VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are never dull.
Really, considering they have two of the most exciting young players in the National Hockey League in Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, it is almost impossible for the Canucks to be boring. But you just never know what you’re going to get from this up-and-coming (we think) Vancouver team.
In less than half a season, the Canucks have taken three out of four points from the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, but lost twice to the New Jersey Devils. They finally beat the Vegas Golden Knights and also won in Washington against the Capitals, but were blitzed in Chicago vs. the Blackhawks and blew a three-goal, third-period lead to lose to the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
What is there to watch in the second half of the season? Everything.
ARE THEY OR AREN’T THEY?
The clear, if unspoken, objective for the Canucks this season was to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015. General manager Jim Benning needed to take the team up another level and, rather than simply wait for his excellent young players to improve naturally over the next couple of years, spent assets and money to add five new players over the summer.
The Canucks were going to be better, but odds were still against them surging 12-14 points up the standings after finishing the previous season with 81 points. Then Vancouver started this season 9-3-3 and the playoff conversation changed.
In November, when the Canucks endured a 1-5-2 slump, a high draft-lottery finish looked more plausible than a high finish in the Pacific Division standings. But Vancouver bounced back before Christmas to inch back within two points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Are they a playoff team? Odds remain against them. But the Canucks have beaten some excellent teams and, at the very least, look capable to stay in the fight until April, which itself would represent significant progress over the last four years.
EVERYONE NEEDS A HUGGY BEAR
As we’ve said many times, the franchise has never had a defenceman like Hughes. Promptly nicknamed Huggy Bear by teammates, the dynamic blue-liner has been a revelation not just with his skating and puck handling, but also his savvy and defensive ability. The 20-year-old led the Canucks with 24:36 of average ice time over the final nine games before Christmas and hit the holiday break with three goals and 27 points in 37 games. Hughes is on pace for 53 assists and 59 points.
The rookie not only could succeed teammate Pettersson as a Calder Trophy winner, Hughes has a chance to break long-standing franchise defencemen records for points in a season (63 by Doug Lister in 1986-87) and most assists (55 by Dennis Kearns in 1976-77). On many nights, Hughes has been the Canuck who is the most fun to watch, which considering Pettersson’s talents, is extraordinary, too.
WISHES FOR HEALTH IN NEW YEAR
Until Hughes came along, the Canucks’ best two defencemen for several years – and third place wasn’t close – were Alex Edler and Chris Tanev. But Tanev missed 96 games the last three seasons, and Edler 82 games the last four. Their record last season when both were in the lineup was 20-14-6. When one or both were hurt, Vancouver was 15-22-5. Let’s review: the Canucks were a playoff team with Edler and Tanev, a lottery team when either was injured.
So far this season, Tanev has not missed a game and Edler, who returned to the lineup the game before Christmas, has missed 10. For the record, the Canucks are 14-10-4 with Edler and Tanev, 5-5 when they don’t have both. It’s not exactly exhilarating watching guys try to stay healthy, but it could make the difference between the Canucks making or missing the playoffs.
BUYING OR SELLING?
Tanev is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1, and so is starting goalie Jacob Markstrom. GM Benning badly wants to keep Markstrom and has said he plans to open negotiations soon on a contract extension. That will be trickier than it sounds given the market for goalies and the development, stalled at the moment due to a second concussion in as many seasons, of talented backup Thatcher Demko.
But what do they do with Tanev? The prudent thing is to harvest a second- or third-round pick or decent prospect at the February trade deadline. If he’s healthy, there should be lots of interest in the reliable shutdown defenceman. But Tanev has just turned 30, and, obviously, is still important to the Canucks, especially as a defence partner and mentor to young Hughes. But with cap space tight again next season, can Benning risk losing Tanev for nothing by keeping him through the deadline?
If they’re still in the playoff battle in two months, might Benning even become a buyer at the deadline? He said he’d like another top-six winger. There are going to be critical decisions made before this season ends that affect the Canucks next year and beyond.
ELIAS PETTERSSON AND BROCK BOESER