NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Halfway through his post-game press conference on Tuesday, Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green said this: “I think our game has changed a bit. Obviously, we’re missing players that play a fairly direct game.”
The first sentence was understated, the second probably underrated.
Unrecognizable as the team that lit up the National Hockey League in October, the Canucks were hammered 6-1 Tuesday in Dallas. They played neither smart nor especially hard, rarely sustained offensive-zone time and fuelled the positionally-disciplined Stars’ transition game with a myriad of turnovers compounded by a lack of puck support.
The Stars may not get an easier win this season.
The Canucks’ game has changed more than “a bit” during Vancouver’s 1-5-2 November slump — because they’re missing the heavy players who play a “direct game.”
When you think of the rebuilt Canucks and their promising future, you think immediately about young first-liners Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, new captain Bo Horvat, dynamic defenceman Quinn Hughes and rookie goalie Thatcher Demko.
But the identity the team is trying to construct, as well as the lineup it has built, is more nuanced than that. It’s about more than just skill. Through free agency and trade, general manager Jim Benning has added over the last 20 months a steady stream of “heavy” players who complement the young stars and provide some physical heft to the Canucks.
Until Jay Beagle returned to the lineup for Tuesday’s nightmare after missing three games with an undisclosed injury, five of these players were out. Brandon Sutter, Tyler Motte, Micheal Ferland and Antoine Roussel remain on the injured list.
They essentially represent the bottom half of the Canucks’ forward group.
Individually, none would rank among the top eight players on the roster, and no one would prefer Ferland and Roussel to, say, Pettersson and Hughes if you could choose your injured players. But the Canucks have become a far different team without those bottom-six players to work the puck deep, hit and wear down opposing defenders and make it easier for the top-six forwards in their offensive deployments.
That the Canucks are having such a difficult time coping with injuries to a handful of forwards from the bottom of their lineup is proof — if you actually needed any — that Vancouver is still a long way from being an elite team in the NHL.
But you couldn’t watch the Canucks on Tuesday, or in some of their other losses this month, and not notice the absence of these players and the trickle-up effect it is having on the more skilled forwards.
“Those guys make the other team’s lives miserable,” Horvat said before the Canucks travelled to Nashville and took Wednesday off. “They bring a presence that the top six guys can’t. They wear the other teams down in the offensive zone, hit the other guys’ D and create space for the top-six guys to perform. I think our team is at its best when everybody is playing. We proved that at the beginning of the year. When everyone’s healthy, we can do some damage.”
Without the heavy guys, the Canucks are the ones getting damaged.
“Through those first 10 to 15 games, our team learned a lot about themselves,” Green said. “If you want to have success, there’s a certain style our team needs to play. Some people misunderstand that and think we’re trying to dump the puck all night long. The league is not about dumping the puck — it’s still a puck-possession league.
“But maybe because some guys (on the other team) may back off because of the way our heavier guys play… it will give your skill players some more room.
“There’s no hiding it: We’ve been missing five guys out of the lineup who might all be those kind of (heavy) players. But that’s the challenging part and the fun part about coaching. When you run through a stretch when you have injuries, you’re hoping that other guys can step in and you find ways to win.”
The Canucks play the Predators on Thursday on the second stop of Vancouver’s difficult six-game road trip.
Roussel, who hasn’t played since reconstructive knee surgery last spring, is practising with the Canucks and could play before the trip ends. Sutter (groin) may rejoin the team on the road this weekend, but will need time to practice.
The Canucks hope to get Motte (foot) back in December, and Ferland (concussion) is out indefinitely.
“The makeup of our team in the first 15 games was a bit of a heavier look,” Green agreed. “I know we were getting production throughout our lineup as well. But when you have a team like that, I think you can create momentum from your bottom end that gives more room to the top end. When we’re playing our best, we’re winning the territorial battle. We’re spending more time in the other team’s zone. That doesn’t always create goals, but it creates momentum.”
“It’s always a push-pull kind of thing,” second-line winger Tanner Pearson said. “Obviously, the top-end guys want to pull the team, and guys like Suttsy and Beagle give a good push (from the bottom two lines). One side wants to help out the other. It makes you want to not take your foot off the gas pedal if those guys are humming and cycling the pucks and doing a good job. We definitely added a bit of a bite factor this summer, and when we’re on top of our game, everyone is playing that way.”
The Canucks need some bite back in their game, whether they have their meat-eaters or not.