Vancouver Canucks

Column: Canucks are better (and worse) than you think

09 Apr 2016; Vancouver Canucks forward Michael Zalewski (40) and forward Markus Granlund (60) and defenceman Ben Hutton (27) and forward Emerson Etem (26) and forward Jake Virtanen (18) and defenceman Alex Biega (55) and forward Brendan Gaunce (50) against the Edmonton Oilers during a game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver BC. (Photograph by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire)
Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire

There are some who would write the Vancouver Canucks obituary, before their season even begins.

And, entering Saturday night’s season opener against Calgary, there are a lot of questions surrounding this team — and few of them concerning ‘how good’ people think the team will be. Indeed, with most expert predictors placing the Canucks at-or-near the bottom of the NHL standings this year, you may think their futility is a foregone conclusion.

To be fair, you may be right. This is a team with far more questions than readily-available answers. Still, to suggest that they are categorically the worst team in the league from the onset of the season is unfair and symptomatic of prognosticator group-think.

In an effort to clear up some misconceptions, here are three reasons the Vancouver Canucks may well be much better than you think this year. And, to show both sides of the story, we’ve also included three reasons that they will, to paraphrase the great Dennis Green, be exactly who we think they are.

THEY’LL BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK BECAUSE…

1. They made positive roster additions

Say what you will about what ‘phase of a rebuild’ you reckon the Canucks should be in, no sane-minded hockey analyst would see the club’s signing of winger Loui Eriksson this offseason as anything but a positive. Long considered one of the league’s most underrated players, the 31-year-old Swede is coming off his best season since 2011 — a turn-back-the-clock 30-goal, 63-point year that almost propelled Boston into the playoffs.

14 September 2016: Team Europe goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) makes a save on a shot by Team Sweden forward Loui Eriksson (21) in the World Cup of Hockey Pre-Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. where Team Europe defeated Team Sweden, 6-2. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

14 September 2016: Team Europe goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) makes a save on a shot by Team Sweden forward Loui Eriksson (21) in the World Cup of Hockey Pre-Tournament. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

He looked really good on Sweden’s top line at the World Cup, too, with future Canucks linemates Daniel and Henrik Sedin, which means that the trio should start the year on better footing than most newly-acquainted linemates.

Beyond Eriksson, Erik Gudbranson should bring a surly edge to a blueline that has been far too easy to play against in the past few years.

While his underlying statistics aren’t great, Gudbranson is a well-liked presence in the locker-room, and his steadying, defense-first presence should allow for D partner Ben Hutton to blossom into the two-way stud that many Canucks fans foresee.

Beyond those two, Philip Larsen is expected to start the year on the first-unit power play, and if he fufils his offensive potential on the blue line, he will be a welcome addition. Veteran Jack Skille and rookie Brendan Gaunce are bruisers who will add size and forechecking ability to the club’s bottom-six, which will again be welcomed by a team that was far too soft down the stretch last year.

2. Their goaltending duo is pretty good

No one’s quite sure where the perception that the Canucks lack in the goaltending department comes from, because their duo in net is actually quite good.

At 36 years old, Ryan Miller certainly won’t be qualifying for student discounts at Disney World anytime soon but he had a pretty strong season in the crease for the Canucks last year, behind a beat-up and, at times, absolutely hideous defensive corps. His 0.916 save percentage was very respectable, and eclipsed his mark from 2014-15. He is no longer the Vezina candidate that he once was, but he is showing few signs of slowing down and there’s every reason to believe he can be reliable in the crease again this year.

Beyond Miller, Jacob Markstrom is the immediate-future of the club in goal, and he is finally rounding into the form expected of him in his years as a prospect in the Panthers organization. His 0.915 save percentage in 32 games last year served notice to Swedish brass, who named him as the backup to Henrik Lundqvist for their World Cup team.

At 6’6″, 196 pounds, he has always possessed above-average physical gifts and as he enters his prime years, it appears as though he is prepared to (finally) channel those into NHL success. With a three-year contract extension in his back pocket, the club will look for him to take the reins this year and become the transitional goalie for the club’s next half-decade.

3. The Sedins

There was a bit of a sea change in hockey media circles surrounding the Sedins last year and it seemed to start when Daniel net a fantastic hat-trick against the Blackhawks in November. Hockey media types, who have long derided the Twins for their perceived ‘softness’ or ‘lack of gumption’, started to come around to the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the dynamic duo.

01 March 2016; Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin (22) and center Henrik Sedin (33) celebrate Daniel's third period goal against the New York Islanders during a game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver BC. (Photograph by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire)

01 March 2016; Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin (22) and center Henrik Sedin (33) celebrate a goal. (Photograph by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire)

And for their part, the Twins continue to put up numbers, year-after-year. This season should be no exception.

With the addition of Eriksson, they appear to have a natural fit on their right wing, something they lacked for much of last year in a platoon system between the likes of Radim Vrbata, Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows.

That familiarity should allow their even strength and power play scoring numbers to rise, and if the team can get some sustained secondary scoring, the released-burden may free them up to get somewhere between 60-70 points yet again.

At 36, the Twins are still as dangerous, sly and, yes, tough, as they ever have been. Hypothesize their downfall at your own peril — these are special players who still have a few years of top-level hockey in the offing. And the league is much better for it.

THEY’LL BE AS BAD AS YOU THINK BECAUSE…

1. Beyond the top line, they have no idea who will score goals

This is Vancouver’s Achilles heel, and has been since the departure of Ryan Kesler and the downward-slide of Alex Burrows. With the exception of Radim Vrbata’s abnormal 31-goal year in 2014-15, they simply have not given the twins the kind of scoring support that will allow them to buck some of the heavy burden they’ve borne for the better part of a decade.

Loui Eriksson will certainly help, but beyond Loui, who can they count on? They are putting great faith in the likes of Bo Horvat, Jake Virtanen, Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund — a group of early 20-somethings who they hope can begin to alleviate that scoring burden as early as this year.

Horvat showed well in the latter half of last year, and so did Baertschi, but none of these four have cracked 20 goals in their careers. They will need to make significant offensive gains to reach that mark, and the burden of expectation (particularly on the defensive-minded Horvat and physically-gifted Virtanen) may be too much to bear.

Beyond the youth, Jannik Hansen had a career-high of 22 goals last year, but expecting that again is a fool’s errand. Brandon Sutter’s career-high is similar, and he will be used in a checking role, and the team can’t count on Burrows to be the offensive catalyst he once was.

Truth be told, the team desperately needed one of the three-or-four big forwards (Matthews, Laine, Puljujarvi, Dubois) who were available at the top end of this past draft. Brock Boeser waits in the wings, but is still a few years from making a significant impact. Considering the team has not drafted a 20-goal scorer since Michael Grabner in 2006 (and he achieved that mark with the Islanders), the talent gap, a decade on, is as telling as it has ever been.

2. They’re a smaller, slower team in a big, fast division

This is perhaps the most damning indictment of all. In a division that favors either overwhelming, behemoth-like size (Kings, Ducks, Sharks), or youthful exuberance and blazing speed (Oilers, Flames, Coyotes), the Canucks are a team that is absolutely stuck in the upside-down.

March 5, 2016: Canucks left wing Sven Baertschi gets off a shot (47) during the NHL game between the San Jose Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks at the SAP Center in San Jose, CA. (Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire)

March 5, 2016: Canucks left wing Sven Baertschi gets off a shot (47) during the game between the San Jose Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks. (Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire)

The acquisition of the likes of Gudbranson, Skille and Nikita Tryamkin does make them, on a cumulative average, a taller team, but up-front, their difference-makers aren’t particularly big.

The top line is of average size, offensive contributors like Baertschi, Granlund and Hansen are also smaller, and while Horvat and Sutter possess some size up front, they aren’t of the physical players.

Jake Virtanen could be a big difference-maker here, but on the back of an up-and-down preseason, his place on the roster isn’t secure.

Speed-wise, this is a team that also seems decidedly stuck in-between. Horvat and Hansen have wheels, but many of their contributors, including the top line, are of average-to-below-average skating ability. On the back end, Hutton is a smooth skater, but Chris Tanev relies on intelligent zone clearances to move the puck, and Alex Edler is… well, he’s Alex Edler.

In a division with guys like Johnny Gaudreau, Max Domi, and some guy named Connor McDavid, you have to wonder if the Canucks inability to commit to one dedicated roster archetype will leave them decidedly behind those Pacific division teams that have found a direction.

3. They can never dodge the injury bug

It’s a veritable West Coast rite of passage — every year, the Canucks are besieged by some set of injuries, usually occurring within the same window of one another, and usually befalling critical players.

Last year, the club was in the throes of the Western Conference playoff race in mid-February, when top-six center Brandon Sutter and top-pairing blueliner Alex Edler were felled in the same game in Colorado. Sutter ended up playing just 20 games in his first season with the club due to injuries, while Edler’s season ended at 52 games played.

Add to that the cumulative time missed by critical players like Dan Hamhuis (24 games) and Radim Vrbata (19 games), and you have a recipe for distress for a team that was already shallow in their roster depth. In fact, just three Canucks — Daniel Sedin, Bo Horvat, and much-maligned defenseman Matt Bartkowski — played 80 or more games for the club. The club was seventh in the league in cumulative man games lost, with 327.

This isn’t new to the Canucks, though — injuries are a part of life when you are one of the most well-traveled teams in the league. Living on the West Coast may have its advantages, but one of those advantages is certainly not the significant Eastern, Southern and Central-U.S. road swings the team undertakes at various points in the season.

All that time in the air can take a toll on ailing bodies, which is all-the-more exacerbated when you’re playing against burly, bruising teams like Los Angeles and Anaheim six times a year.

Injuries are a part of every team’s reality, but for a team as lacking in depth as Vancouver is, an injury to a critical player or two can be a death knell for playoff hopes.

And, as we have seen time and again with the Canucks, injuries come as easily to them as November rains to the streets of their city.

 

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