VANCOUVER – After an offseason of change, the Vancouver Canucks are counting on contributions from young players and new second-line center Brandon Sutter, but their return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs could hinge on how well three returning players fare in new roles.
Here are three X-factors that will impact whether the Canucks remain a playoff team:
Jacob Markstrom: The Canucks may not need Markstrom to carry them into the playoffs the way Eddie Lack did after goalie Ryan Miller was injured in late February, but they are counting on Markstrom to provide reliable relief.
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Markstrom earned the opportunity to do that – and perhaps more – with an exceptional season in the American Hockey League, finishing the regular season with a .934 save percentage before leading Utica to the Calder Cup Final. Once considered the world's best goalie prospect, critics will point to Markstrom's .896 in 50 career NHL games over five seasons, but most of those opportunities came in spot duty with the Florida Panthers and before style changes were made by the Canucks.
Miller, who has always been a passionate student of the position he plays, believes those adjustments will pay off for his 25-year-old backup.
"He's reigned himself in a little," Miller said. "He used to be aggressive and he's the kind of guy that doesn't need to be, size-wise. He's a big kid and proportionally he's got long legs, so he's trying to learn how to use that to his advantage. It takes a long time to figure it out, and sometimes if you are a little lanky, you tend to overextend, and sometimes he did that early in his career. He just needs to be big and relaxed and you see that coming."
The confidence is coming for Markstrom, who said he feels stronger physically and mentally this season.
"I definitely want to prove they made the right decision," he said. "I want to prove to myself and everyone that I can be a good goalie at this level."
Sven Baertschi, top-six forward: Though much of the focus has fallen on whether Sutter can fill the second-line center role handed to him by the Canucks after being acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins and signed to a five-year, $21.875 million contract extension, Vancouver is depending almost as heavily on Baertschi to hold water in its top six.
Counted out by the Calgary Flames three seasons after they drafted him with the 13th pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Baertschi is being counted on by the Canucks to help Sutter's move up to the second line. The two spent most of training camp together and seem destined to play alongside leading goal-scorer Radim Vrbata when the regular season starts against Baertschi's former team Oct. 7.
After sending a second-round pick in the 2015 draft to Calgary for Baertschi and signing him to a one-way contract, the Canucks need the 22-year-old to show the speed and skill that made him such a high pick.
"This is the most excited I have been since I got drafted," Baertschi said. "I want to be able to make a statement out there."
Will youth be served?: When general manager Jim Benning pledged to make room on the roster for any young players who earned a spot in training camp, most assumed it would be for Jake Virtanen. But another 19-year-old forward, Jared McCann, could force the Canucks to make a tough decision between an NHL job and a return to junior.
It may be hard to find a roster spot for either player.
Virtanen, chosen sixth in the 2014 draft, worked hard this summer to ensure he is ready physically for the League and could stick around early as an extra forward, either spotting in on the fourth line or possibly playing on the right side of the top two lines if Alexandre Burrows slides down for injured Chris Higgins on the left side of the third line.
McCann, who was taken 24th in the 2014 draft, was among the Canucks' best players midway through the preseason but has fewer options as a center. With Henrik Sedin, Sutter and Bo Horvat centering the top three lines, McCann's only chance likely is in place of Linden Vey on the fourth line between gritty wings Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust. Vey had 24 points in 75 regular-season games and was a healthy scratch in five of six playoff games.
Despite a slow start to the preseason, Vey and his one-way contract seem destined to stick, but don't be surprised if the Canucks also keep McCann around for at least nine games. If not, 21-year-old Brendan Gaunce, the 26th pick in the 2012 draft, could be the beneficiary.