The Most Valuable Vancouver Canuck
There are a few different ways to look at who drives a team and what value they provide. Last season, J.T. Miller was a revelation. Originally pencilled in on the second line, he forced his way up beside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser early and became the team’s top scorer. The leadership of newly-named captain Bo Horvat was there all year but highlighted in the playoffs. Alexander Edler‘s constant presence – leading the team in ice time again – gave the young team a steady anchor.
But we’re going to look farther into the future than any of those three, among whom even the 25-year old Horvat is a grizzled veteran. There are three players who can reshape the entire team, and with them the future. All of them are a vital part of the team, but one more so than the other two. Excluding unproven draft picks, the nominees are:
Thatcher Demko is undoubtedly the most heavily scrutinized player on the Canucks this upcoming season. And he has quite the act to follow, too. Markstrom was regularly under fire, facing down over 1,400 shots in just 43 games last year. He continued to be the saviour, stopping 11.4 more goals from happening than expected, 11th best in the league. People who watched the team know how it went, but if casual viewers saw them in the playoffs, it was an accurate synopsis.
The Canucks were a fun team to watch and could score, but also a frequent disaster in their own end. There was a lot of hand-wringing about this being Markstrom’s free-agent season, and for good reason. The rookie backup was… okay. But a save percentage of .905 wasn’t going to do it for a team that plays like Vancouver does.
When Markstrom was injured and the net given to Demko, everything changed.
Demko started just three games in the playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights. In 178 minutes he allowed two goals on 125 shots, which tells you how well his teammates were defending him. Obviously, he’s not going to continue at that pace during the 2020-21 season. Especially in what will likely be the highest-scoring division in the league. But he has shown that he is more than capable of handling an extremely heavy workload. Over three games, at least. But even if he plays up to expectations, the other nominees here are better picks for Most Valuable Vancouver Canuck.
Speaking of revelations, Miller’s “too-small” linemate continued his all-highlights, all-the-time play. He only matched his Calder-winning season in points but took on more responsibility as an offensive driver. In three fewer games, Pettersson had 18 more shots and 62 more shot attempts. He even threw 20 more hits, if you can believe that. Sure, he added 10 pounds in the off-season between 2018-19 and 2019-20, but that still only got him up to 176 pounds.
Pettersson’s boxcar numbers have remained consistent between his first two years, but the so-called “eye test” shows a player running the offence more, attacking the puck more, and starting to direct his teammates more. The underlying numbers are there, too: his Corsi increased by almost four percent to 55.2 percent and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Coach Travis Green started him in the defensive zone more frequently as well.
Even more telling, it didn’t matter who was on the line with Pettersson and Miller: Boeser, the departed Tyler Toffoli, or even Jake Virtanen all had a 57 percent or higher expected goals when on the top line. Which brings us back to Miller.
It’s difficult to separate Pettersson’s numbers from Miller’s presence beside him. When Pettersson was on the ice, Miller was beside him 90 percent of the time. And one number that plummeted was faceoff attempts – Pettersson went from over 700 in 2018-19 to about 140 in 2019-20. Miller’s skyrocketed accordingly, taking that responsibility from the sophomore. His high-pursuit game was a huge departure from sharing a line with either Nikolay Goldobin or Josh Leivo.
In the 2018-19 season, only one defensive pairing who was together more than 60 minutes for the Canucks had an expected goals for above 50 percent. That pair was Michael Del Zotto and Troy Stecher. Behind them was Derrick Pouliot and Alex Biega. You’ll note none of those players are with the 2020-21 team. Last season the top pair was rookie Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers, two entirely new arrivals. The third highest-ranking pair was Hughes with his more typical partner Chris Tanev.
So what else did Hughes do to get nominated for the Most Valuable Vancouver Canuck? Well, the power play went from 17.13 percent to 24.15 percent so that’s something. Hughes got 25 of his 53 points on the power play, 16 more than either Edler or Myers. It had been five years since any Canuck scored 25 power-play points. The previous single-season record for power-play points by a defenceman – in 50 years – was 17.
Now, Hughes is going to have stiff competition for the best defenceman in the league, should he reach those heights. He lost the Calder trophy to Cale Makar, and Miro Heiskanen has more than proven his worth for the Dallas Stars. He’s not going to be the second coming of Bobby Orr. But he is something that the Vancouver Canucks have never had before: a bonafide, All-Star defenceman.
Here’s Why it’s Hughes
The Canucks have had great players before. Arguably the title of Best Canucks Ever is between Roberto Luongo and Pavel Bure. Markus Naslund was briefly one of the best players in the league. Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin literally changed how forwards scored and gave opposing coaches migraines for years. In the years to come, Pettersson is going to be a lynchpin for the team up front and, hopefully, Demko will continue the Canucks’ streak of standout goaltenders. But neither one is going to transform how the Canucks play. The team may not want to replace either of them, but – in theory, at least – they can.
Obviously, if all three continue anything like their current trajectories, they’ll affect the team. Defensive coverage will be adjusted to Demko’s strengths. Pettersson will run plays in the opposing zone. But neither one of them is going to have a line in the playbook that reads “Let him do stuff” like Hughes will. Carrying the puck out? Entering the zone? Waiting for a chance on the power-play? That can just go to Hughes and he can be trusted to take it from there.
In every part of the game, right now and in the future, the most important Vancouver Canuck is Quinn Hughes.