A shortage of toughness still evident among rebuilding Canucks

Brock Boeser scored two goals to help the Vancouver Canucks defeat the Los Angeles Kings.

VANCOUVER – It wasn’t all those losses that made Vancouver Canuck fans miss and appreciate Derek Dorsett, it was the 6-2 win Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings.

With the score 5-2 nearly halfway through the second period, Los Angeles forward Trevor Lewis, whose career-high for penalty minutes over seven National Hockey League seasons is 30, cross-checked Canuck wonder boy Brock Boeser head-first into the boards during a Vancouver power play.

It was a dangerous hit that hurt Boeser, the Canucks’ best rookie since Pavel Bure a generation ago, although not enough to keep the 20-year-old at the bench for more than a few seconds. It could have been a major penalty, but referees Kelly Sutherland and Tom Kowal sent Lewis to the penalty box with a cross-checking minor that put the Kings two men short.

Twelve seconds after the penalty, Boeser skated the puck to the top of the faceoff circle and overpowered Kings’ goalie Darcy Kuemper with a slapshot that gave the Calder Trophy candidate his 24th goal of the season and a great deal of satisfaction.

"I just wanted to go score after that," Boeser explained. "That (hit) hurt, so I was pretty mad."

Boeser’s goal was the full extent of the Canucks’ response to Lewis’ dangerous hit. And Canuck coach Travis Green, reiterating Wednesday what he said Tuesday night, insisted that was enough.

But apparently it was not enough for angry Canuck Nation, which judging by the callers and texters to sports talk shows on Wednesday would have preferred Lewis be flayed, quartered and have his bits scattered across North America as a warning to others who might do harm unto Boeser.

The real frustration, naturally, wasn’t so much towards Lewis as Boeser’s teammates, who largely examined their toe-nails as Boeser lay on the ice, and were content afterwards to skate out the game’s second half with a four-goal lead and rare victory against a bigger, tougher opponent who has mostly manhandled the Canucks the last five years.

The Canucks, partway through a rebuild, are still missing many things, including toughness.

But they have had a shortage of that component, especially compared to the brawny teams that compete in the Pacific Division, for many years. Even when the Canucks were the best team in hockey, winning Presidents’ Trophies in 2011 and 2012, their main deterrent against physical abuse was their power play.

And this worked wonderfully right up until they were bullied in the 2011 Stanley Cup final by the Boston Bruins, whose penalty kill outscored the Canuck power play.

This general lack of overt toughness and — as former GM Brian Burke would say — belligerence has existed to varying degrees in the Canucks since then, but in recent years hasn’t seemed much of an issue because Vancouver has been so poor that opponents didn’t need to intimidate or batter them in order to win.

It’s like a lot of people on the West Coast never noticed this deficiency until Lewis, seemingly out of character, propelled Boeser by the kidneys into the boards on Tuesday.

The popular opinion was that someone on the Canucks should have challenged Lewis to fight. Or gone out of his way to drill Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty or one of the Kings’ skill players.

Well, maybe. But it’s always easy for people who have never been punched in the face or had a fight since the rice table in pre-school to say who should have attacked whom.

The toughest Canuck on the ice when Boeser was crunched was goalie Jacob Markstrom. The NHL frowns upon them skating the length of the ice to insitigate fights. The other Canuck skaters on the ice during the power play were Bo Horvat, Alex Edler, and Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

The Sedins are two of the toughest forwards of their era because for more than a decade they have amassed points by playing in difficult areas, undeterred and unintimidated by opponents whose singular plan each night is to abuse and stop them by whatever means necessary. But the Sedins have never had a fight, except with each other over who gets to pay at the restaurant.

Nor has defenceman Edler fought in 11 NHL seasons. Just two weeks ago, Edler declined a dance invitation from noted Columbus tough guy Artemi Panarin after the Canuck threw a heavy bodycheck on a Blue Jacket. How about Horvat? The No. 1 centre has had one fight in 3 1/2 years in the NHL and just returned from a broken foot that kept him out seven weeks – during which the Canucks won four games. By all means, start throwing punches at Lewis’ helmet.

Somebody else then? Jake Virtanen? Two fights two years ago as an NHL rookie – both initiated by others – and none last season in the American Hockey League. Michael Del Zotto? Alex Biega?

Sorry, the Canucks aren’t built to win in the alley. They have 10 fighting majors this season, which ranks in the middle of the NHL, and Dorsett had four of them. Defenceman Erik Gudbranson has two — the only other Canuck with more than one fighting major.

But Dorsett was forced to retire on Nov. 30 due to spinal injuries. And Gudbranson was out of the lineup Tuesday with back spasms.

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What makes the outcry for toughness – for players to protect young guys like Boeser – confusing is that Dorsett and Gudbranson were frequently criticized, by fans and the media, even disparaged by many bloggers, when they played due to their relatively high salaries and relatively low possession numbers.

No Canuck has been ridiculed more in recent years than Luca Sbisa, the gritty defenceman who was excoriated until the Vegas Golden Knights snapped him up in the expansion draft last June.

Canuck management knew what they were losing in Dorsett and will try to replace him next summer. For good reason, the conversation about Gudbranson, and whether to re-sign or trade the six-foot-five defencemen by the Feb. 26 deadline, is very different within the Canuck organization than outside of it.

Because the Canucks need toughness – rugged guys who can play and are willing to fight for teammates. Suddenly, fans seem to value these players, too. At least Lewis has provided some clarity.

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