VANCOUVER – Everything about Tyler Toffoli on the Vancouver Canucks has been great, except for the losing.
Friday’s resuscitative 6-3 win against the Colorado Avalanche was just the third victory Toffoli has experienced in eight games since his trade from the Los Angeles Kings.
The 27-year-old winger made a smart play out of his own zone to spring first-line partners Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller on a 2-on-1 that turned into the Canucks’ second goal against the Avalanche.
It was Toffoli’s eighth point in the eight games since the Canucks sacrificed a second-round pick and prospect Tyler Madden in a rental trade with the Kings.
Despite Toffoli’s excellent play, which mirrors his seamless transition in the locker room after seven years in Los Angeles, the Canucks are 3-4-1 since the Feb. 17 trade that divided the West Coast fan base the way most things do.
And that’s a problem for both the team, which needs to make the playoffs (or re-sign Toffoli) for the trade to pay off, and the player.
“Personal success is good, but when you’re not winning games, it doesn’t mean much,” Toffoli said before the weekend, which ends with the Canucks’ home game Sunday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. “They brought me here to help the team win and, obviously, things haven’t gone well enough there. We’ve been in games but not been able to close them out.”
Spoken like a Stanley Cup winner who learned to play in the NHL under Darryl Sutter.
“Just stay together and stay with the game plan every night,” Toffoli advised. “There’s a lot of guys in the room who are really vocal so, honestly, it’s just of matter for me of going out and playing, and everybody playing the best that they can. If everyone is playing good, then we’re going to have a good chance of winning.
“This is a really good group, and it’s been a lot of fun just being able to meet the guys and hang out. At the same time, it’s going to be a lot more fun when we start winning more games.”
Trying to make the playoffs without injured first-liner Brock Boeser and starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks are in a three-way tie for the two wild-card spots in the Western Conference, but have played one less game than the Nashville Predators and two fewer than the Winnipeg Jets.
They might not still be in playoff position without Toffoli, who has had as much impact as anyone among the sea of players who changed teams leading up to the NHL trade deadline two weeks ago.
Celebrated acquisitions Vincent Trocheck (Carolina), Ondrej Kase (Boston) and Blake Coleman (Tampa) have combined for one goal and three points in 17 games for their new teams, while Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored in his first two games for the New York Islanders and is pointless in four games since. The Islanders have been outscored 6-1 at even strength with Pageau on the ice.
Heavy centre Derek Grant has looked a perfect fit in Philadelphia, while veteran defenceman Alec Martinez significantly upgraded the blue line in Vegas.
But no one who changed teams recently has outscored Toffoli except Jason Zucker, who has had 13 games to accumulate his 12 points playing mostly with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Even with Vancouver’s four-game losing streak that ended Friday, the Canucks have outscored opponents 9-4 at 5-on-5 with Toffoli on the ice.
“I think he’s kind of thicker and stronger than people think,” Miller said. “He’s really hard on the puck, and (has a) strong stick and good instincts around the net, which we’ve seen so far. We’ve hung out quite a bit since he got here, and he’s awesome. Pearse said nothing but good things about him, and if he’s buddies with Pearse, Pearse is a pretty stand-up guy.”
Pearse is Canucks winger Tanner Pearson, Toffoli’s former linemate with the Kings who vouched for his friend when Vancouver general manager Jim Benning first asked about him.
“I said he was the type of guy who would fit right in with this group,” Pearson said. “We’re a lot alike and I had no trouble last year (after a trade from Pittsburgh). I think for him, coming from a team that’s at the bottom to coming to a team in the mix, and being a UFA this year, I think (a change) helps everything out.”
Toffoli is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1. The Canucks also packaged a fourth-round pick in the trade, contingent on Toffoli re-signing in Vancouver, something Benning said he’ll explore after the season.
Given the Canucks’ salary-cap pressures, and the need to re-sign UFAs Markstrom and Chris Tanev, it’s difficult to see how Vancouver can afford Toffoli, whose expiring contract pays him US$4.6 million this season.
But last month’s agreement between Zach Bogosian and the Buffalo Sabres to terminate his contract could be an exit map for the Canucks with Loui Eriksson. His debilitating six-year, $36-million contract will be down to a balance of $5 million over the final two seasons after another $3-million signing bonus is paid in July, according to Cap Friendly.
Focussed on the playoff race, Toffoli said he isn’t thinking about where he’ll be earning his next contract. But during a quiet moment on the Canucks’ last road trip, he conceded the stretch drive this season is a chance to gauge how well he might fit long-term in Vancouver.
“I’m trying to prove to them that I want a contract, and also trying to prove I deserve the contract that I want,” he said. “(The relationship) definitely goes both ways. So far, I’ve loved everything. The guys are great, a really good group, and good players, too. We’ll see what happens.”
It’s better for everyone involved if they make the playoffs.