The Vancouver Canucks haven't made the playoffs since the 2019-20 season. They boast a promising roster on paper, but haven't been able to put it all together on the ice.
The team traded captain Bo Horvat to the New York Islanders last season, receiving Anthony Beauvillier, Aatu Raty and a 2023 first-round pick in return. This was the first step in retooling the roster after some disappointing seasons with Horvat leading the team. There were also talks about J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, but those trades never came to fruition. Going into training camp, the Canucks look to be proceeding with Miller and Boeser in their plans.
Vancouver didn't make any big moves in the offseason to improve the roster, instead opting to believe in the players that finished the year while adding some depth pieces on defense. Before training camp, the Canucks traded disgruntled forward Tanner Pearson to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for some goaltending depth in the form of Casey DeSmith. The only other change was naming Quinn Hughes the 15th captain in the team's history.
With training camp in full swing, let's dive into the Vancouver Canucks' top storylines, cut candidates and a roster projection for 2023-24.
Rick Tocchet's important training camp
The Canucks opened last season on a seven-game losing streak. President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford thought the team's poor defensive system and training camp were to blame for that awful start. The poor start to the season was one of the final nails in the coffin for Bruce Boudreau, as the team fired him and bring in Rick Tocchet at the end of January.
In the opening days of training camp, Tocchet is visibly going with a different strategy than his predecessor. In the past, Boudreau had camps with scrimmages, battle drills and conditioning skates. Tocchet has elected to work on learning defensive systems, including breakouts and regroups.
It seems like Tocchet has listened to the past complaints of Rutherford and addressed the team's biggest concerns. Whether or not his defensive systems work out the way he wants them, the Canucks' coach is at least trying to improve the team's issues in his first full season.
Improving the defense
The team's need to improve the defense doesn't stop at strategy. Vancouver's front office understood it was also a personnel problem and did its best to bring in some new depth pieces.
The Canucks signed Carson Soucy, Ian Cole and Matt Irwin in free agency. Soucy is getting the chance to be Luke Hughes' new partner, and Cole will fill out the top four with Filip Hronek according to the Canucks' training camp lines. Hronek was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings last season, but only got into four games with Vancouver.
Vancouver enters this season with only 25% of their top four from last season returning, which should be good enough for at least a minor improvement defensively.
Jack Studnicka on the outside looking in at training camp
Studnicka was the Canucks' third-line center under Boudreau. He was finally getting some consistent NHL minutes after never quite getting an opportunity with the Boston Bruins, who shipped him to Vancouver early last season. Tocchet put Studnicka in the lineup for his first game, but by the third period, he didn't leave his seat on the bench. He was a healthy scratch for 16 of the next 36 games with Tocchet, never finding the form he managed under Boudreau.
Going into training camp, Studnicka and other young players know they have to earn the trust of a hard-nosed coach like Tocchet. Studnicka has been a standout among them so far, as Tocchet acknowledged that he had one of the highest scores in fitness testing. Then by day two, his performance at practice had earned him a spot at centre on one of the team's lines.
Studnicka's best performance came in the team's first scrimmage, as he was a force both physically and with the puck. If he continues to perform at that level, it will be hard for Tocchet to not make him at least the 13th forward.
Rookies making an impact at training camp
Going into Canucks training camp, it didn't seem like there would be much room for rookies to take a roster spot. With Ilya Mikhayev leaving the team for “personal reasons,” Arshdeep Bains has been getting an opportunity to play with Pius Suter and Conor Garland. Bains is likely just holding Mikhayev's spot until he returns, but his performance at training camp is worth noting.
Bains hasn't looked out of place and could contend for a spot on the opening roster, according to reports from Canucks Army. The lineup is pretty well set, so it's hard to find a spot where Bains will fit for the Canucks. It is more likely that Tocchet will bring a guy like Studnicka on the roster and use him as an extra forward, letting Bains keep developing in the minors. The emergence of Bains does give Vancouver an option if the team gets out to a bad start again and needs a spark.
A return to form for Thatcher Demko
Demko had his worst season as a pro in 2022-23, struggling to a 14-14-4 record with a .901 save percentage and 3.16 goals against average. As outlined earlier, the defense in front of Demko didn't do him any favors, but Demko expects more out of himself.
“I think this year is do or die (for this group), to be honest,” Demko said, via Sportsnet. “We love this group of guys that we have here, this core. But we can't say that we're a young group. We have plenty of experience.”
It is evident that Demko is feeling the pressure at Canucks training camp, but he has shown to thrive under pressure in the past. If Vancouver can find a way into the playoffs, Demko will be a big reason why.
Final projected roster
Forwards: Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Anthony Beauvillier, Andrei Kuzmenko, Nils Hoglander, Vasily Podkolzin, Conor Garland, Teddy Blueger, Pius Suter, Ilya Mikheyev, Dakota Joshua, Jack Studnicka
Defenseman: Quinn Hughes, Filip Hronek, Tyler Myers, Ian Cole, Carson Soucy, Christian Wolanin, Matt Irwin
Goalies: Thatcher Demko, Casey DeSmith