The Maple Leafs begin training camp today, and before we’re sick of hearing about it, they’ll be playing games. This week, we’re going to look at the six opponents the Leafs will spend all season playing. This all-Canada division seems fun now, but when the playoffs come, we’ll be ready for some novelty. Let’s hope fervently we get it, and that the Leafs play someone other than the six other Canadian teams this year. Today we start on the west coast and look at the Vancouver Canucks.

Vancouver’s 2020

Last year, the Vancouver Canucks finished the season in seventh place in the Western Conference with a .565 points percentage. That would have put them tied with Florida at 10th in the Eastern Conference, but in the easy west, it got them in the playoffs where they made the most of the opportunity.

They easily defeated the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round, and took out the Stanley Cup champs in the first round, four games to two. To prove they deserved a playoff appearance, they took Vegas to seven games in the second round, losing the final game in a shutout. It was very much a case of a team punching above their weight, but making it work for a lot longer than expected.

Their series against Vegas was a story of goaltending ebbs and flows, but the Canucks could not match the Vegas offensive punch and merely lost the series it a little later than expected. The question is, are they still that team? Or did they improve?

In the regular season last year, they relied on J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Quinn Hughes for most of their points. Tanner Pearson and Brock Boeser were also good, and then the gap opens up and the quality drops off fast in terms of scoring. They added Tyler Toffoli at the deadline, who was point per game for 10 games, but he, unlike the rest of that list, did not return to the team.

Vancouver’s Offseason

The cap-strapped Canucks have a lot of money tied up in bad players. With a plausible 23-man roster, they’re over the cap, so they either have someone about to go on LTIR after failing a medical or they plan to cut the roster down.

Their worst problem is the $6 million per year for two more years spent on Loui Eriksson. He was a very good player once, but he hasn’t got it anymore. His sole value is mentor to Elias Pettersson, and frankly, that hardly seems necessary now. The Canucks chose not to buy him out likely because his contract doesn’t favour that form of exit, and they appear stuck with him.

Their second-biggest problem is an absurd amount of salary spent on players like Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle. They’ve gone out and signed these grinder, good pros on purpose at triple their value, and in the tight cap world, that costs them goals scored.

With no room for big, dramatic moves in the offseason, or so it seemed, the Canucks stuck to small things that didn’t really address their main problem — forward talent. They added Micheal Ferland, a secondary grinder/scorer of some value, who they’re paying a bit more than the recapture penalty on Roberto Luongo ($3.5 million). They made no other moves at forward. Other than waving goodbye to Toffoli, that is (to the Canadiens, so they’ll have nine opportunities to regret that).

Their big splash came when they helped Vegas sign Alex Pietrangelo by taking Nate Schmidt off their hands for... a third-round pick. This offseason was weird.

The question about Schmidt, who many believe is fabulous based on ice time and points, is how will he do on a team totally unlike the high-octane Golden Knights. It almost doesn’t matter that much, because he’s likely to out-do the exiting Chris Tanev, but most people would have looked at the Canucks, with budding superstar Quinn Hughes on defence, Tyler Myers on the books until doomsday, and a weak forward corps below their top line, and made different decisions. Even if Schmidt turns out to be excellent on the power play, the choice seems odd. It does point right at the 34-year-old Alexander Edler and his $6 million cap hit as the contract they should have gotten rid of, though. Maybe they are about to.

Edler, by the way, was signed in 2019, just after he turned 32, to two years at that six million. Does that seem wise to anyone? Just Jim Benning.

Vancouver’s 2021

The Canucks are going to need to rely on goaltending to carry them when the goals don’t come a little more than most teams, and that’s where they really made a splash. They couldn’t come to terms with Jacob Markstrom, who seemed to be looking for more money than he’d proved he was worth. They believe (likely rightly) in the future of Thatcher Demko and eventually Michael DiPietro, so they got a dad in Braden Holtby, using up the rest of the cap space they decided not to spend on goal-scoring. The late-breaking decision to add Travis Hamonic on a PTO also does not get them goals.

But, I can hear you saying, Canucks fans, that Vancouver scored the second most goals in the west last year! True, true, they did. And that would have been good for seventh in the east behind Florida. The eastern team they most resemble is Florida, but they kept their GM this offseason while Florida upgraded. Congratulations, Canucks, you aren’t in the Pacific Division anymore. Life is different now.

Don’t get me wrong, the Canucks aren’t bad, but they have two seriously elite talents in Pettersson and Hughes, and the rest is varying levels of support staff. They need to play a very, very effective and tight system to make that pay out. Last season they were mediocre offensively, and worse defensively at even strength, and there’s no reason at all to expect that offence to be better. Their power play might be improved with Schmidt on hand, but the goalie-ing is a big question mark. When isn’t it, though?

Last year, I thought when the Leafs played the Canucks they were neither good nor bad, just an okay team with good habits, one powerful offensive line and nothing at all else going on. They are now that plus Nate Schmidt.

They have a disadvantage in this season shared by two other Canadian teams, where their AHL affiliate is in the USA. So they need to be smart with the Taxi Squad, and clever with cap usage. Does that sound like Benning’s forte?

Their problem remains in the GM’s office, but with a good coach in Travis Green, they should do okay in the North division. Okay enough to be top four and not bottom three? Ask the goalies.

Toronto plays Vancouver for the first time at home on February 4, and doesn’t travel to Vancouver until March.