Canucks season preview: Pettersson, Hughes arrival top priority

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the Vancouver Canucks.

Coach: Travis Green (fifth season)

Last season: 23-29-4; seventh in Scotia North Division, did not qualify for Stanley Cup Playoffs

3 KEYS

1. Getting Pettersson, Hughes ready for season

Elias Pettersson, their No. 1 center, and Quinn Hughes, their top defenseman, had not been in camp, each as an unsigned restricted free agent, but reportedly could be arriving soon..

Pettersson has scored 153 points (65 goals, 88 assists) in 165 games, and Hughes has scored 97 points (11 goals, 86 assists) in 129 games, each in three seasons. Though the season opener is not until Oct. 13 at the Edmonton Oilers, coach Travis Green lamented time lost to adjust to new teammates and system changes, particularly in how the Canucks want to defend. For a team that blamed a lack of practice time and preseason games for a 7-11-0 start last season, not having its two best players from the start of camp is a concern, especially because Pettersson missed the final 30 games with a wrist injury and Hughes struggled defensively.

2. Defending better

Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in a trade July 23, said he hopes a change of scenery and fresh start will help turn things around after an admitted decline his past few seasons. The Canucks are counting on it happening on a top pair with Tucker Poolman, who signed a four-year contract July 28. They also need better defending after giving up the third-most shots per game (33.4) and sixth most goals per game (3.34) last season. The hope is system tweaks and renewed emphasis under new assistant Brad Shaw, who was with the Columbus Blue Jackets the past five seasons, will be enough to reduce the number of high-quality chances they surrender.

3. Demko building as No. 1 goalie

After a brilliant three-game performance in relief of Jacob Markstrom during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs (.984 save percentage, one shutout), Thatcher Demko established himself as the starting goalie last season by taking over what began as a job share with Braden Holtby. Demko was 16-18-1 with a 2.85 goals-against average and .915 save percentage, and with a new five-year contract, Holtby bought out, and Jaroslav Halak signed as a backup, it’s up to Demko to continue his ascension as a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.

Video: Vancouver Canucks 2021-22 Season Preview

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

Illness and injury kept Brandon Sutter and Tyler Motte out of training camp and could create openings at the bottom of the forward group for one or two of Phillip Di Giuseppe, Matthew Highmore, William Lockwood or Justin Dowling. Among the defensemen, the absence of Travis Hamonic (personal) may open a spot for Luke Schenn on the right side, and Brad Hunt, who has played 191 games over eight NHL seasons, and prospect Jack Rathbone took the early lead for a third-pair spot ahead of Olli Juolevi, the No. 5 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Most intriguing addition

Ekman-Larsson got the headlines in the trade with the Coyotes, but forward Conor Garland provides a needed upgrade in the top six. Garland scored 39 points (12 goals, 27 assists) in 49 games for Arizona last season and has scored 96 points (47 goals, 49 assists) in 164 games in his first three NHL seasons. Originally projected to play on a line with Bo Horvat, Garland started at left wing with J.T. Miller at center and rookie Vasily Podkolzin on right wing but could fit a variety of roles and might get opportunities on the top power play.

Biggest potential surprise

Rathbone, selected in the fourth round (No. 95) of the 2017 NHL Draft, has made a good impression in the preseason and has a lot of offensive upside. After scoring 53 points (14 goals, 39 assists) in 61 games at Harvard, the 22-year-old scored three points (one goal, two assists) in eight NHL games, and nine points (two goals, seven assists) in eight games with Utica in the American Hockey League last season.

Ready to break through

Podkolzin played a limited role his final two seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League after Vancouver selected the forward No. 10 in the 2019 NHL Draft, but scored 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 16 KHL playoff games last season and looks poised for increased opportunities as an NHL rookie. Coaches and teammates have praised the 20-year-old for his maturity and NHL readiness, and a spot alongside Miller and Garland should give him a chance to generate offense.

Fantasy sleeper

Podkolzin (fantasy average draft position: 163.5) is expected to compete with wings Garland, Nils Hoglander and Tanner Pearson for a top-six role, and exposure to valuable center Pettersson or Horvat could make Podkolzin a dark-horse Calder Trophy candidate. — Pete Jensen

Projected lineup

Nils Hoglander — Elias Pettersson — Brock Boeser

Conor Garland — J.T. Miller — Vasily Podkolzin

Tanner Pearson — Bo HorvatJason Dickinson

Phillip Di Giuseppe — Brandon Sutter — Tyler Motte

Oliver Ekman-Larsson — Tucker Poolman

Quinn Hughes — Travis Hamonic

Jack Rathbone — Tyler Myers

Thatcher Demko

Jaroslav Halak

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