VANCOUVER – For all of its improvements and ballooning billions in revenue, the National Hockey League still looks occasionally more bush league than major league. Such was the case when the league sanctioned a pre-season game this week in Salt Lake City in which the goalposts wouldn’t stay anchored, the ends of the rink were dark and there was no official stats crew assigned to properly catalogue the game.
Unfortunately for the Vancouver Canucks, word still leaked out that they lost 4-1 to the Los Angeles Kings, who were the "home" team on Monday.
Brock Boeser had to go from memory when he was asked if he had any shots on net for the Canucks that night.
"At least a couple," the Calder Trophy runnerup said. "I had that one-timer on the power play, and (Jonathan) Quick made that save on me at the back post. I think I missed (the net) on a couple of others."
Ordinarily, we wouldn’t care about how many shots Boeser had in Utah except in the three other pre-season games he has played, the winger had nine shots on goal and 29 attempted shots. He has scored on zero of them.
Last season, as a 20-year-old rookie from the University of North Dakota, Boeser scored 29 times in 62 games before his season ended on March 5 when he was propelled backwards into the bench door frame on a hit by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck.
It was a frightening collision that broke the bone spur attached to Boeser’s L4 vertebrae. He said later it could have ended his career. Instead, he spent the entire spring resting, then rehabbing his back and a wrist that also required medical attention after bothering him towards the end of last season.
He wasn’t cleared until July to fully start training, and showed up for training camp this month eight pounds of muscle heavier – the result of his intense gym workouts over the summer. Boeser dominated his summer league at home in Minnesota but is still looking for his first NHL goal of any kind since his back injury.
Again, we wouldn’t much care except the Canucks, who were 26th in scoring last season before Danny and Hank Sedin retired, have scored only nine times in six games this month heading into their pre-season finale Saturday against the Arizona Coyotes in Kelowna, B.C.
Vancouver’s attack this season seems to be concentrated in so few hands that the Canucks will have no chance to succeed if Boeser doesn’t exceed his impressive goal total from last season.
"I feel like as the games have gone on, I’ve felt better in each game," Boeser told Sportsnet. "I’m starting to feel more comfortable. It was different coming back from an injury. This (pre-season) was the first time I’ve had physical contact, full-on.
"It’s a little frustrating, but I know it’s still pre-season. That’s the good thing about it. I know what I need to do to keep getting chances. It’s not like I haven’t gotten chances the past couple of games. I can definoitely create more chances with my linemates and on the power play. If it was the (regular) season, I’d probably be a little worried about it."
Boeser said his back was "a little sore" after his first pre-season game, but has felt better through the last three games. He logged his four games in just six nights before the Canucks got a three-day schedule break this week.
"I don’t really notice it," he said. "There was just a couple of times where I took a crosscheck right to the spot. There is a little scar tissue there, so it hurts a little bit. But other than that, I don’t really feel it too much."
Asked about his slightly bulkier frame, Boeser said: "Honestly, there wasn’t any motivation to gain weight. There was motivation to get stronger. I didn’t have too much time (to train) after I got cleared – just a couple of months. So I worked really hard to get stronger. With a couple of weeks left, I stepped on the scale and realized I was seven or eight pounds heavier than I was last year. I think that’s just a benefit. I think I’ll be able to manage that.
"I feel I’ll be a stronger player this year."
And his wrist?
"There were a few times I put (my shot) where I didn’t want it to go," he said. "But on the power play, I feel my one-timer is getting better each game. I feel like I’m hitting it better. I’m starting to get more shots. I think this is just part of pre-season, working out the kinks. Just getting into those (scoring) scenarios is nice. As long as I keep getting into those scenarios, I’ll start putting the puck in."
Territorially, the Canucks have been much better than their 1-5 pre-season record. Their 33.5 shots-per-game lead the NHL, but their team shooting percentage of 4.5 is easily the worst. Their team save percentage of 84.6 is also 31st in the league.
"Yeah, I’m concerned about our offence," Canuck coach Travis Green said. "We lost two 100-point players (cumulatively in the Sedins)… and we’ve got to find a way to score."