EDMONTON — The question was as loaded as his wrist shot: Have you felt under-appreciated in Vancouver?
Brock Boeser thought about this for several seconds.
“I mean…” he began.
Boeser was the Vancouver Canucks’ first Calder Trophy finalist in 20 years when he scored 29 goals in 62 games as a rookie two seasons ago.
“You know…” Boeser tried again.
Then he was surpassed by the electrifying Elias Pettersson, who last year became the first Canuck since Pavel Bure in 1992 named the National Hockey League’s top rookie, and this season’s Calder finalist, generational defenceman Quinn Hughes.
This is why there is conjecture, launched again by the media just before these Stanley Cup playoffs began, that the Canucks may ultimately trade Boeser because there are only so many $8- or $10-million stars you can afford under one salary cap.
“I’m trying to think how to put this,” Boeser finally responded in an interview with Sportsnet last weekend. “When you think about it, me and EP and Quinn all had unbelievable years our first years. So, right from the start, expectations are higher from fans. They want to see improvement from you every year, but sometimes the road’s not easy. You go through stuff you have to learn from.
“Quinn and Petey will go through times when they’re not playing their greatest and have to figure out what’s wrong. I’ve gone through a lot of it, probably more than them because it’s my third year.”
Boeser, Pettersson and Hughes are friends. One of the strengths of their team is the compatibility and closeness of the players. We’re seeing evidence of that now as the Canucks battle the Minnesota Wild in this riotously-intense playoff qualifying series.
Friends or not, they all want to be the best.
And Boeser has gone through a lot of “stuff” since badly injuring his back with a month remaining in his rookie season. There was a significant wrist injury, groin problems and, this past February, fractured rib cartilage. The winger has undergone physiological changes, adding bulk to get stronger before getting leaner. He has endured emotional challenges amid the life-and-death (literally) struggle of his dad, Duke, who is doing well back home in Burnsville, Minn., as the family tries to shield him from the coronavirus.
Three years in, after all this, Boeser is still an elite offensive driver who has been one of the Canucks’ best players in Edmonton.
With a goal, assist, six shot attempts, an even-strength shots-for percentage of 57 and plus-two rating in 19:14 of ice time, Boeser may have been Vancouver’s No. 1 player in Tuesday’s 4-3 late-night win that evened the best-of-five series 1-1. Game 3 is Thursday at 11:30 a.m. PST.
Since training camp opened, the 23-year-old has looked quicker, stronger and more confident than at any point since his arrival in the NHL straight out of the University of North Dakota.
Just as the emerging Canucks are trying to make a statement in these playoffs, so is Boeser.
“My mindset is to come in and make a difference, be one of the best players and be part of the core with them,” Boeser said. “Even though we’re young guys, we want to try to lead this team and show what we’re about.
“Just the expectations I have for myself to be that goal-scorer and produce for the team, I feel like I can be a 30-plus goal-scorer in this league every year. And to not get those numbers (this season), it was a little different. I just feel these playoffs are really important, and for me to be a difference-maker would be huge for our team.”
On Jan. 11, Boeser was tied for 21st in NHL scoring with 43 points in 45 games. But he had only two points, both assists, in his final 12 regular-season games, which were interrupted by a month-long absence due to his rib injury.
The second-period goal he scored Tuesday was Boeser’s first in nearly eight months. He could have had more. Minnesota defenceman Matt Dumba cleared the puck out of the crease after Boeser had finessed it around goalie Alex Stalock, who earlier poke-checked the Canuck on a partial breakaway.
“I feel really good,” Boeser said. “It’s the best I’ve felt in a long time, especially since my first year. Maybe it’s the best I’ve ever felt just moving and how strong I feel. It’s definitely a lot different feeling right now.”
Boeser told reporters in July how good his legs felt after spending many hours during the spring shutdown riding his Peloton bike. He also worked relentlessly on his shot.
“It is the best player we’ve seen,” coach Travis Green said Wednesday of Boeser. “It’s important that young players continue to evolve and to improve and become players, not only with their speed and their skill and their shot, but players that figure out how you can win.
“There are certain areas of the rink — I don’t care what anyone says — that you have to go to and have to be able to come up with a puck. And I think he has really improved in those kinds of areas. He just looks like a more confident player with the puck, but also without the puck.”
After three years, this looks like Boeser’s time.
“A lot of people are watching from home,” he said. “A lot of my friends are Wild fans, so that makes it that much more fun for me to go out there and try to make a difference and hopefully beat them so I get some bragging rights. (But) I’ve got some loyal friends; a lot of them are cheering for the Canucks.”
It’s a shame the combativeness of these teams is playing out in a fan-less vacuum, witnessed at Rogers Place only by television, some league and arena employees and a select few reporters.
Imagine if there were 18,000 screaming fans further fueling the players’ emotions in Vancouver and Minnesota.
“That would be pretty sweet, but this is probably better for me,” Boeser said. “No distractions.”
A man on a mission.