Off-season decisions loom for Canucks after missing playoffs for 5th time in 6 seasons

·5 min read
Multiple decisions lie ahead for a Vancouver Canucks franchise that has now missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images - image credit)
Multiple decisions lie ahead for a Vancouver Canucks franchise that has now missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images - image credit)

A season that began with high expectations unravelled like an old wool sweater for the Vancouver Canucks.

Changes are expected on the ice and possibly in the front office after the Canucks missed the NHL playoffs for the fifth time in six years with a 23-29-4 record for 50 points, leaving them last in the seven Canadian team North Division.

Vancouver's playoff hopes were already hanging by a thread before a COVID-19 outbreak in late March ravaged the team, infecting 22 players and four members of the coaching staff. Once given a clean bill of health the Canucks faced a draining schedule of 19 games in 32 days.

Injuries to slick centre Elias Pettersson (out since March 2 with a hyper-extended wrist), Brandon Sutter, Tyler Motte, Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel depleted the lineup. Off the ice, forward Jake Virtanen was placed on leave May 1 following allegations of sexual assault.

"We had a lot of ups and downs in a short season," Sutter said. "This has been a year like no other."

Questions about the future of head coach Travis Green were answered Friday when the Canucks announced he had agreed to a multi-year contract extension. Green's contract was set to expire next month.

"Coaching the Vancouver Canucks has been a privilege and I am excited at the opportunity to continue behind the bench with this team," Green said in a statement.

Captain Bo Horvat gave Green a vote of confidence.

"Travis has been awesome," said Horvat, who had 19 goals and 30 points. "He helped me through this process, growing my game, teaching me how to play the game and be a good leader.

"He's been great toward me and the team."

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Head coach Travis Green and the entire Canucks' coaching staff enter the off-season in limbo with their contracts expired. Green was reluctant to talk about his future.

"It's well known how I feel about our group and our team and the city," said Green, who has spent four years behind the Canuck bench. "I don't think there's anything else I want to say at this point. We'll see what happens."

Captain Bo Horvat gave Green a vote of confidence.

"Travis has been awesome," said Horvat, who had 19 goals and 30 points. "He helped me through this process, growing my game, teaching me how to play the game and be a good leader.

"He's been great toward me and the team. We'd like to see him back for sure."

The Canucks began the 56-game season riding the high of their 2020 playoff performance. Playing in the Edmonton bubble, Vancouver defeated the Minnesota Wild in four games during the playoff qualifying round. The Canucks then eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in six games before losing in seven to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Over the summer the Canucks lost several players to free agency, including goaltender Jacob Markstrom; forwards Tyler Toffoli, Josh Leivo; and defencemen Chris Tanev, Oscar Fantenberg and Troy Stecher.

The Canucks signed goaltender Braden Holtby and defenceman Travis Hamonic as free agents. They also made a trade for defenceman Nate Schmidt.

'It's been a crazy year'

With no exhibition games, and with new faces in the lineup, the Canucks struggled early, losing 11 of their first 17 matches. They found some traction with an 8-4-1 stretch in March but fell out of contention after the bout with COVID.

"It's been a crazy year," forward J.T. Miller said. "For everyone to get COVID when they did at that time, it couldn't have been worse. We were starting to hit a little bit of a stride. We knew we were playing well."

There were bright spots.

Thatcher Demko, 25, showed he can be a starting goaltender with a 16-18-1 record, 2.85 goals-against average and .915 save percentage on a team that allowed an average 33.4 shots a game, third most in the league.

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Forward Brock Boeser led the team in scoring with 23 goals and 49 points, after scoring 16 goals in 57 games last year.

"I still think I can produce a little more for this team," the 24-year-old said. "I think it's great I had a bounce-back year. Personally, I'd rather be producing like I did this year for a team that's in the playoffs."

Rookie Nils Hoglander played all 56 games, collecting 13 goals and 14 assists. Defenceman Jack Rathbone, picked 95th overall in the 2017 draft, looked promising in a handful of games.

Pettersson, the league's top rookie two years ago, had just one assist in his first six games but then collected 10 goals and 11 assists in 20 games before his season ended.

Defenceman Quinn Hughes, a rookie-of-the-year candidate last season, struggled early but found his legs, leading the Canucks with 38 assists.

Decisions to be made

The Canucks have some decisions to make over the summer.

Sutter and veteran defenceman Alex Edler are both unrestricted free agents. Pettersson and Hughes, the building blocks of the Canuck future, are restricted free agents and need to be signed.

Despite continued social media calls for him to be fired, Jim Benning remains as Vancouver's general manager. There has been speculation Daniel and Henrik Sedin, two of the most successful and popular Canucks ever, might have a role in management.

Despite continued social media calls for him to be fired, Jim Benning is expected to return as Vancouver's general manager. There has been speculation Daniel and Henrik Sedin, two of the most successful and popular Canucks ever, might have a role in management.

Although the team missed the playoffs, Green believes the Canucks are close to being a contender.

"I still look at our group as a team on the rise," he said. "I don't have any doubts about that. I have no doubt, with the young pieces we have . . . good things are coming for the Vancouver Canucks."

Miller said playing pre-season games, having fans in the stands, being able to leave the hotel on road trips, will all make a difference next season.

"We just can't wait to have a little normalcy," he said.

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