VANCOUVER – The Columbus Blue Jackets made the National Hockey League playoffs on the second-to-last day of the regular season by beating the New York Rangers in a shootout.
Then they completed a four-game sweep of a Tampa Bay Lightning team which built the league’s first 62-win season since 1996 and was an overwhelming favourite not just to beat Columbus but win the Stanley Cup.
Within a week, the other three wild-card teams, the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Carolina Hurricanes, had all won their series, too. So half of the final eight teams in the Stanley Cup tournament “just made the playoffs.”
They shattered the theory that squeezing into the post-season is meaningless, even counter-productive, because the inevitable early exit against a superior team is poor compensation for undermining your draft position.
The Vancouver Canucks neither just made the playoffs nor just missed them. With 81 points, they finished nine points adrift of the Avalanche for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Nine points are a gulf.
And yet, eight points better than the previous year but with a lineup rebuilt around a new core of emerging stars led by rookie-of-the-year favourite Elias Pettersson, the Canucks are planning a trip to the playoffs next season.
Wishful thinking? Of course. But are they close? Can they really make the playoffs next season?
Forty-two of the Canucks’ 82 games this season were decided by one goal. Only the Detroit Red Wings played more one-goal games (43), but nobody lost more matchups by a single goal than Vancouver (25).
Top defenceman Alex Edler was injured twice for a total of 26 games. The Canucks were 7-14-5 without him. When Edler was healthy, Vancouver was 28-22-6 for a winning percentage that, applied to a full season, would have given the Canucks one more point than the Avalanche.
Of course, every team has injuries and the Canucks’ failure to cope without Edler exposed their lack of depth, another organizational weakness that must be addressed.
But are they close? Close enough to seriously try.
Even if general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green refused to mention the P-word at their year-end press conference, the Canucks believe they can get back to the playoffs in 2020 for the first time in five years.
If they’re successful, here’s how they’ll do it.
Pettersson is 20 years old and led the Canucks with 28 goals and 66 points in 71 games. Vancouver’s other ace centre, Bo Horvat, turned 24 on the last weekend of the season and set new career-highs with 27 goals and 61 points despite getting overplayed due to injuries. Winger Brock Boeser, last season’s Calder Trophy runner-up, is 22 and finished with 26 goals and 56 points in 69 games despite numerous challenges following serious injuries at the end of his rookie campaign.
In the five NHL games played after his college season at Michigan ended, 19-year-old defenceman Quinn Hughes drove possession, had three assists and looked every bit the elite prospect expected to challenge for the Calder next year. Defenceman Troy Stecher is 25, but had a breakthrough season in his third NHL campaign and was asked to play for Team Canada at the world championships.
All these key players, and especially Pettersson, Boeser and Hughes, are still ascending and should be better next season.
Somehow July 1 should land on Friday the 13th for the Canucks because it scares the crap out of everyone on the West Coast. Benning’s worst move as a general manager was signing Loui Eriksson in 2016 to a six-year, $36-million-US contract. By July 1, the winger will have been paid $27 million on his front-loaded deal, which seems a tad rich for the 32 goals Eriksson has provided in three seasons since then.
In 2017, Benning signed five unrestricted free agents. Although they caused more embarrassment than harm, the spending spree was epitomized by Sam Gagner being sent to the minors last October with two seasons left on his three-year, $9.45-million contract.
So a lot of people think Benning’s cellphone should be confiscated on June 30. But the Canucks have a pile of salary-cap space — $26.1 million according to CapFriendly’s projections, although half of that could be consumed by new contracts for Edler and Boeser – and they are close enough to the playoffs that one or two impactful additions could be the tipping point.
Benning has stated he’ll be shopping for a top-six forward and an experienced, reliable defenceman. He won’t land Artemi Panarin or Erik Karlsson, but could end up with, say, Jeff Skinner or Tyler Myers.
Whatever he can’t get in free agency, Benning will look for in trade. But despite having some surplus bodies in the bottom half of the lineup, the Canucks possess very few pieces of any value that management would consider expendable. This is why Jake Virtanen is frequently mentioned in trade conjecture. The former sixth-overall pick, still only 22, scored 15 goals last season and has the size, speed and power that teams covet. Of course, the Canucks like these traits, too, although they could get a solid, if flawed, player back for Virtanen.
Benning won’t trade any of his young core pieces, and other assets like veteran, injury-prone defenceman Chris Tanev and goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko aren’t at peak value.
IMPROVE THE POWER PLAY
Despite their overall improvement, the Canucks scored only one more goal this season than last: 219 vs. 218. But their power play production the season after the retirement of Daniel and Henrik Sedin actually declined by 10 goals, to 43. That is far more significant than it seems when you think about those league-high 25 one-goal losses.
Hughes is going to help the power play, which dropped to 22nd in the NHL (17.1 per cent success rate) from ninth (21. 4), and so should more experience and NHL practise for Pettersson and Boeser. And Tanner Pearson, acquired in February for Erik Gudbranson, had nine goals in 19 games for the Canucks and should provide better net-front presence. Ten more power-play goals could mean six or eight more points in the standings.
Yes, that four-letter word. The Canucks’ 319 man-games lost to injury this season were fifth-most in the NHL. They need to stay healthier – and that starts with Edler, who must be re-signed – to make the playoffs. Vancouver can’t afford regression from their excellent young players, and goalie Jacob Markstrom needs to build on his breakthrough season, too.
The Canucks definitely have the potential to make the playoffs next season. We’re not saying that they will. But not saying they won’t, either.