Canucks granted precious opportunity for growth in qualifying series

Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning outlines what makes his club's proposed playoff foe in the Minnesota Wild so challenging to match up against.

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks thought they were a playoff team. Now, technically, they’re not. They thought they wouldn’t have a first-round pick this summer, but at the moment are still eligible to draft first overall.

Just as it was impossible to know when this National Hockey League season started that a once-in-a-century pandemic would halt it, it was impossible until this week to plan for its resumption.

So, at least the Canucks have that.

But Vancouver captain Bo Horvat and his wife, Holly, are still a long way from figuring out how Bo will be available for the birth of the couple’s first child in July.

“I’ve been thinking about that pretty much every day since there could be a possibility of return to play,” Horvat said Thursday in a video-conference call from his home in Rodney, Ont. “It’s definitely not easy… but I’m not the only one in this kind of situation. There’s lots of guys around the league that are in different situations, whether it’s having babies or being away from families (or having) people in their families have different problems. Everybody’s got things to worry about.”

The Canucks hope there will never be another year like this one. We all do.

But if the NHL is successful in returning from the coronavirus, this extraordinary road will take the Canucks to the place they set off eight months ago to discover: games at the end of their season that count for something more than draft position.

The five-game “qualifying” series the league has given the Canucks against the Minnesota Wild — month and location TBD — isn’t playoff games, but will feel like them for a team rebuilt since it last appeared in the Stanley Cup tournament in 2015.

Win three games and you’re in. One good week. This simple mandate is precious to the Canucks’ less experienced players who will have a chance to grow a little more and prove they can score goals and win games when it matters most.

“For sure, it’s huge,” veteran Canuck Brandon Sutter said from Sylvan Lake, Alta. “You don’t really quite realize what the intensity is like and… just how much fun the playoffs are. You’ve got to learn pretty quick how to raise your expectations for how you play out there. It’s just a fun time. For our young guys to get a little taste of that would be awesome.”

“Like we’ve been saying the last couple of years, we want them to play meaningful games down the stretch when the hockey matters,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told reporters after the NHL announced Tuesday its ambitious 24-team playoff tournament. “The intensity and the focus, they’re going to see what it’s like now to play with that intensity. I think it’s great for our whole organization.”

The Canucks believed they were a playoff team when their .565 winning percentage (36-27-6) put them seventh in the Western Conference as the NHL suspended play on March 12. The league and its Return to Play Committee expanded the Stanley Cup field to 24 teams, but 16 of them still have to qualify for the official playoffs should the coronavirus allow the NHL to execute its plans for summer hockey.

And while the Canucks would like to call themselves a playoff team, if they fail to advance against the Wild, Vancouver has the benefit of getting back the first-round draft pick conditionally surrendered last June in the trade for J.T. Miller — in addition to the priceless experience gained by young players competing in playoff-like games.

“The league has tried to come up with something that’s fair for the teams,” Benning said. “We were fighting down the stretch to be a playoff team, and this is the format they’ve come up with, so we’re going to embrace it. We’re going to come back and be ready to go. This is a great opportunity for our players. Our players are excited to be part of this and we’re in the hunt. You win your share of games, you can keep playing. You’re playing for the Cup.”

The Cup is a long way away, figuratively and literally. Staging a full Stanley Cup tournament in the time of COVID-19 feels a little like an expedition to climb Mt. Everest, and all the NHL did this week was provide a trail map to get to base camp.

But it’s a positive direction. It’s hope.

Driven by young stars Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks have already displayed a lot of both this season.

“All that hard work is going to go to something,” Horvat said.

He said there should be no asterisk attached to a 2020 Stanley Cup winner.

“Not in my opinion,” he said. “Obviously, it’s different than in previous years. But in my opinion, you’re going to have to play some pretty tough hockey and go through a lot of tough hockey teams and tough games. You’re going to have to go through potentially five rounds. It’s still going to be tough to win the Stanley Cup.”

Sutter added: “The reason we kind of decided on this format is it had the most integrity possible to the league and to the players. It’s not an easy trophy to win and this year shouldn’t be any different than other years. So whoever wins will be very deserving.”

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