Takeaways: Canucks’ first line disappears in loss to Panthers

Aleksander Barkov scored in the second and third period as the Florida Panthers beat the Vancouver Canucks 3-1.

The Vancouver Canucks aren’t great at hockey, but they sure can dance. One step forward, two steps back, cha-cha-cha.

Well-rested after an encouraging 3-2-0 homestand that ended with an excellent effort Saturday despite a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Canucks barely competed Tuesday when they opened their road trip against the Florida Panthers. It was close only on the scoresheet, as Aleksander Barkov’s empty-netter was needed to seal a 3-1 victory for the home team.

Shots were 40-27 for the Panthers, including 29-15 in the first 40 minutes when the game was decided. Barkov broke a 1-1 tie at 16:08 of the second period when Canuck defenceman Ben Hutton either stumbled or made a terrible turn at his own blue-line, giving the Panther a breakaway that he finished with a backhand off goalie Jacob Markstrom’s glove.

Markstrom stopped 37 of 39 shots and was easily the best Canuck. That contest also wasn’t close. Defenceman Michael Del Zotto had six hits and was engaged, and Markus Granlund scored Vancouver’s goal shorthanded. But it was hard to identify another Canuck who played well.

So, instead of building off their decent homestand when they played well in four out of five games, the Canucks are back down at the foundation again as they head to Tampa to play the league-leading Lightning on Thursday.

Here are some takeaways from the game.

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What first line?

Nobody embodied the Canuck two-step better than first-liners Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and Sven Baertschi. The trio drove the Vancouver attack on Saturday, but was invisible in Florida.

It was one the poorest games of the season for Boeser and Horvat, especially, as Vancouver’s best forwards combined for just four shots despite logging 20-plus minutes apiece, and finished with ghastly shots-for percentages of 32 per cent. Only Baertschi, at 26 per cent, was worse.

While there’s lots of talk about whether the Canucks should keep the Sedins, even should the twins wish to play again next season (see below), it’s good for Vancouver’s young first line that the old Swedes are still around.

Henrik Sedin remembers when people used to blame veteran Markus Naslund when the twins failed to score earlier in their career. Just like people mostly blame the twins now when other Canucks, like Horvat and Boeser, have dud performances.

No Presence

The Canucks don’t expect to run the table down the stretch and surge miraculously into the playoffs. General manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green merely are asking them to compete each night and be difficult to play against.

After a noticeable physical uptick on their homestand, the Canucks were passive against the Panthers. They were also slower and sloppier with the puck than Florida, which, we should remember, is a mediocre team that just edged above .500 with its fourth straight win but is going to miss the playoffs for the 15th time in 17 seasons.

One shortfall that really stood out Tuesday was the Canucks’ lack of net-front presence, part of their inability to sustain offensive-zone pressure around third-string Panther goalie Harri Sateri.

Yes, the Canucks need more grit and feistiness among a lot of other things. But with a roster that includes Horvat, Boeser, Granlund, Thomas Vanek, Brandon Sutter, Jake Virtanen and Brendan Gaunce, the Canucks should still be able to get to the front of the net and make things difficult for the opposition goalie. As with Buffalo Sabre Robin Lehner’s 4-0 shutout win last week in Vancouver, it was a challenge to recall more than two or three tough saves Sateri had to make. And name a second-chance save he had to make.

Sacre Bleu

Know who should be really upset by Tuesday’s game? Hockey fans in Quebec City, which means everyone in Quebec City. It’s not entirely fair to gauge a crowd through television because we rarely see the upper bowl, but it should be embarrassing to the NHL how few people in South Florida care enough about the game to buy a ticket. In the lower bowl in Sunrise, empty seats outnumbered occupied ones by at least four-to-one, and we’re being generous. Places that love hockey and support hockey but don’t fit the NHL’s business probably feel much less so.

Sedin debate, Part 29

Do the Canucks need to move on from Danny and Hank Sedin? Absolutely. Some day.

It’s a topic filling hours of radio talk time these days – the Sedins and whether their presence is preventing or delaying the Canuck rebuild.

We understand the premise. Every team eventually has to move on from diminished stars. The Canucks moved on from Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison, which turned the team over to the Sedins a decade ago. In a few years, the Pittsburgh Penguins will move on from Sidney Crosby. One day the Edmonton Oilers will move on from Connor McDavid. We get it.

But there’s a couple of questions yet to be satisfactorily answered by advocates of ditching the Sedins: who in the Canuck lineup is being stunted or suppressed by the twins’ presence, and who are the better players waiting to replace them?

The answers are no one and, well, maybe three of their elite prospects will make the team next year as pure NHL rookies and be ready to play top-nine minutes and contribute 50 points apiece. Uh-huh.

Right now, the only guys the Sedins are keeping out of the lineup are minor-league journeymen Michael Chaput and Jason Megna. And next year, even if Adam Gaudette AND Elias Pettersson make the team, there still won’t be nine forwards better than the twins. And while a lot of people want to dispose of the Sedins yesterday, Canuck president Trevor Linden and general manager Benning actually kind of value the Sedins’ leadership and ability to set the example of professionalism for Horvat and Boeser and every other young player who walks through the dressing room door.

Horvat and Boeser already lead Canuck forwards in ice time. They’re on the first line and first-unit power play. They wouldn’t have more goals this year without the Sedins around, they’d have fewer.

So why, in practical terms, is it time to move on from the Sedins this summer? Hopefully someone has a better answer than "it just is."

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