The 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks are missing… something. Lessons should be learned from the past, right? Instead, they’re repeating last year: a surprisingly strong October, then a back-to-Earth November. Improved skill and depth has prevented a total crash, but it’s been closer than fans – or the players – want.
Dancing On The Edge
On the Road Again (and Again, and Again…)
They have surpassed the nine points they managed in 2018-19 by two and still have three games to go. They’re barely in a playoff position, which is a pleasant surprise, but keeping it is proving challenging.
November was always going to be the mettle-testing month, with 10 of 15 games on the road. It could be considered 11, with that one-game homestand. That they’re still at .500 with 12 wins and 12 losses speaks volumes for how well October went. There are still three games to go before they come home. They’ll need at least one more win out of the three to close the month with optimism.
Common wisdom is that if a team gets 20 wins on the road, they’re in the playoffs.* To reach that magic number the Canucks will need another 13 from the remaining 26 games. There are still two five-game trips coming up this season, and to break even on this six-game trip will give the team something to hang their hat on when the grind REALLY hits.
When it’s an AHL-esque fifth road game in eight days, looking back for proof you’ve survived before helps. Even if the trip does end in Winnipeg. In January. So, big surprise, the Canucks are missing that fabled home cooking (the pulled pork sandwiches are great at No. 5 Orange. Um, I’ve heard.)
Playing in the NHL is an earned privilege, don’t get me wrong, but it is also a grind. Speaking of which…
At a glance, there’s not much the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks are missing. As we’ve mentioned before, they went out and improved their depth last off-season. They know perfectly well that previous seasons have been derailed when an already thin team took just one or two injuries to the wrong players. Top-end guys getting damaged eliminated much-needed scoring, and the skill wasn’t there to replace them.
The same has happened this year – only the exact opposite.
There’s no hiding that November has been a hard month for the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks. Take away a ridiculously lucky game in Nashville and it looks even worse. The power play has kept them afloat, but as often as not the team has been outplayed at even strength. And more to the point, they’ve been getting outmuscled.
When a scorer loses time to injury, the first question is “Who’s going to replace him?” When it’s a grinder, the first question is often “Who?” But it’s not a coincidence that November has seen the Canucks without Tyler Motte, Micheal Ferland, and Antoine Roussel.
Sven Baertschi and Loui Eriksson aren’t exactly analogues for these guys. Adam Gaudette is getting some great returns, but he’s also getting power-play time. That’s not the guy you turn to when you need a mucker to work the corners.
Making the Team
There was some shock when Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin were sent to Utica at the beginning of the year. Goals were in short supply the previous season, so removing two of the more capable scorers seemed counterproductive.
But there’s also a reason the team signed Ferland, and it wasn’t for his scoring.
Putting a 40-point player on the fourth line sounds good in theory – spread the scoring, every line’s dangerous, etc. In practice, that player needs to get his opportunities or that 40 points doesn’t happen again. And frankly, that’s not what a fourth line is for.
There’s a lot of different ways to configure that fourth line: heavy hitters who wear the opposition down. Penalty killers who can lock down a lead. High-pursuit guys who may not be the best scorers but are good at getting the puck, or keeping opponents pinned in their own end. At worst, they are players that hopefully don’t get scored on while the stars rest a bit.
Sure, Motte isn’t going to get a lot of work on the top line – but picture Brock Boeser being used on the penalty kill. Some guys can do it all, and they’re called All-Stars. You have a team full of them, your biggest problem is giving them enough ice time to keep them happy. For the actual humans on the team, playing a role that lets the talent stay where they’re most useful is more likely to work out best.
Ice Packs and Train Tracks
Just being on the road can wear you down, too. Travel’s a bit easier in the East than the West, though it’s all easier than 20 or 30 years ago. But eventually everyone has to play everyone, and some games you know players wish they had a little less ice time.
The Canucks won against the Washington Capitals, but you can be damn sure they felt it the next day. Tired and sore isn’t the best time to go up against the Philadelphia Flyers, but that’s what playing Washington costs. Having some guys in the lineup who can give as good as they get is always welcome. Grinders have their place, even on a skill team. And right now that’s what the Vancouver Canucks are missing.
Because an 82-game season? It’s a grind.
(*Don’t ask the Colorado Avalanche about 2015-16, though. It was… things got weird at the end. We’ll leave it at that.)