Canucks will have younger players taking on bigger roles in the new season
I was all in on the adventures of the Holtby family tortoises last week, but I will not be drawn into the discussion of the decor of Connor McDavid's new home....
(We really are getting short on topics these days, aren't we?)
Actually, I will mention that when Connor was on Spittin' Chiclets near the beginning of the pandemic, he spoke at some length about the challenges he went through with his contractor while the house was being built — much like most regular folks. I imagine there's a certain sense of security in having the house finished now, giving him and his girlfriend a place to hunker down.
But we also just heard that Connor has been down in Arizona for the last two weeks, skating with Auston Matthews. Huh.
Elliotte Friedman says the practices go four times a week and are being run by Shane Doan. Other participants now include Jonathan Toews, Jake Bean, Anthony Duclair, Matt Dumba, Alex Galchenyuk and several Coyotes, with local resident Peter Budaj manning the net.
And in case you missed it — yes, Honey and Maple are now safely in Canada.
Continuing with the Canucks, Harman Dayal of The Athletic recently spoke with the team's general manager, Jim Benning, about what the team expects as it relies more heavily on the incoming wave of young players.
Dayal's piece focuses primarily on Adam Gaudette, Olli Juolevi, Thatcher Demko, Jake Virtanen and Zack MacEwen — all pretty much shoo-ins for roster spots whenever the season finally gets underway.
Here are the key takeaways:
• Adam Gaudette - Benning tells Dayal that Gaudette's agent says his client has added eight pounds of muscle this offseason through his strength training. That's good news for a guy who's currently listed at 6'1'" and just 170 pounds on Hockey DB — assuming it doesn't impact his mobility, of course.
Benning also mentioned that Travis Green is looking to integrate Gaudette into his penalty-killing group, and that the 2018 Hobey Baker Award winner was an effective penalty killer at Northeastern during his college days.
At 24, Gaudette is getting a longer development arc than many players, but he improved steadily at the NCAA level and has continued that trend with the Canucks. Now, it's time to round out his game beyond his offensive skills.
• Olli Juolevi - still just 22, Juolevi is now the answer to those trivia questions about players who make their NHL debuts in playoffs before suiting up for their first regular-season game. It has been a long road for the Finnish blueliner — but it's crazy how the journey has also been challenging for the other top Finnish draft picks from that year who dazzled as gold medalists at the 2016 World Junior Championship. Jesse Puljujarvi will get another chance to show he belongs with the Edmonton Oilers this year, and while Patrik Laine is second to Auston Matthews in both goals and points in that 2016 draft class, he's getting that 'enigmatic' label and seems to want out of Winnipeg — although Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn't appear inclined to make that deal unless he gets a nice haul back in return.
Anyway, Juolevi. After struggling with injuries after he was drafted, he put together a relatively healthy and productive campaign with Utica last year, and impressed enough during the summer training camp that he earned a ticket to the Edmonton bubble, where he got into one playoff game.
“I don’t know if people saw the scrimmages last summer but he looked good, he’s ready to play,” Benning told Dayal. “I think with him, he’s had some setbacks with injuries. He’s never been able to really train in the summer because it’s always been rehabbing from injuries so he has that ability now to train and keep moving forward in his game.
“I’m excited to see him play this year because I think we’re going to see a real steady, smart player who can move the puck up ice.”
• Thatcher Demko - a dazzling playoff performance after Jacob Markstrom's injury in the series against Vegas has dramatically impacted the perception of Thatcher Demko in this marketplace. It was night-and-day from the spotty goaltending that Demko was delivering after the 2020 trade deadline — 3-4-0 with a .906 save percentage and 3.14 GAA.
I do wonder how much Demko's playoff performance factored into the Canucks letting Jacob Markstrom go. I'm not saying that was the wrong move — it would have been a bad idea to match the contract that Markstrom received from Calgary, and I was never a fan of the 'we'll figure it out later' thinking that was bandied about when the Canucks were looking at keeping both goaltenders, but only able to protect one in next year's Seattle expansion draft.
Benning says he thinks those games before the pause were a good learning experience for Demko — high-pressure situations with a playoff spot up for grabs, which may have helped him be ready when he was called upon in Edmonton.
"One of the qualities we’ve seen in him when we drafted him is calmness, that ability to make a big save at a big moment in the game to give the team confidence to stay in games. I think that’s what we’ve seen from him in those games in the bubble," Benning said.
Sharing duties with Braden Holtby, Demko should feel well supported this season. As I've said before, I expect Ian Clark to unlock some of the talent has has slipped out of Holtby's game over the past couple of years. My expectation is that we'll see the Canucks got with something closer to a 1A/1B situation in net, with Demko holding the 1A slot on his way to becoming a true starter in the next year or two.
• Jake Virtanen - considering all the conditioning challenges that Virtanen has dealt with over the years, it blows my mind that he's still so fast. Imagine, if you will, that his offseason training program with Tyler Myers in Kelowna this summer actually does have him eating right and doing the work that needs to be done in the gym. Could be good?
My biggest concern about Virtanen is his hockey sense. Even if his fitness improves, can he get to the point where he's making better split-second decisions on the ice? It's interesting to me that apparently he's a good poker player — and while Travis Green tends to use a tough-love approach with Jake, I feel like he's committed to solving the Virtanen puzzle.
Though Jake ended up back on the roster bubble in Edmonton this summer, he should get yet another good chance to try to stick in the top six when the regular season begins — especially after the Canucks committed more than $5 million to him over the next two seasons.
• Zack MacEwen - at the February trade deadline, Jim Benning committed to MacEwen as an NHL player. But he saw limited action in the bubble in Edmonton, pointless in six games in the series against Minnesota and St. Louis, and never hitting 10 minutes of ice time in a game.
He was a healthy scratch for plenty of games during the regular season, too, and was shuffled back and forth often between Vancouver and Utica. He finished the season with 11 points in 20 games for the Comets, and six points in 17 games for the Canucks.
This year, he's no longer waiver exempt — and at a cap hit of just $825,000, he should be an easy guy to keep on the roster, even if salary-cap pressures get strong.
I think an everyday role should help MacEwen grow his game a little more this season.