Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
The Canucks improved defensively this offseason, but will they be able to replace their lost offence?
7 months ago
Few would contend the statement that the Vancouver Canucks have improved their roster defensively through the opening month of the 2023 offseason.
Gone via buyout is Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a move that could be considered addition by subtraction. That OEL has been replaced by two veteran and defensively-oriented defenders in Carson Soucy and Ian Cole is just the icing on the own-zone-responsibility cake.
The right side of the blueline lost Luke Schenn and Ethan Bear, both considerable departures, but departures that a full, healthy season from Filip Hronek should more than make up for.
Even up front, where the defensively-overrated Bo Horvat has been replaced by the defensively-underrated Teddy Blueger and the stalwart Tanner Pearson might finally return to play, there’s an argument for a general defensive improvement.
And then there’s the healthy Thatcher Demko factor, which might matter most of all.
The Canucks gave up 298 goals in the 2022/23 season, ninth-worst in the NHL. So long as all the new arrivals stick in the lineup and play up to their usual standard, it’s fairly safe to assert that the Canucks will be allowing fewer goals against in 2023/24.
But what about the other end of the ice? In transforming themselves to become more defensively capable, is there a chance that the Canucks have given up too much offence, and will still find themselves struggling to post a positive goal-differential?
Let’s try to figure that out.
The number of goals heading out the door via player exits may look large at first. It’s 47 goals, a total that adds up to almost a fifth of the 276 goals the Canucks scored in 2022/23.
But a full 31 of those 47 belonged to one individual in Bo Horvat. The rest of the list includes Bear (3), Schenn (3), Curtis Lazar (3), Kyle Burroughs (2), Ekman-Larsson (2), Vitali Kravtsov (1), Lane Pederson (1), and Travis Dermott (1).
In other words, Horvat’s is the only departure that really needs to be worried about. The rest should find their meagre contributions almost automatically replaced by whoever steps into their roster spot.
Thus, the main challenge will be replacing Horvat’s offence. There’s a real chance that the Canucks can do it by inverse, as in allowing 30-ish fewer goals against. But that would constitute ‘breaking even’ on last season’s results, and that’s not going to be good enough. If they really want to rise in the standings, the Canucks are going to have to allow fewer goals and score as many or more.
The incoming additions to the roster can’t be expected to do much of that scoring themselves. While Blueger, again, is a better defensive center than Horvat ever was, he only scored four goals in 63 games last season. He’s replacing Lazar’s offence, not Horvat’s.
Cole scored three goals for Tampa and Soucy scored three for Seattle (though he scored ten the year before). They should replace the scoring of Ekman-Larsson and Bear fairly easily, but that’s about all that can be expected.
So where are the rest of the goals going to come from?
One hope is from the avoidance of injury. Ilya Mikheyev got 13 goals through 46 games while playing on an injured knee, a pace of more than 25 goals over a full season. If he can stay healthy this year, he might carve up a good chunk of Horvat’s missing chunk of offence all by himself. Then again, Mikheyev and staying healthy are two things that don’t typically go together.
Tanner Pearson is even more of a wildcard. He’s traditionally stayed fairly healthy throughout his career, but he very nearly had more hand surgeries than games played last year. If he is truly fully recovered, he should be good for ten goals at a minimum, but counting on him to do so is not the safest bet.
Another player to consider is Anthony Beauvillier, who arrived at the Trade Deadline and proceeded to score nine goals in 33 games. While he can’t be expected to keep up that pace through an entire season, a 20-goal campaign is well within his reach.
Put it all together and, just on injury recovery and full seasons from part-time players, we could see Horvat’s goals all but covered internally.
Then again, if these players don’t get injured, surely some others will. And so, relying solely on this as a means of recovering offence is an unreliable method at best. Thankfully, there’s also plenty of room for plain ol’ improvement.
Several Canucks scored at a goals-per-game rate well below their career averages in 2022/23. That includes Brock Boeser (0.24<0.35), Conor Garland (0.21<0.26), and Tyler Myers (0.01<0.10).
Each of these players seems primed for some level of bounceback. On the other hand, those players who scored at a pace above their career average (JT Miller, Dakota Joshua, Sheldon Dries) seem to be on the up-and-up.
And then there’s the youth. Andrei Kuzmenko may very well experience a sophomore slump, and that will be difficult to deal with. But everyone has been waiting for Vasily Podkolzin to start scoring more, and folks should be excited to see what Nils Höglander brings to the table after a season of finding himself at the AHL level.
Meanwhile, nobody would be all that surprised if Elias Pettersson continued his ascendance and scored as many as 50 goals in 2023/24.
What does it all add up to?
At the very least, it’s a roster that should be able to get by without Horvat’s red-hot goal-scoring and still put about as many goals on the board.
At the very best, this is a roster primed for a handful of comeback, breakout, and recovery seasons that could push their goal totals to the top-half of the league, if not higher.
Combine that with what almost has to be an improved performance in their own end, and the Canucks should be looking ahead to closer games, if not a major rise in the standings quite yet.
Of course, this is all theoretical and hypothetical at this point.
Soon come the actual games and practices, otherwise known as the praxis of scoring goals in the National Hockey League.
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