NEW YORK – If you predicted in September that the Vancouver Canucks would win half of their first 20 games and reach the National Hockey League quarter-mark in playoff position, you’d have been as believable as steak tartare at a vegan restaurant.
Yet here the Canucks are, 10-8-2 and three points on the good side of the playoff cutoff in the Western Conference despite a road schedule that looks like a dare and a pile of key injuries.
Elias Pettersson could win the Calder Trophy and, if last year’s 73-point team somehow does make the Stanley Cup tournament 62 games from now, Travis Green may win coach of the year, too.
But Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders was the Canucks’ poorest game this month and extended their losing streak to a season-high three games (0-2-1). And all the positivity and confidence the Canucks generated with their surprising start is being tested on a six-game road trip in which the team could have four wins and instead has just one.
As they rested Wednesday for the trip finale the next night in St. Paul against the strong Minnesota Wild, the Canucks are showing signs of wobbling for the first time since the NHL’s opening weekend. Is this the start of a market correction for a team that was universally expected to be in the Jack Hughes draft sweepstakes?
We’ll see. But there was much more good than bad in their first quarter.
In his first month in the NHL, Pettersson became the Canucks’ best player and most exciting rookie in nearly three decades. Imagine what the NHL rookie scoring leader might have done had he not missed six games with a concussion after he was rag-dolled to the ice by Florida Panthers defenceman Mike Matheson on Oct. 13.
And imagine what Pettersson might do now that he’s just turned 20.
He has 10 goals and 17 points in 14 games, runs Vancouver’s power play and is already a focal point of every opponent’s game plan. The 176-pound centre averaged 20:52 of ice time in his six games before Tuesday. And possibly the most impressive thing about Pettersson, at least for a rookie new to North American hockey, is how well he plays without the puck. He is relentless on the backcheck and positionally smart.
Like the Canucks, however, Pettersson may be entering a market correction. Tuesday’s loss in Brooklyn was Pettersson’s third straight game without a point, and his ice time of 15:47 in a game Vancouver was chasing was his lowest since the night he was injured.
“It’s probably a few things,” Green said of Pettersson’s cool-down. “He’s playing a lot more games in a lot shorter time than he’s probably used to. He’s playing on the road, getting tougher matchups. It’s not an easy league to just score every night. He still does something that you love every night.”
For a guy who was projected on draft day in 2013 to become a third-line, two-way centre in the NHL, Bo Horvat continues to smash whatever ceiling is imposed on him. He has nine goals in 20 games, is averaging 20:22 of ice time, has taken nearly 100 more faceoffs than anyone else in the NHL and won 54 per cent of them, and leads by example every night. He has become a two-way player, though.
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Expected to struggle mightily to score with the retirement of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the Canucks produced 62 goals in their first 20 games. And the Vancouver defence, unchanged from last season and often derided, has combined for eight goals and 36 points.
Defenceman Ben Hutton, who wasn’t even expected back on the team after playing his way out of the lineup last season, has been re-born. The 25-year-old had more points in the first quarter (4-3-7) than he did all of last year (0-6-6), has regained Green’s trust and is playing on the top pairing with Erik Gudbranson, who had more points in a recent five-game scoring streak (2-4-6) than he did last season (2-3-5).
Other young players such as forwards Nikolay Goldobin, 23, and Tyler Motte, 23, and defencemen Troy Stecher, 24, and Derrick Pouliot, 24, are also developing and appear to be better players than they were a year ago.
The Canucks are playing significantly faster and more consistently than last season, and Green has them believing in themselves and his system. Most of the time, Vancouver doesn’t look like a young team, displaying resilience and fortitude while going 5-1-2 in one-goal games and 5-6-1 when the opposition scores first.
Injuries precipitated the Canucks’ cave-in last season after a 14-10-4 start. And it took only the opening month of this season for Vancouver to lose a total of eight players. Six of them are still out: forwards Brock Boeser (groin), Sven Baertschi (concussion), Brandon Sutter (shoulder) and Jay Beagle (forearm), defenceman Alex Edler (knee) and backup goalie Anders Nilsson (finger). That’s two of the Canucks’ top four forwards, their No. 1 blueliner and both shutdown centres. These injuries have hurt Vancouver’s special teams and are seriously straining the organization.
No returns from the injury list are imminent, although everyone should be playing again within four weeks.
Even before he was sent home from the road by the Canucks to allow a lingering groin injury to heal, winger Brock Boeser was wrestling with a sophomore slump. Last season’s 29-goal scorer and Calder Trophy runner-up endured a goal-less pre-season and had just two goals and five assists in the first 12 games that counted before a four-point breakout night Nov. 2 against the Colorado Avalanche.
Much of this is understandable, not because it’s Boeser’s second season but because he was not able to fully train until July due to significant back and wrist injuries at the end of last season. Boeser looked destined for a slow start because he was behind others when training camp began. But his perplexing groin injury adds another layer of concern to the potential franchise cornerstone the Canucks probably can not win without. They are 2-3-2 in the seven games Boeser has missed, 8-5-0 when he plays. And they’ve won all three games in which he has scored.
With Nilsson injured in the NHL and goalie-of-the-future Thatcher Demko working his way back from a concussion in the American League, Green has yet to play minor-league callup Richard Bachman. Instead, the coach is relying entirely on No. 1 goalie Jacob Markstrom, whose nine straight starts – and counting – are a career-high.
But Markstrom’s save percentage during this run is only .889, and the workload has prevented the 28-year-old from getting quality practice time with goaltending guru Ian Clark.
Canuck management needs to re-think its scheduling objectives for next season. It’s mid-November, and the team is about to finish its second six-game road trip already. Since the second game of their season, Vancouver players have been on the road for 28 of 41 days. It’s too much.