Canucks Having Surprise Start to Season, But According to the Map They’ve Only Gone Four Inches

By now you’ve thought this too: “How the heck are the Canucks pulling this off?” It’s still supposed to be a rebuilding year and it is but the expectation was that this team would again be challenging for the last place in the league and the chance to draft Quinn Hughes’ younger brother, Jack Hughes first overall.

The preseason pretty much confirmed that thought after Vancouver went 1-6 in exhibition play. It was tough to gauge if this was going to be the team we would see in the regular season and for the final few games, it was. Concussions claimed goalie prospect Thatcher Demko and Antoine Roussel. There wasn’t much to be excited about. We were about to see the same team we saw last year minus eventual Hall of Famer’s Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the folk hero Thomas Vanek who signed with the Red Wings, and fan-favourite Jayson Megna.

Sure, Elias Pettersson would join the Canucks and his Young Stars Tournament performance may have set the table for what was about to occur but after that, it was a pretty basic September.

The Canucks had no wins, no one was fighting for jobs, and their Brock Boeser’s goal totals were falling off.

I have followed the stats like many of you have and it isn’t quite adding up. This year’s Canucks are kind of like Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber. Down and out and then accidentally find a briefcase full of cash that they need to return to its owner.

Instead of returning the briefcase right away, Vancouver spends a bit of the money and filled the briefcase with IOU’s. Let’s take a look at what got the Canucks to this point: a 9-6 record in October. Oh, and Elias Pettersson, the Lamborghini, $925 thou, they’ll want to hold onto that one.

The Expectation – Why you going to the airport, flying somewhere? 

With Quinn Hughes going back to Michigan for another season of college, the Canucks defense was going to be exactly the same as it was a season ago. So much the same that Jim Benning double-down on Erik Gudbranson to a three-year contract. Gudbranson hasn’t been a shining star for the Canucks, he hasn’t been even been top-four defenseman but here we are with another three years of disappointment.

He ranks 323 out of 372 defensemen in CF% since the start of the 2015/16 with a 45.95 rating, at 5v5 having played at least 50 minutes. From there, Alex Edler was the returning #1 guy on the back end for the Canucks, a player that hasn’t played a full season since the 2011/12 campaign. In fact, that was Edler’s only wholly healthy year.

Michael Del Zotto and Sam Gagner were liabilities for different reasons: MDZ might have been the hitz king but he did take the most penalties on the Canucks a season ago and also was tied for the most giveaways on the team. As a defenseman, it could be assumed the chance to create giveaways increases trying to clear the puck out of the defensive zone.

Sam Gagner had an impressive season with Columbus before signing a three-year deal in Vancouver but he wasn’t able to transition that to the Canucks lineup. He’ll never be given full-time PP1 opportunities and 5v5 he doesn’t factor as a fourth-line pivot. When the Canucks sent him to the minors on loan to the Toronto Marlies, his fate was sealed: he would never play for the Canucks again. That has yet to be confirmed.

Looking at the sophomore season for Brock Boeser, the expectation was that he would hopefully continue his scoring ways before his season ended to injury and after Boeser’s Da Beauty League performance, it looked like his wrist was once again 100% and he would dominate the NHL scoring race. Hitting the 29 goal mark last year, Boeser sure had the feel of a guy that could challenge the elite NHLers with his lethal shot.

And then there’s Elias Pettersson. He was the odds-on favourite to win the Calder trophy this season for Rookie of The Year. His otherworldly talent might even make the Canucks a better team overall. Having only played seven games as a centre in Sweden, the Canucks were confident he could be their 1C. Sounds easy, right?

All in all, there was a few bright spots but the reality of it all was that this team would again be fighting for the bottom.

The Surprising Start – Oh look, Frost!

The whole “Pettersson” thing has worked out pretty well so far. The small things are actually what has made him more impressive than the goals themselves. His dekes, his strength despite his weight, OK and his incredible knack for scoring has made the Canucks one of the surprising teams to watch so far this year.

Add to that, Jake Virtanen looks like he’s finally arrived as the Canucks main power forward and the #shotgunjake movement has taken on a life of its’ own.

Hey, I have the same counters! Jake has already scored five goals this year and he might end up being as big a story as Petterss… I take that back. Virtanen is using his frame to make a difference and his confidence as he drives the net will only pay more dividends as the season continues. His five tallies are good for third on the Canucks behind Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat. The project player is a project no more.

I’d include Loui Eriksson but his “little things” that have been chronicled elsewhere are not worthy of this post. The scattered contributions on their own are impressive in their own way but as a whole, they’ve formed a foundation for fighting chance.

Injuries Should Have Sunken Them – What if he shot me in the face?

It feels like a neverending story as injury after injury mounts and the Canucks thin out the Utica Comets one by one. First, it was Jay Beagle with a broken wrist after blocking a shot, then Sven Baertschi received a concussion, Alex Edler with the sprained MCL, Chris Tanev with the hip injury, Anders Nilsson broke his finger, and finally, Brandon Sutter suffered a separated shoulder.

Injuries have definitely taken their toll on the Canucks but like so many seasons prior, injuries create opportunity and everyone has made the most of their time in their new roles.

Adam Gaudette hasn’t been a world-burner but he’s seeing some significant minutes with Markus Granlund and Jake Virtanen. The decimation on the back end has forced Travis Green to make Ben Hutton and Erik Gudbranson the top pairing and they haven’t disappointed, well not entirely. It probably will crash and burn at some point for the same reasons Kevin Bieksa was used as a top pairing guy when all the responsible defensemen were out.

All I’m saying is that maybe Troy Stecher and Derrick Pouliot should be given higher billing… well maybe not Pouliot. The turnovers have kinda been a bummer.

Imagine the Canucks scoring fewer goals with no Sven Baertchi or Alex Edler in the lineup and then realizing that it couldn’t be further from the truth.

With every injury, the Canucks have bonded closer as a defensive unit and their takeaways currently rank fourth overall. They’re getting contributions from Jake Virtanen and Troy Stecher as the top thieves on the team and future Selke winner Elias Pettersson is showing everyone a 200-foot game pays dividends with his eight takeaways.

So injuries haven’t sunken the Canucks, that doesn’t explain why they’ve been so good though, either.

The Whole Scoring First Thing – We landed on the moon!

Almost half of the Canucks wins have come when leading after the first period (4) and half of their losses have come when trailing after the first period (3). The first goal doesn’t seem to matter either, they have four wins when they score first and five wins when their opponents score first. It looks like the Canucks haven’t read the news that scoring first is essential. Kinda like the moon landing thing.

The Goaltending isn’t Losing Games – I’m going to hang by the bar, put out the vibe.

The preseason was awful for every single goaltender in Vancouver. New/former goalie coach Ian Clark was tasked with reworking Markstrom and Nilsson’s habits and everything we saw suggested Thatcher Demko needed to be ready ASAP. But then, Demko went down with a concussion and even though he’s still out, goaltending doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Neither Markstrom or Nilsson is amongst the league leaders in GAA or SA%, their advanced stats aren’t screaming Jennings winners either; what has occurred is that both goalies have adjusted and are more square to the puck. They’re taking fewer chances as well and with the group defense mentality, each and every game isn’t being hung on the goaltending tandem. It’s a nice change.

But is that the reason this team has a fighting chance this season?

The Pettersson Effect – So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

He has the rookie race all but locked up and it’s only November. He’s already impressed the Sedins to the point they’re charging him for using the plays that really only they were good at, and his size doesn’t seem to be an issue. Oh, and pretty much everyone in the NHL has been put on notice that Elias Pettersson is coming for them.

Brock Boeser had the shot and could diffuse any goaltender. That’s all fine and dandy but what Pettersson has done is beyond explainable. The Canucks were supposed to be dismal again this season and Pettersson may have single-handedly changed the course of direction for this team’s future. Everyone thought the Canucks needed Quinn Hughes this year when in fact, adding him isn’t necessary quite yet.

Check the tweets:

Pettersson has played six fewer games than his teammates and he leads them by four points. Sure, the five-point game against Colorado helped a bit. He’s everything the Canucks have wanted and more and by the time it’s all said and done, his trophy case could be a walk in closet.

If I put all of Pettersson’s best plays so far into this post, it would be an eight-part series. He’s a game-changer and the Canucks may finally have their “IT” guy. He’s no Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, or Auston Matthews but honestly, that’s just fine.

The Canucks are surprising the NHL and their own fanbase and they might just make a season out of this. It’s only a month in but some trends are being set that suggest the bottom of the league won’t be where they finish in April. Playoffs? Probably not. Back to relevancy? Absolutely. Pettersson has been the biggest visible reason the Canucks are out ahead this season but it’s the sum of the parts that are getting the job done.

Jim Benning has been questioned for many of his moves and even his drafting early on but once we saw how those picks started to materialize, the pitchforks were lowered a bit.

No doubt, I’ve left out a few things but the main point is that this season won’t be a write-off.

It doesn’t make much sense but all I can really say is “Big Gulps, Huh? Alright! Well, see ya later.”

 

Photo – Vancouver Sun

 

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