The Vancouver Canucks believe making the playoffs isn’t simply possible this season — it’s imperative.
The club finished five points shy of a playoff spot with a 40-30-12 record last season.
This year needs to be different, said captain Bo Horvat.
“We’ve got to go do it now. There’s no more excuses,” he said.
“It was promising what we did last year, having so many meaningful games and winning a lot of them. It was a step in the right direction.
“But, at the same time, us not making the playoffs isn’t good enough. And we can’t just be satisfied with almost.”
The Canucks have reasons for optimism heading into the 2022-23 campaign.
Head coach Bruce Boudreau is set to lead the team for a full season after signing a one-year contract in May.
The veteran NHL bench boss took over in December last year when Vancouver languished at the bottom of the Pacific Division. The Canucks went 32-15-10 under his guidance.
Boudreau “firmly believes” in his team.
“I know it’s a new season but I’ve got to believe we’re capable of taking off where we left off,” he said. “And I think if you look at it on paper, we’re a better team now than we were at the end of the year. … There’s no reason for me to think we’re not capable of doing some pretty good things here.”
The Canucks didn’t make major moves in the off-season, but tinkered with their forward group in free agency.
Vancouver added former Kontinental Hockey League star Andrei Kuzmenko, ex-Toronto Maple Leaf Illya Mikheyev and former Boston Bruin Curtis Lazar.
The Canucks also locked up some of their top talents in inking right-winger Brock Boeser to a three-year, US$4.475-million deal and centre J.T. Miller to a seven-year, $56-million extension that kicks in next season.
Areas of concern remain in the Canucks’ lineup, however.
After struggling at times on the blue-line last season, Vancouver will ice virtually the same defensive core to start this year.
Boudreau toyed in training camp with moving defenceman Quinn Hughes to the right side, but the switch simply moves a problem rather than solving one.
A spate of injuries also hit the Canucks’ locker room during training camp.
Boeser (hand) is questionable to start the regular season. His fellow right-winger Mikheyev (lower-body), and defencemen Travis Dermott (concussion) and Tyler Myers (lower-body) are all likely to miss games.
The injuries provided other players with opportunities at training camp, said Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin.
“The good thing is we’ve seen a lot of our depth players,” he said “And I’m really happy to see a lot of our younger players pushing the older guys in practice and giving us some hard discussions about the opening-night roster.”
Vancouver opens the season on a five-game road swing starting with Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday.
The Canucks then head to Philadelphia, Washington, Columbus and Minnesota before coming home to the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 22.
The Canucks are eager to get started, Boudreau said.
“Our team, Edmonton’s team, everyone’s team, can’t wait to get everything going,” he said.
Vancouver’s fan base has been quick to embrace Kuzmenko, a Russian forward with a lethal shot and a wide smile.
The 26-year-old put up 53 points for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL last season. He’s been open about the fact that he’s still trying to find his game on NHL ice.
Coming to North America has been difficult, Kuzmenko said, but he’s learning from his new coaches every day and believes there’s room to grow.
“Now is not my maximum,” he said.
Kuzmenko scored in a 4-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes in the pre-season finale, which is something Boudreau expects to see a lot of this season.
“Give him a chance and he can score. He’s going to be good,” the coach said. “He’s still learning this game. He’s played his whole life overseas and he’s still learning this game.
“There’s no doubt about his release and his shot. It’s as good as anybody’s. And that’s a pretty good weapon when you have it.”
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Goalie Thatcher Demko impressed in his first season as an NHL starter, going 33-22-7 with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage last season.
“Last year for me, I just wanted to become an NHL starting goalie full-time and I was able to do that,” Demko said. “And for me, the expectation now is to become a top goalie in the league.
“Being a starting goalie isn’t good enough anymore. It’s about taking that next step and continuing to prove myself to my teammates and the league as well.”
Demko will have a new backup this season in Spencer Martin.
The 27-year-old goalie was called up from the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Canucks last season and saw action in six games, going 3-0-3 with a 1.74 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.
The performance earned Martin a two-year, $1.525-million contract and the No. 2 spot this season.
The Canucks face a tough mid-winter homestand starting with a matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 18. That test is followed by back-to-back games against the Stanley Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche and McDavid’s Oilers. Vancouver closes out the four-game stretch Jan. 24 against an opponent with substantially less firepower — the Chicago Blackhawks.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press