Canucks offseason mailbag, part 2: Trade targets to upgrade Vancouver's defense

Will the Vancouver Canucks be as good next season as they were during the 2023-24 campaign?

Which defenders could the Canucks be keeping an eye on in potential trades this upcoming season?

Where do some of the most memorable moments from their 2024 playoff run rank among the most iconic moments in Canucks playoff history?

The VIPs submitted hundreds of offseason Canucks questions this past weekend and we’ve picked out a selection of the most interesting queries to analyze and break down at length for our special edition two-part offseason mailbag. We published part one on Wednesday.

Here’s part two of your Canucks offseason mailbag:

We heard all season long how the Canucks’ success wasn’t sustainable from an analytics perspective. Will there be regression this season? Why, or why not? — James B.

First off, we recognized pretty early on in the year that Vancouver had enough outs — their five-on-five form was at least decent from the get-go, their power play was lethal to open the year, Thatcher Demko is obviously legitimate, and the club was surrendering nothing as a defensive unit — to be solid even when the bounces began to go against them. We were never talking about Vancouver as a team with the sort of regression profile that was likely to collapse.

Secondly, as expected, the Canucks hit the inevitable regression speed bump as the season went along.

The Canucks had a 33-11-5 record at the All-Star break, which was the best in the Western Conference. It was driven by an NHL-best plus-43 goal differential at five-on-five. They were also carrying a ludicrous 11.8 percent five-on-five shooting clip and a .927 on-ice save percentage at five-on-five, for a whopping 104.5 PDO — the highest ever recorded in NHL history through roughly 50 games.

After the All-Star break, Vancouver amassed a 17-12-4 record that was 15th best in the NHL, to go along with a good but not great plus-9 goal differential that ranked 12th in the NHL during that time frame. A major reason for Vancouver’s late-season plateau was its shooting percentage dropped to an in-line-with-league-average 8.9 percent clip and its save percentage normalized with Thatcher Demko injured at .917 five-on-five. The NHL’s PDO champions carried a dead-even 100.3 PDO for the latter 33 games of the campaign and performed down the stretch like a strong playoff team as opposed to an elite side.

So will Vancouver continue to see its luck normalize next season versus the dizzying highs of the first half of the 2023-24 campaign? Probably, but it’s not assured.

The biggest part of the PDO (which is a combination of a team’s on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage) is the save percentage, and the Canucks have very good goaltending and an elite starter in Demko. If Demko is healthy and plays 55 games, we’d still expect Vancouver to be a good bet to finish the year with an above-average save percentage at five-on-five — with our confidence enhanced by the way this club locks games down structurally.

Vancouver, however, also led the NHL in shooting percentage at five-on-five, and that doesn’t tend to be sticky year to year. Only a few teams have repeated as top-five shooting-percentage teams at five-on-five across multiple seasons — the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins have recently done so — and while the Canucks have the one-shot scoring talent up and down the lineup to make it possible, it’s not something I’d bet on with any confidence.

There’s one big structural thing to bear in mind and one key qualifier.

The first is that shooting percentage is still relatively stable across the NHL, even if that’s becoming less true year over year. Twenty-six of 32 NHL teams have carried between a 7.8 and 9 percent shooting clip over the past five seasons at five-on-five, for example, meaning that over 80 percent of teams in the league are finishing within a very narrow band in terms of shooting efficiency over large samples. There’s only 1.3 standard deviations’ worth of difference between the lowest shooting percentage team (the Los Angeles Kings at 7.4 percent) and the most efficient five-on-five shooting team (the Toronto Maple Leafs at 9.24 percent). This suggests there aren’t really any meaningful shooting percentage outliers, and it’s exceedingly difficult to maintain an efficiency edge in the contemporary NHL.

The qualifier here is that shooting percentage is on the rise across the league, and Vancouver has sustained an above-average shooting percentage clip — their 8.81 shooting percentage during the Quinn Hughes/J.T. Miller/Elias Pettersson era ranks eighth in the NHL over the past five years — over a large sample now.

To summarize all of this as simply as possible, there are some legitimate reasons to suspect the Canucks can maintain something of an efficiency edge both in terms of their save percentage and their finishing talent at five-on-five next season. That edge is highly unlikely to be as decisive or as sharp as it was through the first 50 games of the 2023-24 campaign going forward, however.

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Colton Parayko would be an interesting fit for the Canucks blue line, albeit a risky one. (Jeff Curry / USA Today)

Are there any D-men you’d target via trade? Expiring or with term/rumoured to be available or just one of your guys. — Clair L.

Defenders are difficult to expire, and usually expensive on the trade market. If they move, it’s usually because a team is meaningfully changing direction (often deciding to rebuild, or prioritize flexibility while retooling) or because they’re selling a rental piece during a losing season.

Looking through various teams and some situations that could be on our radar over the next six to 12 months, a few names stand out.

First off, there’s a pair of Calgary Flames right-handed defenders in Rasmus Andersson and, to a lesser extent, MacKenzie Weegar. The Flames have been dismantling their roster for months now, accumulating futures  — often from the Canucks — and looking to long-term organizational planning.

Andersson, 27, has two years remaining on a very palatable contract. He’d be an ideal fit from an age and risk profile perspective and has the sort of game that could fit nicely with how Rick Tocchet and company want to play. Weegar, 30, isn’t a prototypical Tocchet-type defender and is signed for four more years on a $6.25 million annual average value contract that carries significant risk and arguably doesn’t make a lot of sense for a rebuilding team.

While Weegar is right-handed, he’s the rare player I tend to think is better playing on his off-side. Weegar is a really talented defender, but from a fit and risk perspective, Andersson would be the target worth chasing if the Flames fall out of the race early this season and decide to sell.

Seattle Kraken blueliner Adam Larsson and Winnipeg Jets defender Neal Pionk are right-handed top-four types on expiring deals. If either team falls out of the race, they’d be potential rentals to monitor. Larsson is probably the better fit, but would also be the more expensive player to acquire. In contrast, Pionk struggled this past season and might come with a reclamation target price tag if his form last season persists into this year.

Finally, jumbo-sized St. Louis Blues defender Colton Parayko has been linked to trade rumours over the past 12-18 months. The Blues seem to be retooling but have so much cap space locked into their blue line, and nearly all of those blueliners have some measure of say in their future given their trade protection structure. Parayko would be an interesting fit, albeit a risky one, given his offensive impact has fallen off over the past few seasons and he’s signed with term through his age-35 campaign.

I understand this is a pipe dream but how bad would our team get in the short team if we offer sheeted Bedard to a 1-year deal worth 14-16 million to almost guarantee Chicago not matching, to then sign a long-term deal after assuming we’re probably his only team he would do this for. Would this potentially destroy our cap situation with our Cup window and losing the four first-rounders or would it be the ultimate getting over the hump legacy dynasty move? — Aidan D.

This is a fun hypothetical, but also a bit of a moot one. Even in a world where the Canucks could get Connor Bedard’s signature on a one-year $14 million offer sheet in the summer of 2026, I just think the Chicago Blackhawks would match. They’d pretty much have to in order to protect their market.

Would the move destroy Vancouver’s cap situation? No, I think Bedard has already hit the level of a player who’s virtually impossible to overpay, even within the NHL’s rigid hard cap system.

Since the current Canucks and Blackhawks management teams love trading with each other, what Blackhawks player are the Canucks going to target mid-year to add to the roster? Why do I get the feeling Taylor Hall would be the addition if he comes back healthy and his skating isn’t limited? — Joseph C.

I like where your head is at. Taylor Hall is on an expiring contract, and bringing him in as a rental — provided he’s healthy — would make a lot of sense given the way he fits Tocchet’s system. Remember, Hall played 35 games for Tocchet during the 2019-20 campaign, producing at a 60-plus point-per-82-game clip and adding six points in nine games in the bubble playoffs.

Also, if Vancouver were to add Hall to its roster at the trade deadline, it would add an irresistible storyline to a potential playoff rematch with the Edmonton Oilers.

While Vancouver’s prospect pool isn’t super deep, they do have prospects poised to fill some of their greatest organizational needs in Jonathan Lekkerimaki and Tom Willander. Do you think it’s more likely that Lekkerimaki becomes a good top-6 wing for the Canucks or that Willander becomes a strong 3rd option on the back end? — Logan H.

I think the answer here has to be Tom Willander, but that’s really because of how you’ve framed it.

For a defender tracking the way Willander has through his draft plus-one campaign, becoming a strong third-pair option is within the fat part of the bell curve. Jonathan Lekkerimaki is tracking somewhat better and has more upside as a prospect, but he’ll have to hit a less probable outcome to develop into a good top-six forward.

Canucks history question: Now that we finally had some playoff excitement in this market again, are there any moments (goals, saves, hits, sequences of play, individual stories, etc.) from the Canucks’ 2024 playoffs that you’d put on a list of best 10 or 20 Canucks playoff moments of all time? — Peter N.

Honestly, it felt like this 2024 postseason run was unusually chock-full of memorable playoff moments. The two quick goals in Game 1 of the Nashville series, the wild Game 4 comeback and the late series winner from Pius Suter were all pretty dramatic and incredible. Then the Game 1 comeback against the Oilers and the late Miller winner in Game 5 stand out from the second round.

Across five games in the 13-game playoff run, something pretty amazing happened to power a Vancouver victory. You don’t often get such concentrated playoff magic.

In terms of best Canucks playoff moments in franchise history, I think a top-10 list has to include the following moments without question:

Game 6 of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs, arguably the greatest game in franchise history.
The Jeff Brown to Pavel Bure hook pass for the overtime winner over Calgary in 1994.
The Save in that same Game 7 against the Flames.
Greg Adams’ overtime winner against the Maple Leafs to send the Canucks to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.
Alex Burrows’ Dragon Slayer goal in 2011.
Burrows’ incredible overtime winner in Game 2 of the 2011 Cup Final.
Kevin Bieksa’s stanchion goal to clinch the Western Conference Final in 2011.
Roger Nielsen waived the white towel against the Blackhawks in 1982.

Then there are some other moments you can make a good argument for, including:

Henrik Sedin’s quadruple-overtime game winner in 2007.
Matt Cooke’s game-tying goal in Game 7 of Vancouver’s first-round series loss to the Flames in 2005.
Ryan Kesler’s beast-mode goal against the Nashville Predators in 2011 (and really his entire series).
Bure dominating the Jets to eliminate a 3-1 series deficit in 1992 (Bure had four goals and eight points in Game 5 and Game 6 of that series alone, which is hilarious).
Joel Otto’s kicked-in game winner in 1989
Chris Tanev’s play-in overtime winner in the summer of 2020

I think it’s fair to place that incredible Game 4 comeback against the Predators on that second list.

What could really elevate it, though, is if this club actually wins a Cup with this core and if that flair for the dramatic and never-say-die DNA that we saw so often from this Canucks team during the 2024 playoffs becomes a trademark element of a run of sustained playoff success.

Do you think the Canucks are going to be better next season? Or roughly the same level as last year? — Blake B.

I think the most likely outcome for the Canucks next season is that they’re just as good or modestly improved but have slightly more pedestrian results overall. It’s difficult to be a 50-win, division-winning team and a lot fell into place for the Canucks to hit that level this past season. The club could improve next season and still — between regression and a greater volume of key injuries — accumulate fewer points than they managed in 2023-24.

(Top photo of Rasmus Andersson and Nils Höglander: Sergei Belski / USA Today)

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