Usually, whiplash happens after the vehicle crash. In this case, the latest up-and-down road trip had fans buying neck braces well before game five. What is in the Vancouver Canucks future for the season? All signs point to… Uh…
Road to Nowhere?
It’s hard to draw many lessons from blowouts, won or lost. The only thing that can really be said about the Canucks getting spanked 9-2 by the Tampa Bay Lightning is the same said about the Washington Capitals‘ comeback in October: when Jacob Markstrom has a bad period, the Vancouver Canucks have a bad game. Heck, any time you give up a hat trick to Carter Verhaeghe you know it’s not going to be your day.
Closing the trip at the cursed (for Vancouver) environs of the MTS Centre gave Vancouver a 2-3 record.* Not great, but not a total disaster given they were outscored 22-14 over those five games.
It did, however, highlight some concerns regarding the Canucks’ future – at least in the short term.
Bread and Butter’s Off
A staple for the Canucks’ season is their extremely effective power-play. They still have an excellent 41 goals in 47 games, a pace far above last season’s total of 43. A newly-effective second unit, a healthy Alexander Edler, and quick-learning Quinn Hughes have pushed it to a top-six position. Would be much higher had they not gone 1-for-21 on this latest trip away from home.
Their lone goal came from (no surprise) Elias Pettersson against the Minnesota Wild. That game was a mess of penalties and random opportunities, so it was as much the result of statistical normalization as from good play.
On the Line
A Mongol Khan’s sons would regularly race their horses against each other. To ensure there was a winner – nobody told them about shootouts, apparently – they would run three races. Their herds were well-matched, so one brother asked a wise man for advice. Run your third-fastest horse against your brother’s best, he was told.
That would guarantee a loss! the brother objected.
Only once, said the wise man, and his fastest horse will be tired. Now you can run your fastest horse against his second-fastest, and your second against his third.
You can see where this is going, yeah?
In the ridiculously balanced Pacific division, the ability to match lines makes all the difference. And coach Travis Green loves Loves LOVES to match lines! What this means is specific players will be slotted into specific roles. Non-checking lines should get more opportunities against weaker opponents and hopefully take advantage.
Which is fine, right up until an injury or two takes out those checkers for an extended period. Or you’re on the road, making it tougher to line-match. Or your checkers get caved in so badly that your scoring lines can’t compensate.
Not a Horse Race
Or if it is, consider it one using aggregate time.
In theory, Vancouver’s checking line – when everyone’s healthy – is Tyler Motte – Jay Beagle – Tim Schaller. Unfortunately for them, in the 18 games they’ve been together the line has given up twice as many goals as they’ve scored. They control fewer than 40% of the attempts. They haven’t been all that effective at stopping the scorers they’ve been lined up against.
Where that really shows is in the last minute, where the line supposedly trusted against top-end opponents is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Bo Horvat – Tanner Pearson – Loui Eriksson (!) take that last shift and the empty net goals to go with it.
Green doesn’t trust a quarter of his forwards to do the job they were given. That ramps up the pressure on the rest of the team tremendously. Speaking of which…
Leivo Boson Alone!
General manager Jim Benning has acknowledged that the team needs another top-six forward. And that was before Josh Leivo was injured, possibly for the rest of the season. Leivo was doing well alongside Horvat and Pearson, but in nearly as many minutes Eriksson is performing just as well.
In other words, the “X-factor” wasn’t Leivo. It isn’t Eriksson either, for those who can complete implied premises. The challenge has been finding someone to match with Horvat and Pearson, and it’s a search that has been ongoing since the start of the year. Giving the captain a consistent scoring winger has been great for his numbers: imagine what he could do with two! Leivo and Eriksson are reasonably sound defensively, but the team is lacking scoring support.
It sounds odd to say, as the team is currently top-ten in scoring. But much of the damage Pearson and Horvat are doing is either on the power play or into an empty net. The Vancouver Canucks’ future lies in picking up more 5-on-5 offence.
The trade deadline is coming fast – February 24th – but most teams who want to change something for this season will act sooner.
After signing Jordie Benn to a two-year $4 million deal nobody expected him to be the odd-man-out. He started off a welcome addition, but his play slipped enough that Oscar Fantenberg claimed his spot. Fantenberg’s played 19 games to Benn’s 38, but the difference between them has been negligible at best. Benn has a touch more offence, and Fantenberg stays out of the box better, but otherwise?
Both the new additions were added on the assumption Chris Tanev would miss his usual 30-40 games. That it hasn’t happened yet is a happy surprise to everyone but Benn. But right now, neither Benn nor Fantenberg has played themselves onto the team, only off of it. One of them needs to grab the available spot.
Demko’s the Breaks
We all know Markstrom wants to play every game: all goalies do. But we also know he needs rest on occasion: all goalies do. But he is also the best chance Vancouver has of getting a win on any given night. And as stupidly close as the Pacific standings are every win matters.
So when does he get his break?
Odds are good that he plays the last two games (Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks) before the All-Star break. They are both division rivals, and Vancouver’s bye week follows, so he can get a break then. But not for long, as Markstrom is also playing in the shooting gallery that is the ASG.
If this happens, that leaves Thatcher Demko starting just one game in four weeks – assuming he gets either the St. Louis Blues or Sharks when the league starts up again. Sure, his numbers aren’t as good as Markstrom’s, but you shouldn’t expect that of a rookie. If Demko is going to be the anchor in net for the Vancouver Canucks’ future, he needs to play.
Demko needs to start; Markstrom needs to rest. Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini needs the playoffs. For the Canucks to do that, they need every point they can get their hands on.
How Green handles these conflicting drives is going to go a long way to deciding his – and Benning’s, and the Vancouver Canucks’ future.
*Think I’m kidding? The Canucks are 1-10-0 there since the Jets moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta, and the win was a shootout. They’ve scored a total of five goals in the last five years there. It’s cursed.