There’s a familiar feeling around this Vancouver Canucks team.
The roster itself is largely unchanged. The head coach is on an expiring contract. There’s an exciting, high-end core of offensive talent, but still significant defensive issues. The performance of the starting goaltender is paramount. The organization’s aspirations appear to focus on popping through the playoff bubble.
Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before.
New management, led by president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin, are still in their first cycle at the helm of the Canucks. With the flat cap gumming up everything on the trade market and the club posed stubbornly in talks regarding Canucks players both big and small, it’s now apparent that the sort of seismic change that has upended Vancouver’s backroom staff, will have to wait a bit before trickling down onto the ice.
This Canucks roster has nonetheless undergone some significant renovation — especially up front. Vancouver’s forward depth is better and faster and potentially more dynamics than it’s been in years. The Vegas oddsmakers (and our staff at The Athletic) may be fading the Canucks as a playoff team at the moment, but the Canucks clearly have enough quality to vie for a top-three spot in the Pacific Division — if things break their way.
At this point in the NHL offseason, as the dog days of the hockey offseason set in (Yakov Trenin arbitration award hype, anyone?), it’s time to dive a bit deeper into where specifically the Canucks have improved — and where perhaps they haven’t — according to Dom Luszczyszyn’s game score value added model (GSVA).
Big Picture: +2 wins (at least)
Let’s start at 30,000 feet, before zooming in to focus on the specific areas of the roster that have changed this summer.
So far this summer the Canucks have been unable to reallocate cap space from anywhere on their roster really. So they appear to have decided instead to run it back with the exact same defence corps, a less tested (but far less expensive) backup netminder and an upgraded forward group.
While the additions of Curtis Lazar and Ilya Mikheyev should round out Vancouver’s forward group, the coup of the summer was the club’s successful pursuit of Andrei Kuzmenko, the second leading scorer in the KHL last season. A stocky, dynamic playmaking winger, Kuzmenko is one of the big, volatile x-factors that could make or break this upcoming Canucks season.
Before we proceed to the roster breakdown, let’s touch on some qualifiers and some of the methodology behind the GSVA model we’ll be leaning on in this exercise.
It’s fitting that the biggest qualifier we need to note off the bat is that, at this point, the model isn’t really sure what to make of Kuzmenko. Luszczyszyn has yet to run his projection for Kuzmenko, who has a pretty unique profile.
Kuzmenko’s projection will eventually be based on his NHL equivalency numbers (NHLe) — 53 points in 46 KHL games, carries an NHLe in the mid-70s for projected point totals — but with an age adjustment. Scoring at the rate that Kuzmenko did in the KHL last season is extremely impressive, but it means somewhat less, in terms of how it will translate to the NHL, for a 26-year-old player than it might for a 21-year-old, which will be factored in when Luszczyszyn formally runs his projection.
Anyway, for now, we’ve listed Kuzmenko as “N/A” within the roster breakdown. It’s likely that he’ll end up projecting as a second-line calibre forward when his projection is locked in, so bear that in mind. As much as the GSVA model is bullish on how Vancouver has upgraded their forward ranks, the actual extent of the team’s improvement is likely higher than what’s indicated below.
Beyond Kuzmenko, our big picture goal is to compare the Canucks’ roster as it stands today, with what the club iced during the 2021-22 campaign. The point of the exercise is to spotlight and identify the particular areas where the club has upgraded the roster, provide a way-too-early measurement of the club’s overall quality and try to ferret out what trouble spots still exist going into next season.
You’ll notice too, that there’s no projected improvement from the 2021-22 roster to the 2022-23 roster for any of the club’s best young players (nor is there any projected diminishment from any of the club’s relative greybeards).
This is all already baked in, however, to the numbers you’ll see in both roster breakdowns. We’re not really comparing the Canucks’ 2022 roster against the 2023 roster, after all, we’re comparing what this latest iteration of the Canucks can be projected to do against what Dom’s model would’ve expected from the Canucks in a hypothetical world where they kicked their feet up and did nothing else but re-sign their expiring players for the purpose of running back the same team they iced last year.
One player’s projection does, however, change year-over-year and that’s Conor Garland. The fully loaded version of Luszczyszyn’s model, which he’ll use to preview the Canucks season come September and update teams’ playoff odds throughout the campaign at The Athletic, includes more granular ice time projections for every player.
This roster breakdown just gives everyone the same ice time. Because the 2022-23 roster has more forward depth in general, the model naturally thinks that there isn’t enough ice time to go around to all of Vancouver’s good forwards. As such, it adjusts everyone’s ice time up slightly and in so doing, bumps Garland up from 2.2 wins in last season’s projection to 2.3 wins for the 2022-23 season.
Finally, whenever we use this model we like to note that it’s a blunt instrument. It’s a tool and a telling one, one that’s used to predict game outcomes and routinely outperforms all other publicly available projection models and the Vegas books year after year.
Hockey, however, remains inherently unpredictable. In addition to factors that can be modelled, like true talent and ice time and scoring rates, there are ephemeral items like injuries and growing pains and personal distractions and team chemistry that can’t. Some of those factors will ultimately shape the 2022-23 campaign for the Canucks.
Sometimes a second-year player levels up and becomes a superstar out of nowhere, as Jason Robertson did in Dallas in 2021, for example. Sometimes, however, a second-year player encounters difficulty finding their footing after a coaching change and struggles, as Nils Höglander did in Vancouver last season.
That natural unpredictability in hockey makes it so that no team would ever rely solely on the output of a single model in making player personnel decisions. We should be able to recognize that and note it prominently, while still insisting on the value of what an industry-leading projection model can tell us about the Canucks’ offseason so far.
With those qualifiers noted, let’s look at what the Canucks’ roster would project to accomplish during the 2022-23 campaign if the club had simply run it back with the exact game group:
Here is what the roster looks like following the club’s more conservative than anticipated moves through the first three weeks of this offseason.
Even with Kuzmenko projected as a non-entity for now, Vancouver’s forward depth is massively improved.
The model rates Vancouver’s decision to upgrade from Matthew Highmore and Juho Lammikko to Lazar and Mikheyev this summer highly, and that added depth has trickle down effects across the roster. Höglander is a good third liner, according to the model, but he’s an obscene luxury on the fourth line.
The defence corps, however, well, it’s a clear vulnerability, in spite of Vancouver boasting an elite blue line contributor in Quinn Hughes.
Forwards: +2.2 wins (at least)
With so many new faces in the mix, it’s tough to know precisely how Vancouver will line up this season.
One obvious area of strength for the club, however, is their centre depth, with Pettersson, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller (provided he remains on the team, which seems likely at this point), Lazar and even Jason Dickinson and Dakota Joshua as depth options down the middle of the ice.
Now that Miller is firmly ensconced at the centre in the minds of Bruce Boudreau and Canucks brass in general, Vancouver has a level of dynamism and depth at centre that hasn’t been seen in these parts since at least 2015.
It’s a bit tricky to figure out, however, precisely how the club will look to use their wingers to complement Pettersson, Horvat and Miller respectively. We’ve decided to create a classic, play-in-straight lines second group around Horvat, a more classic East-West offensive line around Pettersson and a two-way line that you could conceivably see the club utilizing against top competition around Miller.
The fact is that Boudreau is going to have far more options this season than he had when he took over in early December of 2021. At least one of Vancouver’s 10 second-line calibre forwards will end up on the fourth line, which is a good problem to have, even if it’s likely to be a minor headache for Boudreau to manage from a player satisfaction perspective.
It’s also worth digesting here, however, that while Vancouver’s forward group looks deeper and faster overall, the GSVA model doesn’t currently project any Canucks forwards to be at an elite level this upcoming season. Pettersson or Miller could get to that level, of course. They have been at that level in the recent past.
In a Pacific Division that’s patrolled by the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and Mark Stone, with a healthier Jack Eichel and a fresh new face in Jonathan Huberdeau dropping in, the Canucks can be as fast and deep as they like, but they’ll still need a star forward (or two) to play at their apex level if they hope to play playoff hockey again.
Defence: No change
There’s good news and there’s bad news for the Canucks on the blue line.
The good news is that Hughes is spectacular and bounced back significantly — and then some — last season from an uneven sophomore campaign. Also while the model might appear to be a bit harsh on Tyler Myers and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, it took note of their returns to form last season and has upgraded their projection significantly from where it sat a year ago.
Still, Vancouver’s blue line group is severely lacking in overall quality. Even if you were to sub in one of Jack Rathbone or Kyle Burroughs for Tucker Poolman, the model would still project two of Vancouver’s six presumptive opening night starters to be worth negative wins over the course of the season.
New Canucks management managed to upgrade their forward ranks significantly this summer, and a combination of Thatcher Demko’s brilliance and Boudreau’s preferred style of play — with a reliance on aggressive forechecking — was successful at hiding some of the club’s back-end issues last season. That could happen again this year.
Nonetheless, should Vancouver fall short again this upcoming season, the lack of change on the Canucks’ blue line will stand out as the most probable reason why.
Goaltending: -0.2 wins
The GSVA model has been exceptionally high on Demko for a couple of years now, but it’s now official: Vancouver’s starter is projected to be among the NHL’s elite contributors this upcoming season.
Demko’s dominance has become inarguable in league circles. Goalie coaches and various league executives and evaluators now consistently refer to him as a top-five netminder in the entire league.
Still, GSVA has actually downgraded Vancouver’s goaltending situation somewhat. That’s a result of the departure of Jaroslav Halak and the relatively less certain bet the club is making on Spencer Martin.
This is one of those areas where the model’s limitations have to be kept front of mind. Martin was exceptional last season and widely outperformed Halak, but the model isn’t necessarily surprised by six games of dominant performance from a goaltender and doesn’t significantly alter its projection in response to a sample that small.
Essentially Halak has a lengthy track record as a reliable NHL goaltender whereas Martin’s track record is shallow, and so the model prefers Halak for next season. Perhaps it’s right, but we need to understand that in context.
For me, personally, Martin is precisely the type of netminder a team should bet on. He was a stellar junior goalie, with significant pedigree based on the fact that he represented Canada at the U18 level on multiple occasions and was selected in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft. It’s taken him a while to establish himself in the NHL — in fact, this is the first one-way NHL contract of his career — but he’s an experienced professional and there could well be some upside.
It would not be surprising, despite the model’s output, if Martin outperformed Halak during the 2022-23 campaign. However, the model sees some risk in this area, and that’s worth considering.
I like the Martin bet, but it wouldn’t be a surprise were he to regress this upcoming season – goaltending performance is exceedingly volatile — which would have significant knock-on effects for Vancouver in terms of Demko’s workload. The model is quite rightly picking up on the risk Vancouver has taken in leaning on a more untested backup option this season.
In the short term, the Canucks are improved from the team that missed the playoffs by only six points a year ago and played to a 106-point pace following the coaching change in early December.
That makes them a playoff hopeful, certainly. There is enough talent on the roster for this club to be in that mix.
The enhanced depth at forward should make Vancouver a lot for their opponents to handle, and the added speed up front should help prevent the sort of blowout losses that speedier teams like Colorado and Florida, and even Buffalo and New Jersey, occasionally doled out last season.
Ultimately, however, the model strongly suggests that the club’s success (or lack thereof) next season is going to be determined by whether Demko can maintain his elite form (and, as a corollary, whether Martin is reliable enough to spell him sufficiently for that to happen over 82-games); whether one (or two) of Vancouver’s star forwards can play at an elite level next season; and whether Vancouver’s blue line can perform at a level that’s far more than the sum of its parts suggest.
Going forward, meanwhile, the model is convinced — like most keen observers — that this club needs a more dramatic blue-line overhaul in the years to come if they’re going to get out of the mushy middle that so many of us are in the far-too-polite habit of describing as the “playoff bubble”.
(Top photo of J.T. Miller and Quinn Hughes: Bob Frid / USA TODAY )