VANCOUVER — Nearly four months after they were ousted from the NHL playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks are back — and with big expectations.
The Canucks lost several key pieces in free agency, but general manager Jim Benning is confident that the moves he's made in an unusual off-season and the continued development of the team's youngsters will combine for success this season.
“Finishing last year off, I thought we made good strides. We went to the bubble, we competed hard, we won some series. It changed the belief that we’re going in the right direction and we’re doing things the right way," Benning said on a video call Sunday as the Canucks opened training camp.
"We don’t want to take a step backwards this year."
Vancouver was in third place in the Pacific Division with a 36-27-6 record when the NHL suspended play in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Canucks dispatched the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues in the playoffs before being eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in a gritty seven-game Western Conference semifinal.
Every year the team's expectation is to get better, said head coach Travis Green, and this season isn't any different.
"Winning doesn’t just happen," he said. "You’ve got to push, you’ve got to be prepared, you’ve got to sacrifice, you’ve got to create a culture that’s about winning. And I think we’re on the right path to that.”
Some beloved players won't be joining the Canucks for the journey, though.
Star goalie Jacob Markstrom and veteran defender Chris Tanev signed with the Calgary Flames in free agency, while top-six forward Tyler Toffoli decamped to the Montreal Canadiens and homegrown D-man Troy Stecher joined the Detroit Red Wings.
Benning said some of the absences will be filled with up-and-coming prospects, but the GM was also busy during the off-season, adding some veteran talent.
Goalie Braden Holtby comes to Vancouver as a free agent after playing 11 seasons — and winning a Stanley Cup — with the Washington Capitals. Vancouver bolstered its blue line by adding defenceman Nate Schmidt in a trade with the Golden Knights.
Another name was added to the Canucks' training camp roster Sunday when the team signed veteran defenceman Travis Hamonic to a professional tryout contract.
The 30-year-old native of St. Malo, Man., played 50 regular-season games for the Calgary Flames last season, registering three goals and nine assists.
He was the first NHL player to opt out of playing in the post-season, citing family considerations. The post-season was held in isolated environments in Edmonton and Toronto due to COVID-19.
Originally drafted 53rd overall by the New York Islanders in 2008, Hamonic has 188 points (37 goals, 151 assists) in 637 NHL games.
“He's a veteran guy who’s been in the league a while, who’s played hard minutes, maybe minutes that have gone unnoticed," Green said. "With this schedule, you’re going to need depth. And from a coaching standpoint, we’re excited that he’s coming to camp."
Hamonic was set to travel from Winnipeg to Vancouver on Sunday and undergo a league-mandated seven-day quarantine upon arrival. He will join the Canucks' camp once the quarantine is complete.
In order to add Hamonic to the lineup, however, the Canucks will need to clear some cap space. One way that could happen is if forward Micheal Ferland is placed on long-term injured reserve.
Benning said Sunday that Ferland did not travel to Vancouver for training camp because he's still experiencing concussion symptoms.
The 28-year-old left-winger played just 14 games last season after being derailed by a concussion in December. He joined the Canucks for the playoff push but left the Edmonton bubble after playing less than 14 minutes in Vancouver's first series against the Minnesota Wild.
The players who perform in training camp will be the ones who earn spots on the roster, Benning said.
“We expect to have some tough decisions and some tough conversations on players here as we go through camp," said the GM.
With the Canucks' season set to begin against the Oilers in Edmonton on Jan. 13, time for making an impression and solidifying a lineup spot is scarce even before players hit the ice.
Coaches will be looking to maximize time and do a lot of teaching over the short camp, Green said, but they'll also be using hard practices and a lot of games to get players into shape for opening night.
“It’s going to be a big onus on our players to be focused for camp and push themselves when it’s hard, because there isn’t much time," the coach said. “I anticipate camp being competitive.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press