The Vancouver Canucks aren’t really this bad. No, really. Granted, they aren’t good, but we kinda knew that going into the season. The 2019-20 Stanley Cup playoff run was fun and all, but most observers placed them at “fighting for a playoff spot” rather than “equal to the Vegas Golden Knights” at the start of this season. But a mediocre January and an awful February have made a playoff spot a distant hope rather than a possibility. Can they challenge for a playoff spot in the North division? And after stumbling through February, what are the Vancouver Canucks goals now?
Two Months Gone, Two To Go
One of the problems with the 2020-21 season is that the NHL isn’t one league: it’s four. The Canucks lost four teams they were arguably better than in exchange for two they were worse than. Being even a little bit worse than a team you face eight times means it’s very easy to get six losses against them. Just ask the Chicago Black Hawks or Detroit Red Wings during the Original Six era.
Best Laid Plans
Kicking off the 2020-21 season there were some expectations that were unexceptional. It was reasonable to think that Adam Gaudette would continue to produce, for instance. Even adding some focus to defence wouldn’t totally obliterate his scoring, surely.
A decision was made with Jake Virtanen – a fan favourite to many – for one more chance after a breakout year. Yes, some regression is inevitable, but he was also given the best chance to succeed he has ever had. Who wouldn’t take a chance to skate with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser seriously? Or failing that, alongside Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat?
At the end of February, Gaudette was stuck at two goals in 21 games. As for Virtanen, he managed a single goal mid-January, and that’s it for his offence. He’s been a little unlucky, but even that is hard to say after seeing how his goal went in… Again, a team can handle some regression, especially in players whose roles change from one season to the next. This, on the other hand, is expecting a puddle and finding a lake.
It’s not all their fault, of course. But the expectations on both these players is at least partially why neither Tyler Toffoli nor Josh Leivo was offered a deal. And on a thin team, gambles that don’t pay off can come back to bite.
Gang Aft Agley
Some blame for the slow start can rest with the defence and goaltending, but again those shouldn’t be a surprise. Thatcher Demko wasn’t going to be the same player who set the playoff bubble on fire – no one could be. Not over a season, anyway, even a shortened one.
And Braden Holtby is a solid veteran, but he wasn’t filling Jacob Markstrom‘s skates. That isn’t his job. Backing up Demko as he claims his starting position is his job, and he’s been a bit below average. Not disastrous, but again on a team that is skating close to the edge, that is enough of a difference.
A large part of the Canucks’ goaltending woes can be laid at the feet of the defence – and even there, it’s understandable. On any given night, half the defence is in their first year with the club. Nate Schmidt and Travis Hamonic were the big arrivals, but the team’s also working in rookies Olli Juolevi and Jalen Chatfield.
There are going to be bumps along the way with that many new faces. One thing few predicted was Quinn Hughes‘ defensive game sliding back. He clearly misses Chris Tanev, but the hope was Hamonic – a player with a near-identical profile – could step in. Unfortunately between Hamonic’s injuries and some regression from a Calder-worthy rookie season, Hughes has had a bit of a rough sophomore year.
Not Quite Dead!
Amongst the doom and gloom, there are reasons for optimism. Well, maybe that’s getting carried away. Hope, in any case.
Demko, for instance, has definitely claimed his starter’s role, getting his first career shutout to open March. With the more relaxed schedule, he should get the lion’s share of starts over Holtby. His game has improved as the year has gone on, and extra practice sessions with the defence can’t hurt. One of the Vancouver Canucks goals was buying him time to settle in, and that, at least, is accomplished.
Speaking of which, Schmidt hasn’t been racking up the points as he had in Vegas, but that’s been showing signs of life since mid-February. As expected, he’s formed a comfortable pair with veteran Alexander Edler. While Hamonic hasn’t been the perfect fit with Hughes, Jordie Benn has filled that niche admirably. Hamonic may still be a better overall fit, but after being a frequent healthy scratch last year it’s a nice return to form for Benn. And the safe, cerebral Juolevi has found a surprisingly good fit with his polar opposite in Tyler Myers.
Chapter IV: A New Hope
It is harder to find positive stories in the forward corps, but not impossible. For the fourth year in a row, the Canucks could have a player in the Calder race with Nils Hoglander. He won’t be winning it without massive improvement from the Canucks and the vanishing of Minnesota, but Hoglander has made his transition to North America seamless. He’s fit in perfectly beside Horvat and Pearson, perhaps finally settling the captain’s right side as well as Pearson did the left.
J.T. Miller has righted himself from whatever winds were throwing him off-course at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, that means he had a rocky start to the season, with frequent on-ice outbursts. Frustration has clearly got the better of him far too often.
While starting on the COVID list obviously didn’t help, sky-high expectations after a career year cranked up the pressure. As the team has played better – despite mostly similar results – he seems to have regained his focus. If that is his low point with Vancouver, it bodes well for the rest of his time here.
And all that being said, the Vancouver Canucks goals for is still very strong, even as their power-play sputters. If they can get close to last season’s numbers, that will go a long way to improving their chances.
Steady! Aim! And…
With a season almost certainly lost, where do the Canucks go? They absolutely should NOT be looking at making the playoffs this year, that much is certain. If they do manage to tear off 10 wins in March’s 14 games, great!
They get back in the race, and that could save Travis Green‘s and Jim Benning‘s careers.* But even if that happens, the best possible result is that other teams will become interested in some of the veterans. Then move them along, even if it means disrupting a winning streak.
Making the playoffs in this bizarre year might encourage some ticket sales for next year. You know, whenever fans can start attending games again. But that’s all it will accomplish, and even that will be tempered by the memory of this pratfall of a start. The Vancouver Canucks goals have to be higher than a boost in ticket sales, or even that modest goal will fail.