VANCOUVER – An old, inky sportswriter once described the National Hockey League team he covered as the greatest drama going.
Think about it: the plot is a series of cliffhangers (games) involving an ever-changing cast of characters beloved and disparaged, good guys and bad guys who carry their audience to euphoric, thrilling highs or drag them to angry, discouraging lows. Often in the same week.
Sports became the original – and is still the best – reality television. Nowhere do these dramas engage and dominate their markets more than in Canadian NHL cities. Former coach Alain Vigneault aptly described coaching the Vancouver Canucks as like coaching the New York Yankees, but without the New York Mets, Knicks, Rangers, Jets and Giants to distract the audience.
The plots in these dramas literally never end. There is always something new, and something else coming around the corner. As the shows spike with the Stanley Cup Playoffs this week in Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto, here are five things we learned during the Canucks’ fourth straight season without them.
PETEY PANS OUT
Nothing sparks hope like a wispy wizard who arrives in the NHL as a teenager after an MVP season in the Swedish Hockey League and then still surpasses expectations. Elias Pettersson, who turned 20 in November after opening his NHL career with 10 goals in 10 games, really is the most exciting Canucks prospect since Pavel Bure, and like the Russian Rocket is going to win the Calder Trophy.
Even with a couple of injuries and a last-quarter slump when he struggled to adjust to the heightened intensity of the stretch drive along with increased attention and aggressiveness from opponents, Pettersson still led the Canucks as a rookie with 28 goals and 66 points in 71 games. Pettersson is a game-changer, a franchise-changer.
The paramount difference between his arrival in Vancouver and Bure’s 28 years earlier is that Bure joined a very good, young team with a solid roster built around Trevor Linden and Kirk McLean, while Pettersson is here soon after the Canucks’ nadir and will be the biggest piece of whatever this Vancouver team becomes. Two years ago, after the NHL Draft Lottery fulfilled its function as a fan spectacle by kicking the Canucks down two spots to fifth in the order, general manager Jim Benning believed he found the most talented player in the 2017 draft at No. 5. He also found a cornerstone at centre.
Had it occurred next fall instead of this spring, Quinn Hughes’ arrival in Vancouver would have generated the same levels of frenzied excitement and optimism as Pettersson’s did in October. The dynamic defenceman from the University of Michigan, who fell as if from heaven into the Canucks’ grateful arms with the seventh pick of the 2018 draft, played only the final five games of the regular season but was everything Vancouver hoped he would be.
The 19-year-old, who should have spent the whole season in the NHL but agreed with the Canucks last summer that he would return to Michigan for his sophomore year at college, collected three assists while averaging 18:04 of ice time. He was a one-man breakout, a marvellous skater able to control zone exits and entries and drive possession. And we’re not sure five minutes is worth the price of admission with what NHL tickets cost in Canada, but Hughes’ brief appearances in overtime with Pettersson and Boeser as three-on-three linemates were mesmerizing.
Boeser, last year’s Calder runner-up, finished his second season with 26 goals and 56 points in 69 games, impressive considering the serious back and wrist injuries that ended his rookie campaign and significantly set him back in training last summer. With centre Bo Horvat (27 goals and 61 points) and goalie Jacob Markstrom (28-23-9 and .912 save percentage) getting better again, the future of the team has become clearer with the arrival of Pettersson and Hughes. The foundation still needs another top defenceman and a winger or two, but the Canucks are getting closer.
PROBLEM IN THE PIPELINE
The most troubling part of the season for the Canucks organization was the Utica Comets. It wasn’t that Vancouver’s farm team, thinned by injuries in upstate New York and the NHL, struggled down the stretch and will miss the American Hockey League playoffs. It’s that it failed to generate much obvious development in a handful of supposedly talented prospect-forwards.
Petrus Palmu went home to Finland and Jonathan Dahlen, arguably the top prospect in Utica, grew so frustrated with his playing time under coach Trent Cull that he requested and was granted a trade. Second-round picks Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich each has only three goals in their first seasons of professional hockey, and talented Czech Lukas Jasek had just 24 points in 60 games after managing seven points in six games at the end of last season.
To be fair to Cull, there were some development successes. Zack MacEwen had 50 points in 66 games, Canucks centre Adam Gaudette benefitted from two brief spells in the AHL, defencemen Ashton Sautner and Guillaume Brisebois got extended looks in the NHL, and second-tier prospect Michael Carcone developed well enough for Vancouver to send him to Toronto in what turned out to be a good trade for Josh Leivo. But it’s impossible to overlook the lack of production from so many others, which is why Benning is starting an inquiry into what went wrong.
NOT A GOALIE GRAVEYARD
It says a lot about the impact of Markstrom’s season that the 29-year-old late bloomer was correctly voted by Canucks fans as the team’s Most Valuable Player ahead of Pettersson. Only four goalies in the NHL logged more ice time than Markstrom, whose save percentage of .920 after Dec. 1 was even more impressive when factoring in the shot quality he faced behind a spotty defence weakened by injuries.
Markstrom’s breakthrough made a couple of things clear. Thatcher Demko, promoted from the minors in January but restricted by injury to just nine mostly-impressive games (.913 save rate), may not have to be the goalie-of-the-future and when further developed could give the Canucks a valuable trade asset. And goaltending guru Ian Clark, who returned to the organization after seven years away and made an obvious impact on Markstrom, better get re-signed before his contract expires after next season.
You couldn’t get Benning or coach Travis Green to say it at their year-end press conference this week, but the Canucks’ goal next season is making the playoffs. The Canucks will be celebrating 50 years in the NHL, and it will be Benning’s sixth season in charge. Local owner Francesco Aquilini, who in his desire to be a populist thinks too much at times like the fans, has been accused of interfering in hockey operations. But he has stomached this rebuild as well as most owners could and given Benning the time necessary to construct a team. The GM is going into the final year of his contract and would like another extension. He may have to wait until the Aquilini family, which pushed out president of hockey operations Trevor Linden last summer, sees how the Canucks do next season.
The team improved by eight points this year when most observers predicted it would get worse. Benning and Green need to find another 10-15 points next season.