VANCOUVER – As the Vancouver Canucks begin their 50th year in the National Hockey League, it’s natural to take a moment to reflect on their success over the last five decades.
OK, and now for the other stuff.
We’re kidding, of course. The franchise’s failure so far to win a Stanley Cup — they’re the only team to go 0-3 in finals over last 50 years — overshadows what has been a relatively successful run over most of the last 30 years.
The fact the franchise lost before it ever played a game, losing a roulette-wheel spin in 1970 that gave Gilbert Perreault to the expansion-cousin Buffalo Sabres and left Dale Tallon for the Canucks, also infected the fan base with a fatalism that has never fully abated. Doom is always lurking somewhere.
And yet, over a 10-season run that ended six years ago, only the Detroit Red Wings won more games than the Canucks. The Red Wings, however, also won four Stanley Cups between 1997 and 2008. The Canucks merely lost the 2011 final to the Boston Bruins after a historically-good regular season.
Vancouver has had to settle this century for 11 playoff appearances, seven division titles and two Presidents’ Trophies, none of it occurring over the last four seasons when the Canucks were being rebuilt by general manager Jim Benning.
The Canucks have often disappointed their fans, yet also provided joy and excitement when it was least expected. As they begin their Golden Anniversary in the NHL with Wednesday’s season-opener in Edmonton, it’s difficult to tell which emotions these Canucks will generate. Probably many.
With the off-season additions of potential 20-goal wingers J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland and veteran defencemen Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn to bolster emerging young stars Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, there is more excitement around the Canucks — and within the dressing room — than at any point since that devastating Game 7 loss to the Bruins eight years ago.
Rarely, have fans on the West Coast expected so much from a team that has missed the playoffs by an average of 17 points over the last four years. Playoffs next spring are the goal — and an attainable one.
Yet, outside of their market, the Canucks are universally picked/projected to finish somewhere in the 20s in the overall NHL standings.
“Everyone had us in the bottom three last year, too, and we pushed pretty hard for a while there until we had some injuries (and finished 23rd),” Boeser said Tuesday before the Canucks travelled to Alberta. “We’re a lot better hockey team than last year. We have the right mentality in here. We know the culture we’re building and the team we want to be. If we can put all that together, we’ll prove a lot of people wrong.”
Benn said: “With the guys we’ve brought in and the guys who were already here, I think we have a chance to do something special and prove a lot of people wrong. I think we’re right there.”
Looking at their roster, it’s impossible to argue against the Canucks being better.
Calder Trophy-winner Elias Pettersson, 20, and his winger, Boeser, 22, are still naturally getting better and will have the protection of playing with Ferland, who made the NHL as a fourth-line wrecking ball but averaged 19 goals the last two seasons in Carolina and Calgary.
Captain-in-waiting Bo Horvat has two new, heavy wingers since the start of last season: Miller and Tanner Pearson.
Third-line centre Brandon Sutter, who missed 56 games last year due to abdominal and shoulder injuries, is finally healthy and playing with two-way winger Josh Leivo, another strong player who joined the Canucks halfway through last season.
The free-agent signings of Myers and Benn, coupled with the rookie campaign of all-world prospect Quinn Hughes, arguably the Canucks’ best defenceman during a five-game trial at the end of last season, has strengthened the six-man defence and improved the skill, mobility and balance on the blue line.
This wave of new talent should also buoy the power play, whose 10-goal erosion last season from 2017-18 was acutely felt on a team that lost 25 one-goal games, the most in the NHL. The second unit, which starts with Horvat, Pearson, Ferland, Hughes and Myers, should be significantly better and could alone generate several more wins after it managed only 10 goals last season — 13 fewer than the year before.
Still, many things will have to go right for the Canucks, who finished 35-16-11, to add another 15 points.
Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom can not regress after a breakthrough season that included a .921 save percentage over the final four months.
Pettersson, Boeser and Hughes have to continue getting better despite a lot of attention from opponents.
The Canucks have more depth at forward but are still vulnerable to injuries on defence. It’s paramount that frequently-injured Alex Edler and Chris Tanev play as many games as possible because Vancouver was 20-14-5 (.577) when both played last season and 15-22-6 (.419) when at least one was missing.
With coach Travis Green still preferring a top-six, bottom-six alignment of forwards, the third and fourth lines need to contribute more offensively than a year ago.
“I just think there’s a confidence in the room,” said backup goalie Thatcher Demko, another new player since the start of last season. “I think guys really want to win. And not to say the guys on the team last year didn’t want to win, but I think this year we have more established guys who have been there. I just think there’s a really strong confidence and guys are really excited to get going.”
The Canucks open with games in Edmonton and Calgary, on Saturday, before playing a three-game homestand over the following 10 days. All these new players are going to get plenty of practice time.
“I’m excited about everything,” Horvat said. “The biggest thing is how deep we are as a group. If we play the right way, we’re a big, heavy team that has a lot of skill. If we play our system, play to our strengths, I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people. I have no doubt in my mind that we can be a playoff team.”