The Vancouver Canucks have got pretty good goaltending and as a team they battle, or hang around exceptionally well. Just when you think they’re heading south, they knock off Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Edmonton all in a row.
And when they’re done, the playoffs are right there. A few points away, just the way a dog needs just a few more strides to catch that car.
On Saturday night, the Canucks were impressive indeed, scraping out a shootout win at Edmonton that should have been a regulation win, had the Oilers’ two young stars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid not combined on a powerplay equalizer with 1:33 to play.
When it was over, the Canucks were talking about McDavid the way the Oilers once marvelled over the two young Swedish twin brothers who seemed impossible to contain when they first began to make their mark for Vancouver more than a decade ago.
“McDavid, he’s just on another level than all the players in this league,” said Alex Burrows, who grew up beating this Oilers team for fun. “Maybe Sid [Crosby] is up there, a handful of players who have that speed, that creativity, that explosiveness. But every time he’s on the ice, you have to be aware because he’ll make something happen.
“For us, we have to be good on the forecheck. Pin them in their zone, frustrate them, I think that’s how you can have some success.”
For a night, that’s what happened. But anyone looking at these two rosters — let alone the standings, where for the first time in forever the Oilers are eight points ahead on New Year’s Day — knows these are two ships sailing in different directions.
Which leaves the owners of the Canucks embroiled in that age-old Canadian hockey conundrum: To tank, or not to tank?
How does one provide a championship product in the foreseeable future without icing a bad team in the short-term?
Will people in Vancouver support a concerted rebuild? And by “support” we mean will they buy the over-priced tickets the way folks did in Edmonton for all those years?
The problem for the Oilers was they never really went into a rebuild willingly. Edmonton was just so poorly managed that a rebuild happened organically, as compared to Toronto, where Leafs management actively accrued draft picks by trading off actual players and holding on to cap space.
The Canucks find themselves somewhere in the middle, afraid of the Leafs method yet too competent in the front office to go full Oiler. And remember — full Oiler is, like, a six-year thing. Nobody wants to go full-Oiler.
It’s Canada’s eternal debate, isn’t it? Not whether to rebuild from the ground up but whether a team can sell enough seats, jerseys, and $11 beers to fund the process.
But doesn’t the question become: How can you afford not to?
Canucks fans are savvy, smart, hockey people. They dissect every transaction to within an inch of its life.
They know that the prized first-rounder, Jake Virtanen, has only seven points in 19 American Hockey League games with Utica. They know where he’s at as a player — no matter how Canucks management frames his progress.
They know what’s in the pipeline, that Brock Boeser and Olli Joulevi aren’t coming over the hill to play cavalry in the short term. They know the farm team isn’t exactly loaded with prospects, or that being ranked 24th in goals scored per game and 26th in goals allowed probably means you have some challenges at both ends of the rink.
A night like Saturday, when the Canucks play their guts out and steal two points from a flat Oilers club, is nice. But is it the norm? Can it happen enough for this group to be a playoff team? To actually enter the post-season with an expectation of winning something meaningful?
You can tell a Canucks fan about how great their crop of young players is — and Bo Horvat was surely a horse on Saturday — but when they go to the stats pages and see that the Maple Leafs have six players among the top 19 rookie scorers, and the Canucks don’t have any, they know.
Canucks fans recall when the Sedin twins came on the scene, simmering on the second line before bolting past the West Coast Express line of Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, and Markus Naslund to give the Canucks as good a top six as they’ve ever had.
Today, the Sedins are 36 years old. Canucks fans know they are still their team’s best players and have been the Canucks’ top scorers for most of the season. They know it shouldn’t really be that way anymore, though it should be said that Horvat stepped into the team scoring lead with a pair of assists Saturday, not to mention the shootout winner in a 3-2 victory.
So you wonder, as you watch the Canucks play a sturdy, defensive brand of hockey that was good enough to beat Edmonton Saturday night: Is this the path?
Can a team that appears destined to draft fifth or worse land the franchise player they haven’t had since the Sedins went second and third overall in 1999? Can they build something that is better than average, without ever falling far enough below average that a three-game winning streak won’t pull them back into the pack?
Perhaps more to the point, can the Canucks trust their fan to support the type of rebuild the Leafs have undertaken? If they don’t go that route, are fans even more likely to stop caring?
That’s a lot of questions, isn’t it?
I’m with Canucks fans. Waiting for some answers.