Canucks youngsters experiencing common NHL growing pains

Dan Murphy, Chris Johnston and Iain MacIntyre preview the upcoming game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.

VANCOUVER – To understand the Vancouver Canucks’ lack of offensive depth, you do not need to dissect the bottom of the lineup but merely look at the top of it.

Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson’s average ice time of 18:21 is essentially the same as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ third-year superstar Auston Matthews’ 18:19. Vancouver’s workhorse centre, Bo Horvat, is playing nearly two minutes a night more than the Leafs’ John Tavares (20:59 to 19:03), and Brock Boeser plays nearly as much as 81-point Leaf Mitch Marner (19:15 to 19:37).

It’s not that Toronto coach Mike Babcock has been underplaying his offensive stars; it’s that the Maple Leafs are an excellent team with deep scoring. The Canucks are not, so coach Travis Green has overplayed Horvat, 23, Boeser, 22, and Pettersson, 20.

Past the three-quarter mark of the NHL season and with teams sprinting towards the finish line, all that ice time has caught up to the Canucks and the three young forwards who have driven Vancouver’s attack this season.

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Horvat, Boeser and Pettersson have essentially stopped scoring.

Horvat, who has logged in excess of 22 minutes nine times during the Canucks 3-7-3 month-long swan dive from the playoff race, has three goals and no assists in his last seven games. But Pettersson has gone seven games without a goal and been pointless in five of the last six, while Boeser has no goals and three assists in the last six.

These are the longest goal droughts of the season for Boeser and Pettersson.

That’s on them. But it’s also on the Canucks, who have a ways to go before Horvat, Boeser and Pettersson enjoy the kind of offensive support that buffers Matthews, Marner and Tavares.

“A lot of guys are tired in the league at this time of year,” Green said Tuesday after his team practised for Wednesday’s game against the Maple Leafs. “I talked to our group today about that. It’s almost like there’s four seasons within the hockey season: I find there’s the first 20 games; there’s 20-60; there’s 60-80 when it gets a lot harder; and then there’s obviously playoffs, which is even harder than that.

“The NHL isn’t easy. It’s hard for young guys to go through this part of the season. They learn a lot. You’ve got to go through these kinds of games. Hopefully, you get through them and you learn from it and you’re better the next time you go through it. That’s maturing in the NHL.”

None of Pettersson, Horvat and Boeser said they feel tired.

“I think Bo, Petey and I all have high expectations for ourselves,” Boeser said. “It’s different from last year; the Sedins (Daniel and Henrik) are retired and teams are kind of keying on us more. But I think we’ve all had this role before at other levels. We know that we have to help drive the offensive load.

“Personally, I know I need to simplify things and put pucks to the net and make sure I’m competing each and every shift.”

Demoted by Green in the third period of Sunday’s dismal 3-0 road loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Boeser said he knows he has to compete harder and skate in all three zones.

Boeser suffered a season-ending back injury last March 5 – it affected his preparation for this season – so this is the first time he’ll be playing in the heightened intensity of the NHL’s final month. And Pettersson is not only new to the NHL, but he’s also in his first season of North American hockey.

Pettersson said the NHL season actually isn’t much longer than the Swedish Hockey League’s, but teams here play more games, travel more and practise less.

“I still feel fresh and my head is fresh,” he said. “I just need to get used to it because I want to be here for a long time. Not every game are you going to succeed. But when I don’t have a good game, I just work harder and focus on the next game and playing that one better.

“I don’t think about what people want to see with me; I think about what I can bring to the ice. I’ve had some games now when I haven’t scored. I’ve had some chances, but I don’t think I’ve created as much as I used to. I want to play better.”

After the Canucks’ big three, Vancouver’s fourth-leading scorer is grinding winger Antoine Roussel, who has 29 points in 61 games. The next highest goal-scorers, with 12 each, are Jake Virtanen and Josh Leivo. Virtanen has missed three weeks with a broken rib, and Leivo was given to the Canucks by the Leafs in December after failing to find a place in Babcock’s lineup. Unable to play in Toronto, Leivo has been excellent in Vancouver.

“It is tough,” Horvat said. “It’s Petey’s first year, Brock’s second year. It is a lot to put on someone to be their best every single night. That’s tough for anyone. This is just a learning experience right now for us.”

A school of hard knocks.

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