Whatever happens, stop asking if “Can the Vancouver Canucks make the playoffs this season?” Because that’s kind of irrelevant.
Vancouver Canucks Playoffs? We’re Talking Playoffs?
Okay, look. We know that the Vancouver Canucks went on a 7-3 tear right before the weekend. That’s great for them. That they’re only two points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the last playoff spot is pretty astounding, given how February went. That would be 2-9-2 for the folks keeping score at home. But as good as this March has been (7-2) it’s also worth remembering that two of those wins were in the skills competition and one was in overtime. It’s hard to consider that sustainable. And this season? The statistics are going to be built of weirdness and outliers.
Reasons for Optimism
Thatcher Demko is playing brilliantly and will come back to Earth, which again, is fine. Him going from God-Level to merely Extremely Good is going to be part of the season, we all know this. The re-emergence of Brock Boeser‘s shot is wonderful to watch, but his growth as a complete player should be of bigger interest to fans. His shot success great is bordering on a ludicrous 20%, and that’s going to come back to Earth, too. However, his vastly improved defensive play and improved control are going to stick around. Bo Horvat continues to do Bo Horvat things, only more so.
Even the fact that they tightened their play considerably when Elias Pettersson went down to injury is a good sign. No one who watches the game wants Pettersson’s absence, but he should come back to a better team. Quinn Hughes has been struggling with his defence a bit this year, but that’s not really a surprise, either. Lots of new players came in and a bit of regression from his Calder-nominated season was expected. His offence slowed, and his defence picked up as the year progressed. Don’t be scared by that – if he’s going to continue getting 22+ minutes, he’ll have to have a well-rounded game.
If the Vancouver Canucks playoffs are to be a reality, it will be primarily on the backs of these few players.
Reasons for Pessimism
Canucks fans can normally fill this part out themselves, but just in case you’re new here we’ll go over a few things.
The most blatant reason for pessimism is on the ice: Demko has started 22 of 33 games because his backup is Braden Holtby. And, unfortunately, Holtby hasn’t been up to snuff just yet. He got as many games as he did early because of the team’s compressed schedule and has a .893 save percentage. This isn’t a team that can survive an average goaltender, never mind one who is 51st in the league among goalies with more than five starts. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs’ much-maligned Michael Hutchinson has a .922 save percentage in his six starts.
Another thing to deal with is math. Addition, subtraction, and salary caps make any changes on the fly a challenge. The only reason the team could put Loui Eriksson on the ice was on emergency recall. Sven Baertschi is in the minors – still – despite having NHL-level scoring ability because it saves the team around $1 million in cap space. Without Michael Ferland’s concussion issues returning with a vengeance, the team would look vastly different. Even if the perfect addition comes available through trades, how could the Canucks add them? By all accounts, the big stumbling block in moving Jake Virtanen was cap room, despite willingness by all involved.
Again, if the Vancouver Canucks playoffs are to be realized in 2021, it will be despite these difficulties.
Good? Bad? Why Not Both?
“But the White-Collars,” we hear you say, “what about the White-Collars?” First, this ain’t Rocky Horror so stop shouting at the screen. Second, yeah, this part can go either way. As much as general manager Jim Benning has been raked over the coals for saying the team would compete in a couple of years, he’s correct. Whether they SHOULD be competitive nine years after he was hired is another question. The good news is that over the past couple of years Benning has changed tack. When he was brought on board, it was with the promise that the Canucks would not just be back in the playoffs quickly, but would be competing for the Stanley Cup they lost in 2010-11.
That changed most visibly at the end of his third year when he moved out veterans for prospects. There have been complaints about how he hasn’t taken advantage of the early – read: affordable – contracts of Demko, Pettersson and Hughes. The counterargument can be that you really shouldn’t build a plan around drafting superstars who reach their potential almost instantly. But he does have corrections to make, mostly with his free-agent signings. For now, at least, Benning’s acquisition of Jimmy Vesey off of waivers shows he’s paying attention. Getting a no-risk forward who couldn’t break into a stacked Toronto Maple Leafs team worked last time, after all. This brings us to the other Wild Card in a year when the deck’s all jokers.
Somebody’s Always Watching
Francisco Aquilini has been more visible this season, for better or worse. He’s been active on Twitter more than ever – but only after victories. It’s fairly easy to interpret some of Benning’s moves as ones pushing the team to make the playoffs. The cost to bring in Tyler Toffoli last year is a perfect example of moving out future parts for help now. Getting physical veterans like Jay Beagle or Antoine Roussel is typically a move for teams getting ready to compete, not grow.
If the deals were made because of pressure from Aquilini rather than Benning, it could spell trouble. Being outside the boardroom makes it impossible to know, but we can guess. And it looks to us like Benning had orders to reach the playoffs sooner rather than later. In short, Aquilini is going to be involved in whatever steps the Vancouver Canucks take next. This could be by pressuring Benning to make the playoffs, giving him more leash to build to his stated two-year goal, or even firing him outright.
The objective should be to build a team that competes in more than one season. Fans want to have the Canucks make the playoffs consistently, not just once. Their moves between now and April 14th will show where the team is focused.
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