career highs, and Andrei Kuzmenko taking the league by surprise, this places a lot of pressure on the core to follow up with similar, if not boosted, personal seasons this year. 
In just one week, the answers to these pressing questions will begin to surface. Until then, the Canucks continue to work on new systems and line-tinkering at practice until the new season begins.


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