VANCOUVER – Up until this week, when you visited the National Hockey League’s website and clicked the “scores” tab, the schedule remained frozen on March 11, the five games that night preserved like the victims of Pompeii.
The league shut down for the coronavirus the next day, stranding the Vancouver Canucks in the Arizona desert two days after the team got 48 saves from Thatcher Demko and a shootout winner from J.T. Miller to beat the New York Islanders 5-4 in a thriller at Rogers Arena.
After four years in which Vancouver lost more games than anyone except the Buffalo Sabres, the Canucks have built an impressive foundation and appeared to be adding layers to the construction product as the 2019-20 season progressed.
That last win briefly nudged them back into a playoff position on points, one ahead of the Winnipeg Jets, who would win 4-2 the next night in Edmonton on what turned out to be the end of the regular season, and pushed Vancouver into the top eight in the Western Conference on winning percentage.
When they return for the NHL’s extraordinary summer Stanley Cup tournament, the Canucks will be part of the top 12 in the West and will feel like their first 69 games this season were about four years ago, not four months ago.
Like all teams, they’ll be healthier. Key defenceman Christopher Tanev and starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks’ MVP, have recovered from injuries and with any luck Vancouver might also have back a top-nine winger in either Josh Leivo (fractured knee) or Micheal Ferland (concussion) or both. Each had what was supposed to be a season-ending injury.
But will the Canucks be the same? Will they better, which is what coach Travis Green has planned for?
Under these once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, it’s impossible to know how the Canucks or any team will perform in empty arenas after an extended layoff so devoid of professional-level training amid social-distancing restrictions and non-essential business closures that it makes a typical NHL off-season look like a weekend break.
What we do know if the NHL is actually able to execute its ambitious playoff plan is the experience, good or bad, should be invaluable to the many young Canucks who have never logged a playoff game.
Although the playoffs in 2020, the Canucks’ 50th anniversary in the NHL, have been the goal since Miller was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning last June, neither Green nor general manager Jim Benning would mention the P-word when the season began. The two words they used were “next step” – as in the next step of the Canucks’ evolution is for players like Elias Pettersson, 21, and Brock Boeser, 23, and Quinn Hughes, 20, to experience the intensity required to make the Stanley Cup tournament. That’s the next step. And now the Canucks are going to get that.
There are flaws in their game that need fixing, particularly defensively. And the blue line, as a group, needs to get stronger over time to catch up to the dramatic improvement the Canucks have seen up front.
Having in the lineup both Tyler Toffoli, the two-way winger who had six goals and 10 points in 10 games after his trade from the Los Angeles Kings, and offence-driving winger Boeser, who had just returned from a rib injury when the season halted, gives the Canucks one of the best top-sixes in the NHL.
This is an improving team that beat nearly all of the NHL’s best this season: the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche.
The Canucks are confident, and the youthfulness among most of their top players should help them get ready on the relatively short runway the NHL has given them for their best-of-five preliminary series against the Minnesota Wild.
Vancouver needs Markstrom to play in August like he did last winter when he had a Vezina-candidate calibre season. Goaltenders, including Markstrom, often require a lot of reps to get into top form, but the 30-year-old has at least been on the ice and tracking pucks in Sweden, where hockey training continued despite the global pandemic.
“I think we have such a good, solid core group of guys,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers told reporters during the shutdown. “You add in a piece here and there to keep developing your team. I guess what I’m trying to say is we’re close. We’re close to that point of becoming a winning team. It’s just a matter of…experience and getting that feeling of what it takes to win. And part of that is getting that experience in playoffs.”
That’s another box they’re about to tick.