The Vancouver Canucks recently eclipsed the midway mark of their regular season schedule. For a team that technically sits only two points out of a playoff spot, it’s rather difficult to figure out how exactly they’ve managed to do it.
That’s precisely what we’ll try to make sense of with the following progress report. Let’s hand out some letter grades for their individual performances thus far this season.
Sven Baertschi, A-plus: Baertschi’s offensive production has been a godsend this season for a team that’s needed every little bit of it. Not only does he lead the team in goals and points during the course of five-on-five play, he actually finds himself in pretty good company in both categories league-wide.
He’s tied for 24th in goals (10) with Vladimir Tarasenko and Joe Pavelski, and 40th in points (20) with John Tavares and Ryan Kesler. Not bad for a guy whose minutes and opportunities pale in comparison to those bigger names.
Alexandre Burrows, B: It’s been a pleasant surprise to see that Burrows still has something left in the tank.
He’s the clear third wheel of the group, but it says something about him and his game that he’s been able to fit in seamlessly next to Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi on a line that’s performed like it’s the team’s best.
His contract is set to expire, and it’ll be interesting to see whether this mini-revival will be enough to entice a contender to take a chance on him at the trade deadline should the Canucks fall out of the race by then.
Michael Chaput, C-plus: Chaput has settled into a nice depth role on the team. While the fourth line that features him, Jack Skille and Brendan Gaunce has produced essentially no offence, they’ve done the next best thing by keeping the puck in the other team’s end of the ice.
Since being put together, they’ve controlled north of 54 per cent of the shot attempts and 59 per cent of the chances taken. There’s value in a fourth line that’s not a liability—let alone one that actually makes a habit of keeping the wheels spinning in the right direction until the top guys are ready to go back out.
Derek Dorsett, NR: At his best, Dorsett can be sneakily effective by getting under opponents’ skin and luring them into drawing penalties. But that’s a moot point, considering that Dorsett has been out of the lineup since mid-November, and it sounds like the neck surgery he had will keep him out for the remainder of the year.
The decision to commit for four years to a replaceable depth piece was already a curious move from the moment the deal was signed. The fact that he’s reportedly been struggling with that same known, degenerating injury for years only adds to the questionable nature of the contract.
Loui Eriksson, C: Eriksson’s year-long goal and assist totals are on pace to be lower than they’ve ever been since his rookie season, but to be fair to him he’s been much better since a disastrous first few weeks as a member of the Canucks.
Most encouraging is that his shot totals have rebounded since being at an all-time low as recently as a month ago. That’s something he’ll need to do a lot more of if he’s going to make it work playing next to the Sedins.
Brendan Gaunce, C-plus: A fourth liner with four points in 40 games isn’t exactly what you hope to get from someone when you invest a first round pick in them, but that’s a sunk cost by now. If you wash that from your memory and evaluate Gaunce with a blank slate, he’s been a perfectly serviceable fourth liner. It’s not great, but it’s also not nothing.
Markus Granlund, B-minus: It’s funny how much just a couple of games can change the perception of things. Granlund has rewarded the Canucks’ continued belief in his abilities with a couple of big individual performances in January, sneakily jumping up to a 20-goal pace for the season.
He’s perfectly suited for the complementary role he’s currently in, but it’s still fair to wonder what his offensive ceiling as a player is moving forward.
Jannik Hansen, C: You’d love to see Hansen get back on the ice as soon as possible and stay there. It’s a shame he’s missed 42 total games since the start of last season, because he’s been producing at career-high rates in the moments he’s been healthy. His speed and ability to create something out of nothing are traits this team is sorely lacking whenever he’s out of the lineup.
Bo Horvat, A-plus: Horvat’s minutes have been steadily on the rise with each passing month since the start of the season. After averaging just 16:36 per game in October, he’s all the way up to 19:05 for the month of January. It’s certainly been well-deserved, as he’s looked like the best, most dynamic skater on the team for large stretches of 2016-17.
His ascension hasn’t gone unnoticed — he’ll be representing the Canucks at this year’s All-Star Game.
Jayson Megna, C-minus: There’s no better example of how starved and desperate the Canucks have been for anyone to do anything offensively this season than Megna bursting onto the scene and immediately being handed a spot next to the Sedins at five-on-five, plus a gig on the second power-play unit.
Considering the fact he’s an undrafted 26-year-old who has bounced around the league with just six goals and 12 points in 54 career NHL games, things have gone exactly as you would’ve expected them to.
Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, B-minus: The twins have had a rough go of it this season. Their efficiency continues to fall on a per-minute basis, which is to be expected considering their advancing age.
Maybe the most alarming trend of all is how much their 5-on-5 shot generation game has cratered with essentially everyone other than Loui Eriksson as their running mate. There was a long period of time there where they could play with anyone and make it work. Father time is undefeated, and they’re now 36 years old with roughly 1,300 NHL games each on their tires.
And yet still, with all of that in mind, if you catch them on the right evening or the right sequence, you see them do stuff no one else in the world can.
Jack Skille, C-plus: See ‘Chaput, Michael’. It’s fair to quibble with the fact that the team picked him over some other (potentially more enticing) options that were looking for jobs in training camp, but he’s been perfectly adequate in his role.
It’s another reminder that the best fourth liners are typically former failed top prospects, which is why you shouldn’t be spending draft capital on players that profile as fourth liners in the NHL right from the start.
Brandon Sutter, B-minus: Sutter’s value to the team was on display last season, when his lengthy absence put too much, too soon on the shoulders of Bo Horvat as the team’s second pivot.
Of course, that was a year ago, before Horvat had time to mature into the player he’s now become. While the experiment of having Sutter ride shotgun with the Sedins was an abject failure, he’s been reasonably effective on the de facto third line with Markus Granlund and a revolving door of other wingers.
Jake Virtanen, D: It feels unfair to be too critical of a player who is still only 20 years old, but fans of the team will always compare him to his draft mates in ‘what if’ scenarios. It’s difficult not to, when you see Virtanen struggling to be a difference-maker down in the AHL while players like William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers are blossoming into legitimate stars right before our very eyes.
Alex Biega, C: We don’t want to get carried away with Biega’s performance this season, considering we only have 14 games’ worth of data. He’s been excellent next to Nikita Tryamkin, but there’s a reason he’s a 29-year old journeyman that’s never really locked down a regular NHL gig. It’s nice to have serviceable depth when injuries inevitably occur, though.
Alexander Edler, C-plus: It’s been an uneven season for the blue liner. The usually reliable top pair of Edler and Chris Tanev got off to a poor start this year, and he didn’t fair much better during his brief run with Philip Larsen, either.
He’s fared much better since being paired with Troy Stecher, with the team coming out ahead in the shot and scoring chance metrics with the two of them out on the ice together.
It’ll be fascinating to see how the team handles Edler moving forward. He has two years left on his deal after this one at an extremely reasonable price if he’s playing up to his potential. But he’s also 30 years old, and the blue line is the only area of the depth chart where the Canucks have a healthy amount of talent and intriguing options.
Erik Gudbranson, D: Gudbranson’s introduction to Vancouver has been an outright disaster. He’s missed a significant chunk of time with injuries, which has become an alarmingly recurring theme for him — he had already missed 67 of a possible 376 games in his first five years in the league prior to this season.
The other career trend with him was that his teams gave up a higher percentage of shots, scoring chances, and goals whenever he’d been on the ice compared to off of it, and that has unfortunately held true to form as well.
Ben Hutton, C: Heading into the year, the stylistic combination of Hutton and Gudbranson as a pairing made sense on paper. Gudbranson would stay back, allowing Hutton to use his immense skating ability to roam around and wreak havoc offensively. It didn’t work out that way, to say the least. To be fair to the duo, they received wretched sub-.900 save percentages from the goalies behind them, which certainly didn’t help matters. There’s still plenty to love about Hutton’s game and talent, and he should improve. But he needs to get healthy first.
Philip Larsen C-minus: The Philip Larsen experiment took less than 20 games to go completely off the rails. In the Canucks’ defence, they gave him plenty of chances to succeed in his return to the NHL. But the results simply weren’t there, particularly on the power play where the club scored just two goals in 50 minutes with the extra man with Larsen out there.
It’s great that he put up big numbers in the KHL, but it’s worth remembering that it’s a completely different league. Cam Barker has also been doing big things over there for years. There’s a reason neither of them could crack the Edmonton’s lineup when the Oilers were desperate for bodies on the blue line.
Luca Sbisa, C: The most interesting subplot of Sbisa’s 2016-17 season is whether he’s looked passable enough to convince Vegas to take him in the expansion draft. That’s of course assuming that the Canucks’ brain trust will allow him to get away in the first place.
Considering they handpicked him as a key piece of the Ryan Kesler package back in 2014 and then gave him a sizable contract extension despite all sorts of red flags, that remains unclear.
Troy Stecher, A: One of the notable bright spots in the first half of the season, Stecher has taken the opportunity various injuries on the blue line have provided and run with it.
The most impressive thing about him is his ability to generate a high volume of shots from the back-end. When you’re sandwiched between Phil Housley and Ray Bourque in anything, you’re probably doing something right.
Chris Tanev, C: It’s been an off-year for Tanev, as a myriad of injuries and ailments have resulted in uncharacteristically poor underlying shot metrics for him. Even so, he remains a remarkably calming and steady presence on the blue line. Hockey is a team game, but it’s not a total coincidence that the Canucks are 12-4-5 in games he’s played and 8-15-1 in games he hasn’t.
Nikita Tryamkin, A-minus: It hasn’t taken him long to win over the hearts of Canucks fans with how effortlessly he uses his gargantuan frame to manhandle opponents, but even beyond that the guy can flat-out play. He’s had the most positive impact on the team’s shot metrics out of any regular skater this season. If there were concerns about his conditioning and ability to keep up with the speed of the NHL game at the start of the year, they’ve been erased as quickly as he erases opposing attackers.
Jacob Markstrom, C-plus: Once the team invested $11 million spread over three seasons in him this past summer, it made it pretty clear that they believed in the encouraging signs he showed in 2015-16.
Unfortunately he hasn’t really been able to take that next step and build off of it, appearing in slightly fewer games and performing slightly worse in the ones he has compared to the veteran goalie he’s sharing the crease with.
Considering the sporadic usage he’s received throughout his NHL career to date, the Canucks would do well to give him as many starts as possible in the second half of the season if only to see what they’ve really got in him moving forward. Maybe he’ll even end his streak and finally get a shutout in the process.
Ryan Miller, C-plus: Miller’s .914 save percentage puts him right around the league average for the season, which has him right in line with his career average. The perception of him as a player has wildly wavered back-and-forth over the years, which is ironic considering how remarkably consistent he’s been in hovering around that middle class range.
Willie Desjardins, C: This is a difficult one to evaluate, simply because it’s not exactly like he’s been given a ton of talent to work with in the first place. It’s a player’s league, and it’s awfully difficult to fake it if you don’t have the horses.
With that said, it’s up to the coach to try and push the right buttons to squeeze as much as he can out of what he’s given, and it’s tough to argue that Desjardins has done himself any favours in that regard.
He’s been slow to adapt, often sticking with sub-optimal combinations way past their expiry date. The best example of this is the team’s floundering power play, a 27th-ranked unit in efficiency, which he’s seemingly had no answers or solutions for.