The Vancouver Canucks are a team in transition.
Six seasons now removed from their disappointing loss to Boston in the Stanley Cup Final, they’re a franchise that is trying to build for the future while still holding onto the past — seemingly to keep themselves from completely bottoming out the way other rebuilding franchises have in recent years.
But the dynamic seems a little unconventional at times. The duo of Henrik and Daniel Sedin are in decline and goaltender Ryan Miller turned 36 this summer. These players are trying to directly pass the baton on to the likes of 20-year-old forward Jake Virtanen, 21-year-old forward Bo Horvat and goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who eagerly waits in the wings to take over the net from Miller.
This on-the-fly rebuild stems from the results the franchise has compiled over the last few seasons. The Canucks have missed the playoffs in two of the past three seasons and their lone postseason berth in that span went only as far as the first round.
At this point, it appears that there’s no changing the direction of the organization’s plans. They’re committed to rebuilding without tearing all the walls down in the house and that means the young players are going to have to quickly take strides to become everyday roster staples.
And that’s why young duo of Virtanen and Horvat is the Canucks’ X-factor this season.
Horvat was drafted by Vancouver with the ninth overall selection in the 2013 NHL Draft. He made his NHL debut on Nov. 4, 2014 in a 5-2 win over Colorado where he posted a plus-one rating and logged 8:52 of ice time.
The Ontario native finished the season with 25 points (13-12—25) in 68 games played and averaged 12:16 of ice time — he received some consideration for the Calder Trophy. Horvat played in all 82 of Vancouver’s games last season and saw his point total increase to 40 (16-24—40) and his average ice time balloon to 17:08.
Virtanen, meanwhile, was selected by the Canucks with the sixth overall selection in the 2014 NHL Draft and made his debut with the big club on Oct. 13, 2015 in a 3-0 shutout victory in Los Angeles. He registered one shot, three hits and one block in 9:18 of ice time.
Overall, the British Columbia native appeared in 55 games and tallied 13 points (7-6—13) while averaging 11:34 of ice time in his first season of NHL action.
In a tough Pacific Division with the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks, the always dangerous Southern California duo of Anaheim and Los Angeles, along with Flames and Coyotes clubs who are on the rise, there’s very little room for error. If the Canucks have any aspirations of postseason play, they’ll need Virtanen and Horvat to continue to progress toward being top-line players.
The Canucks’ two top offensive stars for well over a decade now, the Sedins have entered the later stages of their careers. Henrik, who posted a career-high 112 points during the 2009-10 season, has scored more than 55 points just once over the span of the last three seasons, while Daniel, who scored a career-high 104 points in 2010-11, has averaged 61 points over the last three seasons.
Vancouver’s success this season will be determined in part by how much slack Horvat and Virtanen can carry. If they’re unable to carry the load, it could become another long year for the team. If they’re able to have breakout seasons and turn some heads, Canucks fans could be in for a nice surprise.