VANCOUVER — It may still be two months before we see the Canucks play the Minnesota Wild in the Stanley Cup tournament qualifying round, but we already know some questions Vancouver will answer as it chases its first playoff berth since 2015.
The Canucks’ regular season officially ended last week at 36-27-6, their .565 winning percentage putting them in the top eight in the Western Conference, but, alas, not yet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At this point, they’re still in the running to win the Stanley Cup or the draft lottery but not, we’re fairly certain, both.
They’d rather win the Cup, and here are five questions they’ll need to answer against the Wild to earn a playoff invitation.
What does playoff Marky look like?
Jacob Markstrom has soared over each challenge he has faced this season, but the goaltender now faces another: Returning from knee surgery and a layoff as long as five months to try to make the NHL playoffs for the first time at age 30.
Markstrom built a Vezina Trophy candidacy this season by stopping 91.8 per cent of shots while going 23-16-4 with a team that yielded a lot of high-quality scoring chances. But those numbers don’t fully reflect the Swede’s achievement.
He took personal leaves twice due to the terminal cancer that led to the death of his father, Anders, in November, but somehow maintained his focus at the rink and did not allow his grief to affect his play or his team. When backup goalie Thatcher Demko suffered a concussion during a morning skate in December, it forced Markstrom into a run of nine straight starts. He won the last four of them, capped by a 49-save effort against the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 28, to push the Canucks toward seven straight wins and some breathing room in the (original) playoff race.
“It’s incredible,” Demko marvelled at the time. “I think it gets lost. People just look at (Markstrom’s) numbers, and his numbers are really good. And they don’t think about what he’s been going through.”
Markstrom partially tore the meniscus in his knee in a Feb. 22 blowout of the Boston Bruins, had surgery a few days later and was still about two weeks from being ready to play when the league stopped on March 12. Markstrom will be fully fit for the elimination series against the Wild. The Canucks need their most valuable player to be in full form, too.
Who’s on first?
Vancouver’s last game before the shutdown was winger Brock Boeser’s first game back after missing a month with fractured rib cartilage. Not wanting to mess with a good thing, coach Travis Green left his top line of J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson and Tyler Toffoli unchanged, and deployed Boeser alongside centre Bo Horvat instead of in his usual spot with Pettersson.
Toffoli had 10 points in 10 games after his trade from Los Angeles, but the most impressive thing about the winger was his 200-foot game. (Thank you, Darryl Sutter). Boeser, 23, is the slightly better offensive player, but Toffoli, 28, has a more complete game at this stage and seems perfectly suited to join Horvat and Tanner Pearson, Toffoli’s old linemate with whom he won a Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2014, on a line that Green usually matches against the opposition’s best forwards.
But with the Canucks’ strongest group of 5-6 forwards since the playoff run in 2011, might Green try to balance his lines and create three that can score?
Who’s on third?
Most of the 24 teams in the NHL summer tournament will be the healthiest they’ve been since last September, but the Canucks could still be without wingers Josh Leivo (fractured knee cap) and Micheal Ferland (concussion).
The team hopes one or both will be available by late July, but even without Leivo and Ferland it’s a little crowded in the bottom six at forward. If Green sticks with young centre Adam Gaudette and 18-goal scorer Jake Virtanen, that still leaves Antoine Roussel, Tyler Motte, Jay Beagle, Brandon Sutter, Loui Eriksson and physical rookie Zack MacEwen competing for four spots.
Just sitting $36-million-man Eriksson won’t be enough. And if Leivo and Ferland are available, there is going to be a lot of experience and salary in the press box. Green will like Beagle and Sutter for their ability to win faceoffs and kill penalties and skate against top forwards, but he’ll have decisions to make.
Are you experienced?
Quinn Hughes, 20: 0 playoff games
Elias Pettersson, 21: 0 playoff games
Brock Boeser, 23: 0 playoff games
Adam Gaudette, 23: 0 playoff games
Jake Virtanen, 23: 0 playoff games
Thatcher Demko, 24: 0 playoff games
Bo Horvat, 25: 6 playoff games
Tyler Motte, 25: 0 playoff games
Troy Stecher, 26: 0 playoff games
Josh Leivo, 27: 0 playoff games
Jacob Markstrom, 30: 0 playoff games
Of course, the qualifying round is, technically, not playoffs. But these will be the biggest games a pile of Canucks have played and how well Vancouver’s young players, and especially stars Pettersson and Hughes, handle the increased pressure and intensity will be paramount in determining whether any of them get to play official post-season games this summer.
The coach’s challenge?
There was lots of attention on Jim Benning coming into this season and whether the general manager would see his sixth anniversary with the club in May after bold moves last summer followed four straight years near the bottom of the NHL.
But Travis Green, given a legitimate team to coach in his third NHL season, faced as much pressure as anyone. Player development wasn’t enough; the Canucks had to start winning. Green not only provided opportunity and support for his young guns, but coaxed what were going to be career seasons from half his roster. Eight forwards hit double digits in goals, the power play was fourth in the NHL, Hughes will be a Calder Trophy finalist and Markstrom took his goaltending to another level.
Now, Green has to make the right calls when the stakes are higher and get the Canucks prepared to explode from the starting blocks in June when their season could be over in three games. Because Green, too, has never experienced an NHL playoff game as a coach.