It is difficult to judge the Vancouver Canucks’ first quarter because their wins and losses have come in bunches large enough to influence opinion, and they reached the 20-game mark on Thursday amid the negative cluster.
With one win in six games (1-4-1) heading into Saturday’s home game against Nathan MacKinnon’s Colorado Avalanche, the eight-game points streak (5-0-3) the Canucks carried into November feels like distant past. But the “winning” stretch was twice the length of what the “losing” spell has been, and there have been so many positive developments within the team this fall that it’s impossible not to view the first quarter as a success for the franchise.
Young, foundational players Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes and Thatcher Demko have all started well, and newcomers J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers have been better than expected. The six-man defensive unit looks far stronger than a year ago and neither Alex Edler nor Chris Tanev has missed a game yet due to injury.
Last season’s 10-8-2 first quarter was a false economy. The fundamentals behind this year’s 10-7-3 start are solid. This is a better team.
MOST IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT
Coach Travis Green needed buy-in and the Canucks needed something more concrete than hope to sell to their fans during the franchise’s 50th year in the National Hockey League. A blazing October helped both campaigns.
Adding mid-career players Miller, Myers, Jordie Benn and Micheal Ferland in the summer, plus the full-time addition of rookie-of-the-year candidate Hughes, should have made the Canucks a better team. But it was all just theoretical until the season began. Actually, it was still just an idea after the opening week, when Vancouver started with a pair of losses.
But the team went on a 9-1-3 tear after that to prove its legitimacy. When October ended, the Canucks were fourth in the NHL in scoring (3.75 goals-per-game), fourth in goals-against (2.42), fifth on the power play (25.5 per cent), fourth on the penalty kill (86.4 per cent), sixth in shots (34 per game) and second in faceoffs (55.8 per cent).
They added points and built confidence, and even as they scuffled to the quarter-pole in a 1-4-1 slump, the players still believe in Green’s system and each other.
After missing the playoffs the last four seasons by an average of 17 points, the Canucks desperately needed a good start this fall. They got one.
MOST WORRISOME DEVELOPMENT
The free-agent signings of Miller and Ferland were supposed to end the madness on the wings for two-way centre Bo Horvat, who had 27 goals and 61 points last season despite playing with 30 different sets of linemates.
Ferland started with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, while Miller skated with Horvat and Tanner Pearson. But Ferland, least effective so far among the newcomers before being sidelined with a concussion two weeks ago, was dropped down the lineup after the 0-2 start. Subsequently, Horvat lost Miller to Pettersson; just as he’d lost Boeser to Pettersson the year before.
Through 20 games, Horvat has already had nine different combinations of wingers – and one even-strength goal. Five of his six goals, and eight of 15 points, have come on the power play. What does it mean?
The Canucks remain at least one, and possibly two, top-six wingers short.
TOP SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B
A top line for most of the quarter, Miller, Pettersson and Boeser have been point-per-game players who have fairly dominated territorially. Their Corsi ratings (63.2, 58.7, 58.2, respectively) are elite and the trio has combined for a plus-27 goal-differential.
The second line has been far less consistent, both in composition and performance. Despite his even-strength scoring problems, Horvat still possesses a 53.8 per cent shorts-for percentage while drawing the most difficult matchups. His most common linemates, Tanner Pearson and Jake Virtanen, have combined for 10 goals and 19 points, and their Corsis of 51.6 and 49.1 are bottom-third among Canuck forwards.
BOTTOM SIX FORWARDS GRADE: C-plus
Third-liner Brandon Sutter (five goals), currently out with a groin injury, and fourth-liner Tim Schaller have been the best bottom-six forwards. There just isn’t much offence beyond them, although Josh Leivo (two goals, nine points) has a 53.6 shots-for percentage, benefitting from ice time with the top two lines.
It shouldn’t be ignored, however, that Sutter, Beagle and Schaller have been key drivers of a penalty kill that has been top-10 all season and at one stage led the NHL.
DEFENCE GRADE: B
The six-man unit, Edler-Myers, Hughes-Tanev, Benn-Troy Stecher, has been significantly better than last year’s blue line. Hughes’ mobility is a game-changer, and the early Calder Trophy candidate has 12 points in 19 games, energized a listless power play when he was switched to the top unit, is second among all NHL rookies with average ice time of 19:59 and drives possession with an even-strength shot share of 54.6 per cent.
GOALTENDING GRADE: A
The Canucks are seventh in the NHL with a team goals-against average of 2.65. Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, who has been dealing with the terminal illness and subsequent death of his father, has seen his save percentage dip to .895 over his last six starts, but remains .914 for the season. But rookie backup Thatcher Demko, who is 5-2-0 in seven starts, is tied for third in the NHL with a .931 save rate.
Most Improved Player: Thatcher Demko
Best Defensive Player: J.T. Miller
Most Physical Player: Micheal Ferland