While the NHL and NHLPA close in on finalizing agreement(s), it frees up various fan bases to worry for themselves. On the plus side, they can finally – if briefly – ignore salary cap issues, and free agents, and the expansion draft. Their worries can be all about the games instead, and there’s plenty there to worry about. The Canucks have just about everything going into this Not-The-Playoffs. There are rookie stars, veterans proving themselves, veterans who are playoff rookies needing to prove themselves… Here are four of the Vancouver Canucks Play-In questions they hope will be answered in five games or less.
Canucks Play-In Questions
Can The Top-Six Keep It Up?
Over 49 games, the line of J.T. Miller – Elias Pettersson – Brock Boeser gave opponents nightmares. With 29 goals for and 15 against, the combination of Calder winner, Calder nominee, and reborn veteran has gelled perfectly. They have the fifth-highest expected goals differential – 57 percent – in the league for lines that have played 400-plus minutes. Even a so-called “down” season for Boeser sees him with 16 goals and 45 points in just 57 games. In fact, his injury contributed directly to the team getting UFA Tyler Toffoli to take his place.
And Toffoli did even better. With him on the top line, they had nine goals for and just three against. They only played 10 games together, but in those 10 games their expected goals hit 58.6 percent! It’s hard not to picture them sticking together for at least the start of their play-in series against the Minnesota Wild.
With Boeser losing his spot on the top line, he’ll have to make do with… Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson. That should be pretty okay, as those two have done well with whoever was thrown onto the right side. With Loui Eriksson, they had a 53.7 percent expected goal differential. With Josh Leivo, 52.8 percent. Even with Jake Virtanen, they had a 52 percent differential. Boeser is a step up in offence over any of those three. If all goes well, the Canucks’ top lines should be leaving the Wild coach as bald as the previous one.
What Can the Bottom-Six Contribute?
Injuries wreaked havoc on the Canucks’ bottom two lines, but they didn’t need much help. The signing of Micheal Ferland was supposed to strengthen the lineup, but he didn’t last long enough to find his place on the team. They were lucky that Adam Gaudette grew into a third-line role this season, though it leaves an awkward backlog at centre.
Two of their more effective bottom-six players – Leivo and Tim Schaller – are gone to injury and trade. A threesome of Gaudette – Antoine Roussel – Virtanen has played the most, and while their effectiveness was limited, there were some results. They had 47.6 percent expected goals, but scored nine and allowed seven. If your third line out-scores their opponents, what more can you ask?
And there is still an overflow of players available. A fourth line of Jay Beagle centring Brandon Sutter and Eriksson makes three veterans available for penalty killing and hard minutes, but it also leaves out the speed of Tyler Motte and brute force of newly-promoted Zack MacEwen. Gaudette is really the only one that can be expected to contribute offensively. If the top two lines are stopped, can the rest produce enough to be the difference in this series?
Who Steps Up on Defence?
For years, Alexander Edler has been the Vancouver Canucks’ anchor. While he never quite hit the top echelon of defenders in the league, the often-underrated Swede has averaged over 24 minutes per game over the last five years. This season is his first in a decade where he finally dropped below 23 minutes. Unfortunately, he’s never really driven the offence as hoped. This year, he didn’t have to.
Everything about Quinn Hughes has delighted Canucks fans: his skating, his passes, his patience, his surprising shot. His 53 points as a rookie has blown away team records. But even so, his most frequent pairing with Chris Tanev has only produced a 49.1 percent expected shot differential. It’s close, but even the Canucks’ top defender isn’t getting to even, with one exception. When paired with Tyler Myers, that expected goals differential jumps to 57.5 percent. Which is great, but the only other pair that gets over 50 percent is Edler-Myers. So who is the starting pair?
Coach Travis Green is going to have to decide which approach to go with: is he going to use his defensive pairings to prevent goals, or score them? For Minnesota to win, they’ll need scoring from across the lineup, making it hard to predict which lines are dangerous. Jordie Benn and Troy Stecher are reasonable as a third pair on the attack, though Oscar Fantenberg and Stecher are a bit better at preventing goals.
A Rookie in Goal
There are a few teams that have questions in net, but Vancouver isn’t one of them. Jacob Markstrom is going to be the starter for the Canucks play-in, period. But as odd as it sounds for a 10-year veteran, he’s never been in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s the Canucks’ MVP, but is also as much of a question mark as any other first-time entrant. Given the hardship he’s had this year, his roller-coaster career, and his age, he should be fine. Should.
The very capable Thatcher Demko is backing him up, but without an actual injury to Markstrom, it’s unlikely he’ll see any play against the Wild. The Canucks hope.
And the real, bonus question of the Minnesota-Canucks play-in series:
Will shotgun Jake get two goals?
Asking for a friend. Who owns a brewery. Really, they need to prepare for this sort of thing.