Vancouver Canucks first half report: Rebuild moving faster than expected

Canucks-Pettersson-congratulates-Markstrom-after-win

Vancouver Canucks' Elias Pettersson, left, and goalie Jacob Markstrom, celebrate after a win. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

It is counter-intuitive that a team below the playoff cutoff halfway through the National Hockey League season is awash in positivity, but that’s the Vancouver Canucks.

That they feel good about themselves and are more popular on the West Coast than any Canuck team since the one that went to the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals says a lot about their sooner-than-expected improvement and a little about how low the bar was set for them after three straight seasons near the bottom of the overall standings.

Their reconstruction isn’t quite over, especially on defence. But the Canucks have begun to emerge from their rebuild faster, more talented and entertaining — and more promising — than they’ve been in years.

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THE GOOD

Rookie-of-the-year finalist Brock Boeser was a tough act to follow, and yet 20-year-old centre Elias Pettersson has so far eclipsed Boeser and just about every other rookie in franchise history.

The Swede is scoring at a historic clip for first-year NHLers, already is the Canucks’ best player and, like Boeser a year ago, will be going to the All-Star Game as a rookie. And Boeser’s not far behind him, rebounding impressively from a slow start to his sophomore season, which followed a serious back injury that ended his rookie campaign after 62 games and 29 goals. Pettersson had 22 goals in his first 37 NHL games, missing six games due to a concussion he suffered in October when slammed to the ice by Florida defenceman Mike Matheson.

In his fifth season, workhorse Bo Horvat has become one of the best young two-way centres in the game and continues to raise his offensive ceiling. And goalie Jacob Markstrom is discovering his best form at age 28.

THE BAD

Until early December, the Canucks had one of the most porous defences in the NHL. But better team play and Markstrom’s brilliant uptick have the Canucks surrendering fewer shots and goals, even with a defence that needs at least a couple of more players. One of them will be Team USA defenceman Quinn Hughes, a 2018 first-rounder who may be the best player in U.S. college hockey.

The Canucks still can’t stay healthy. Their 2017-18 season was submarined by winter injuries, and it looked like this year might be the same when the team went 1-10-2 when as many as six regulars, most of them from the front end of the lineup, were out. But they’re finally getting healthy and carrying some momentum from a 9-4-1 run against impressive competition.

A couple of questionable free-agent signings form the last two summers aren’t getting better with age. Loui Eriksson is earning his $6-million-US salary as a penalty-killer and checker, Sam Gagner was waived and loaned to the Toronto Marlies, Tim Schaller has been a frequent healthy scratch and struggling backup Anders Nilsson was traded last week to make room for minor-leaguer Thatcher Demko.

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TRADE DEADLINE LOOKAHEAD

The Canucks made the best of a cumbersome situation with the trade of Nilsson, who fetched GM Jim Benning an extra sixth-round pick in the multi-player deal with Ottawa that featured mostly minor-league players. With Nilsson gone, the only Canucks eligible for unrestricted free agency are depth defenceman Michael Del Zotto and top blueliner Alex Edler.

The Canucks will probably take whatever they can get for Del Zotto, who possesses experience and physicality, at the trade deadline. Edler is a fascinating case.

The 32-year-old has spent his career with the Canucks and said numerous times he wants to stay in Vancouver beyond this season. He also has a full no-trade clause. Despite this, it seemed likely when the season began that the Canucks would try to convince him to accept a trade and the team would cash in on the big Swede’s strong all-around game, which includes the ability to play against anyone’s top line. But with Pettersson, Boeser and Horvat driving the attack, the Canucks are far ahead of where anyone expected them to be. They’ve climbed back into the playoff race this season and surely will be trying to make the Stanley Cup tournament next year. Suddenly, trading Edler for a draft pick or prospect makes little sense when doing so would make the team worse while it is trying to ascend.

If the Canucks make a move, they’d be happy to add more picks in the draft they’re hosting. And the prospect pipeline on defence isn’t what it appears to be up front.

SECOND HALF STORY LINES

Pettersson was by far the best rookie of the NHL’s first half. Can he keep it up as opponents pay ever more attention to him and the league gets faster and more physical as teams sprint for the playoffs? Boeser’s back injury last season cost him the chance to eclipse Pavel Bure’s Canuck rookie record of 34 goals, scored in 1991-92 when the Russian Rocket became the only Vancouver winner of the Calder Trophy. If Pettersson stays healthy, he could hit 40 goals, while winning the Calder.

If the Canucks actually make the playoffs, Pettersson will get a few Hart Trophy votes, too, and coach Travis Green will probably get a bunch for the Jack Adams Trophy. The team has already come back from the dead, recovering from its late autumn crash of one win in 13 games. Now, the Canucks are getting healthy again as first-line winger Sven Baertschi and two-way centre Brandon Sutter returned after Christmas from extended injury absences. And with Pettersson and Boeser playing together, anything seems possible.

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