Can they weather free-agency losses?

VANCOUVER — After four years stumbling through the wilderness, the Vancouver Canucks were discovered alive and well last season, younger, better and hungrier after their ordeal.

Driven by young stars Elias Patterson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, and supported by a few key, mid-career veterans, the Canucks made it back to the National Hockey League playoffs for the first time since 2015 and won two rounds – Vancouver’s first post-season success since the 2011 run to the Stanley Cup Final.

The challenge now, of course, is to stay out of the woods and do it again. Heading into a season when a lot of people outside British Columbia expect the Canucks to regress, coach Travis Green must find a way to improve his team’s win rate for a fourth straight year. No one on the Canucks is planning a step back, nor are their re-energized fans likely to accept one.

2019-20 regular season record: 69 GP, 36-27-6, 78 pts

2019-20 season finish: 7th, Western Conference

Top 2020 draft pick: Joni Jurmo (82nd)

Additions: Nils Hoglander, F; Nate Schmidt, D, Olli Juolevi, D, Travis Hamonic, D, Jalen Chatfield, D; Braden Holtby, G.

Subtractions: Tyler Toffoli, F, Josh Leivo, F; Chris Tanev, D, Troy Stecher, D, Oscar Fanteberg, D; Jacob Markstrom, G.

OUTLOOK

No team seemed to lose more ground in free agency than the Canucks, who saw an October rush to the exits by all of their unrestricted free agents, including starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and veteran defence leader Chris Tanev.

Even after general manager Jim Benning made what could be his best trade in six years in charge, acquiring top-pairing defenceman Nate Schmidt at clearance prices from the salary-cap squeezed Vegas Golden Knights, predictions and projections for the 2021 season almost universally have the Canucks missing the playoffs in the Canadian division.

The team fuelled itself last year, both before the regular season and the summer playoffs, on external skepticism about their ability. Almost nobody picked them to be even close to the playoffs, but they thrived as underdogs, which wasn’t surprising to anyone who understands the fierce drive of their best players and especially Pettersson and Hughes.

But the challenge before them this season is significant.

Without deadline rental Tyler Toffoli on the top line, the Canucks have to continue to score the way they did last season (eighth in NHL with 3.25 goals per game, fourth on the power play at 24.2 per cent) while finding ways to be better and tighter defensively (19th at 3.10 GA/PG, 28th at 33.3 shots allowed per game).

The blue line has been overhauled with Schmidt, Travis Hamonic and Olli Juolevi replacing Tanev, Troy Stecher and Oscar Fantenberg. On paper, this looks like an upgrade and Schmidt, certainly, is better than anybody the Canucks had playing behind Calder runner-up Hughes last season. But the biggest question is in goal, where former Capital Braden Holtby is being counted on to return to something close to career form after a fairly dismal final season in Washington. His tandem partner is sophomore Thatcher Demko, whose magnificent playoff cameo last September in place of an injured Markstrom still left him with only 41 appearances in the NHL.

Even if the scoring holds up and their defending is better, well, nobody succeeds in the NHL without solid goaltending. If Holtby and Demko deliver it, the Canucks will again surprise people by making the playoffs in the North Division, which hasn’t a dominant team, and make opponents uneasy once they get there.

X-FACTOR: Braden Holtby

Even with his Stanley Cup win in 2018, Holtby hasn’t been the same goalie the last three seasons than he was the six years before that. His .897 save percentage last season – just .906 at even strength – was easily the worst of his career, and his minus-16.8 goals-saved-above-expectations made Holtby a liability.

Holtby admitted when he signed a two-year deal ($4.3-million average) with the Canucks that he allowed the uncertainty of his final season with the Capitals to affect his play. His decline also co-coincided with the departure from Washington three years ago of goaltending coach Mitch Korn.

Happy to be in Vancouver near his Western Canadian roots, and working with Canucks goaltending guru Ian Clark, whose ideals closely align with Korn’s, Holtby believes he will have a bounceback season. Obviously, so do the Canucks. The goaltender may never return to his Vezina Trophy form of five years ago, but his save percentage could be much closer to his career average of .916 than last year’s .897. It will have to be for the Canucks to make the playoffs.

PLAYER WHO COULD SURPRISE: Nils Hoglander

Just when it looked like the young talent pouring into the Canucks would slow to a trickle in 2021 after the emergence in consecutive seasons of Boeser, Pettersson and Hughes, along comes this five-foot-eight Swedish dynamo.

The 2019 second-round pick, who just turned 20, still has to actually make the Canucks’ roster and lineup. But he was the story of the opening week of training camp, darting around the ice and making confident plays with the puck after an eyebrow-raising deployment by Green alongside Horvat on Vancouver’s second line.

After starting this season with Rogle of the Swedish Hockey League, Hoglander isn’t expected to follow Boeser, Pettersson and Hughes to the (virtual) awards podium as a Calder Trophy finalist. But he is great on his skates, surprisingly strong on the puck, loves to make plays in the offensive zone and could fill the gap in the top six left by Toffoli. He may even pull off a lacrosse goal — perfect for an all-Canadian division.

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