The Vancouver Canucks have slipped down the standings recently because of a four-game losing streak. Naturally, this has caused panic on local call-in shows because “joy” and “Vancouver Canucks Fan” are antonyms. But have the hopes of the Vancouver Canucks playoffs fallen as much as feared?
Let’s take a closer look at what’s actually been happening.
Good, Bad, and Ugly – Vancouver Canucks Playoffs
Despite the mood-swing-of-the-week, there is actually good news for what the Canucks have done this year. Most of the progress that’s been made is pretty obvious even to the most casual observers. There have been pleasant surprises to go with expected improvement – a thing every team has to have. Yes, you can plan for a certain amount of change, but realistically some things have to fall your way too. Any team in a sport that uses a draft system has to get lucky some times.
If you’re not trying to improve, then you won the Stanley Cup twenty minutes ago.
But not everything’s going to work. Most of the strangeness that’s gone on this season has been positive, fortunately. The more predictable pitfalls have come around at the worst time. A surprisingly healthy defence is countered by huge losses up front and in goal. Shadows from Free Agents Past have returned to haunt the team trying to compensate. Even signings done in the off-season for these specific events haven’t worked as expected or hoped.
Speaking of hope – including the Vancouver Canucks playoffs – let’s start there.
The Good News
These guys can score. Over the past four seasons, the Canucks finished the year with 191, 182, 218, and 225 goals. Given they are at 220 so far this year with 14 games to go, it’s a pretty good assumption they’ll crack last year’s high point.
Should Brock Boeser return as quickly as hoped, the Canucks could have six twenty-goal scorers. And that’s excluding Tyler Toffoli‘s contribution – though, with five in nine games, that’s tough to ignore. J.T. Miller is having a career year no one anticipated, scoring at over a point-per-game pace. Starting on the second line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson, he’s moved to the top line and hasn’t looked back since. Elias Pettersson is one goal away from matching his rookie totals from last year. And Shotgun Jake Virtanen has blown past previous highs.
Then there’s super-rookie Quinn Hughes. Hughes’ play has been nothing short of spectacular in his first year. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s become the front-runner in what was otherwise a two-player race for the Calder. With 52 points so far, he is leading a resurgence of scoring for the Canucks defence. He is, in fact, the first defenceman to score over 50 points in a season since Jyrki Lumme in 1995-96.
Behind him, Alexander Edler is four points away from his best offensive season in nine years. In three more games, Chris Tanev will have a career-high in games played. His next point will likewise be a career-high. Troy Stecher has been pushed down the lineup with the arrival of Tyler Myers, but he’s also registered five goals at even strength, a personal best.
Markstrom’s injury has exposed a funny little quirk the Vancouver Canucks have had this year. That being they get outshot and outshot a lot. By 130 total shots so far, in fact. So when your veteran goes down, it can play hob with expectations. On the plus side, the team has tightened up somewhat during that time. On the minus side, they’ve still lost five of the seven games Markstrom’s been out for.
Thatcher Demko has improved over the five games he’s been thrust into the spotlight, but it’s been a rough beginning for the sudden starter. Oddly for a team that signed a few goalies as free agents, the Canucks went outside the system for a backup. They acquired Louis Domingue at very little cost at the deadline, marking when many fans heard Markstrom was injured. The hopes of Vancouver Canucks playoffs aren’t on the shoulders of Demko and Domingue exclusively, but it’s a burden the team knew Markstrom could handle.
The injuries Vancouver has had have been big ones. Depth is still lacking on this team, though it’s been better than previous seasons. Micheal Ferland has had a brutal start to his new contract, out for the year with another concussion. His place was fortunately very capably filled by Miller, leaving a spot on the second line open. That was taken by Josh Leivo – for 38 games before he was injured for the remaining season. This has left Loui Eriksson to move up and complete the shutdown line with Horvat and Pearson. Fans are… not amused. This is despite a promising run in January that at least temporarily halted the anger.
As for play on the ice, mostly it’s down to depth. Still.
Despite spending to shore up the bottom-six and the addition of Myers as a prime free agent, it’s been hard to trust the Canucks’ depth players. Neither Jordie Benn nor Oscar Fantenberg has seized a full-time role, though they pushed aside (newly re-signed) Alex Biega. Myers hasn’t produced as hoped, though he’s pushed play reasonably well.
Up front, that lack of depth cost the Canucks when they went looking for a forward replacement after the losses of Leivo and Boeser. To convince the Los Angeles Kings to part with UFA Toffoli for a few months, Vancouver spent a high pick and a very good prospect. Part of that cost was having the Kings take Tim Schaller for budgetary reasons.
Toffoli has been great, but the loss of Schaller typifies another problem for the Canucks. Being pressed tight against the salary cap has severely limited the team’s flexibility in emergency circumstances. Before Eriksson’s forced promotion, Vancouver’s bottom-six cost over $18.5 million. A lot of that is still on the books for next year, and that’s not a great position for a team relying more and more on young players.
Part of The Ugly for this year is looking at the next one and wondering how improving young players will be able to fit in there. The odds of the cap increasing to $88 million next year is remote at best, with the possibility of the Players Association voting for a minimal increase to $84 million. Last time out, the NHLPA agreed to use their “inflator” option, but it was still quite a bit less than expected. That left several GMs scrambling with a sudden shortfall, so no one should be overly optimistic this time out. In an ideal world, the Canucks’ playoff hopes aren’t just for one year.
And, Of Course, The Weird
And about that whole “getting outshot” thing we mentioned earlier: it seems to be a primary tactic for the team. After 68 games, opponents have outshot the Canucks 32 times. In those games, Vancouver has won 21 times. Playing those same 68 games, the Canucks have outshot their opponents 35 times. In those games, Vancouver has won 13 times.
That’s fine if you’re only playing against the Carolina Hurricanes who shoot from everywhere at all times. It’s not so great if you want your team to win consistently, though. To say they’ve been leaning on Markstrom would be an understatement. On the other hand, it’s been working! Right up until health becomes an issue, which will always be a risk in the NHL.
It’s The End!
Not the end of hope for Vancouver Canucks playoffs. Vancouver’s outside the playoffs as of the start of March 10th, but they have games in hand on the teams ahead and behind them. This is a bit of a mixed blessing, as it means a condensed schedule for an injured team. On the other hand, it also means the team’s fate is in their hands.
There are five points separating six teams playing for three spots, so no real change there. If they make it this year, they’ll fulfill the owner’s hopes and beat our predictions. But even if they don’t, it’s still a pretty dang good run for a lot longer than the last four years.
The irony is whether the people in Lotus Land can relax enough to enjoy it.