The Vancouver Canucks made significant progress as a team in 2018-19, occupying a playoff spot in early-February and finishing with their best point total since 2014-15. Despite ultimately missing the postseason for a fourth straight year, the team provided plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future.
From Elias Pettersson's sensational rookie campaign, to Bo Horvat solidifying his leadership role, these are five positive storylines from the Canucks' 2018-19 season.
Elias Pettersson takes over
There was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding 20-year-old forward Elias Pettersson entering his first career NHL season. Not only did Pettersson live up to hype, but he somehow managed to exceed the expectations placed upon him. The young Swede had the greatest rookie season in franchise history, surpassing Pavel Bure's rookie scoring record with 28 goals and 66 points in 71 games. He dazzled on a nightly basis with incredible skill and creativity that left fans and players mesmerized. Best of all, he gave a city that hasn't seen the playoffs since 2015 something to believe in.
After winning an SHL title and being named MVP in the process, Pettersson had Canucks Nation salivating at the chance to see him suit up for the big club. Taken 5th overall by Vancouver in the 2017 NHL Draft, Pettersson joined the Canucks at a time they were lacking game-breaking offensive talent. After he scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot against the Flames in the season opener, it was clear that this was going to be a special player.
Pettersson scored 10 times in his first 10 games and ended up leading the team with 28 goals on the year. He was Vancouver's lone representative at 2019 All-Star Weekend and had the team contending for playoff position in the final months of the season. From the famous "Death Stare" off the ice, to his brilliant creativity on the ice, Pettersson won over Canucks fans and captured the attention of the entire hockey world.
When a young player arrives and immediately displays that type of skill and poise, it's contagious. Pettersson didn't just make a major offensive impact for Vancouver, he changed everything for the Canucks.
Jacob Markstrom evolves into quality starter
If there was one major issue plaguing the Canucks in recent years, it was the lack of consistent goaltending. Jacob Markstrom fixed that with a workhorse 2018-19 season that solidified him as Vancouver's starting netminder. The Swedish goaltender had his best NHL season to date, starting a career-high 60 games and posting a career-high 28 wins in the process.
The 6'6" netminder has slowly evolved into a reliable starting netminder who can give his team a chance at winning every night. He started with new goalie coach Ian Clark at the beginning of the season and never looked back. Known in the past for being inconsistent, Markstrom put it all together this year and became a rock in the Vancouver crease. He utilized his tremendous flexibility, great awareness and never-say-die attitude to steal games for the Canucks and keep them in the playoff race for the majority of the season.
Markstrom made a whopping 1,730 saves this season - only three goaltenders in the NHL stopped more rubber. The 26-year-old was among the NHL's elite this year and it should bode very well for his confidence moving forward. The Canucks have a very bright future in net with 23-year-old Thatcher Demko and 19-year-old Michael DiPietro, but Markstrom proved this season that he can be the goaltender of right now for Vancouver.
Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser solidify their roles
If we learned anything from Vancouver's 2018-19 season, it's that Bo Horvat is a leader. The 24-year-old took another step forward in his fifth career NHL season, recording a career-high 27 goals and 61 points.
The two-way center has showed tremendous poise both on and off the ice throughout his young career. His work ethic is contagious and it wears off on the players around him. He's a force at both ends of the ice and has never shied away from sticking up for himself or his teammates.
Not only did Horvat have his best offensive season to date, but he managed to do it while playing with various different linemates. Horvat was lethal on the power play, managing 18 points with the man advantage while also playing an important role on the penalty kill. Horvat ended up averaging over 20 minutes of ice time for the first time in his career and finished second in the entire Western Conference with 1,083 faceoff wins.
Horvat pretty much did it all for the Canucks this season - and it solidified him as a true leader in Vancouver.
Brock Boeser, meanwhile, had another terrific offensive season, managing 26 goals and a career-high 56 points in 69 games. He's become a very reliable scorer for the Canucks, kicking off his NHL career with back-to-back 50-plus point season. Boeser displayed immediate chemistry with Pettersson and was the perfect player to complement Pettersson's incredible creativity.
While Boeser has become known for his lethal sniping ability, he proved this season that he's a terrific playmaker. The 22-year-old dished out some terrific passes, including setting up Alex Edler for two overtime winners against the Flames and Leafs. Boeser has a very strong shot, but he's becoming dynamic in all offensive areas while continuing to improve his two-way game.
Horvat and Boeser are two critical pieces for the Canucks, and they both took important steps in their development this season.
Quinn Hughes shines in debut
Fans got a sneak peak of highly touted defensive project Quinn Hughes this season - and he didn't disappoint. The 19-year-old signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Canucks in March after finishing his second season in the NCAA with the University of Michigan.
Drafted seventh overall by the Canucks in the 2018 NHL Draft, Hughes is considered an elite skater who plays an exciting offensive style of hockey on the back-end. He dazzled in his debut against the Kings on March 28th, picking up his first NHL assist with a great rush to the net that left a juicy rebound for Brock Boeser. The sequence was an excellent display of Hughes' projected skill-set that includes fantastic speed and elite puck-carrying ability.
Video: LAK@VAN: Hughes earns first point on Boeser's goal
Hughes picked up an additional two assists in a game against Nashville and logged a whopping 21:42 of ice time in his fifth and final game of the year against the Blues. Getting in that NHL experience this season will be very critical for the young blueliner moving forward. We've seen it in the past with cases such as Boeser where a player gets brought up to the NHL immediately after finishing his college season, impresses his NHL team in limited action and goes on to have an excellent rookie campaign the following year.
Hughes will be looking to follow in the steps of Boeser, and considering he was named to Team USA's roster for the 2019 IIHF World Championships, his development is certainly on the right track.
Newcomers impress upon arrival
The 2018-19 season showed that players can come to Vancouver and thrive. Josh Leivo, Tanner Pearson and Luke Schenn were all acquired by the Canucks this season and they all made a great impact with their new team.
Leivo was acquired from the Maple Leafs in December and recorded a career-high 10 goals in 49 games with the Canucks, becoming a reliable depth scorer. When William Nylander signed his long-term extension, it was clear Leivo wasn't going to get much of an opportunity in Toronto with all the young offensive talent. The Canucks took a chance on the 25-year-old and it paid off nicely.
Schenn was acquired from Anaheim for Michael Del Zotto prior to the trade deadline and was able to find that physical and intimidating side of his game that once made him one of the top defensive prospects in hockey. Since being acquired by the Canucks in January, Schenn dished out a punishing 81 hits and led the entire league in hits-per-game during that time period.
Pearson, meanwhile, was acquired at the trade deadline from the Penguins and went on to score nine goals in 19 games with the Canucks. Having been only two years removed from a 24-goal season with the Kings, Pearson was able to re-discover that goal-scoring touch that helped him capture a Stanley Cup in 2014.
It bodes very well for the Canucks that players from other teams can be traded to Vancouver and succeed in their new environment. The success of Leivo, Schenn and Pearson sets a good precedent for future trade deadlines or the upcoming free agency period where players may be considering Vancouver as an option. Seeing players who were at a struggling points in their career turn things around in Vancouver speaks to the culture the Canucks are trying to develop.