VANCOUVER – From the 69-point team he inherited in 2017 to the one it became last season when the Vancouver Canucks won two playoffs rounds, a hallmark of coach Travis Green's teams was that his players were never easy to play against.
Sure, they may have been too permissive defensively, and the talent has never been as deep as you’d like – and still isn’t. But the Canucks were rarely a gimme, an easy out for opponents. They worked hard. They played directly and quickly. They skated, and backchecked as aggressively as they forechecked. They didn’t beat themselves.
That was the Green movement.
The coach seemed to get everything out of his players except, like last season, when he got even more from them than most people thought possible.
And even as the Canucks got better as their excellent young players emerged and improved and were buttressed by key veterans, the culture under Green was still about being direct and accountable, working hard and cohesively and making it difficult for opponents.
But in last week’s three home games against the Montreal Canadiens -- and through most of Vancouver’s false start to the 2021 National Hockey League season – the Canucks have not been that team.
Mostly, they have beaten themselves, falling down (literally) and giving away the puck, losing their structure and leaving huge gaps in their defence.
The Canucks allowed 17 goals in three games to the Canadiens and in the two losses, Thursday and Saturday, were outscored 12-5 and outshot 75-42.
Two weeks into the season is too early to say if the Canucks’ culture has been broken, too early to know if the departure of a couple of key players last fall in free agency altered the equilibrium in the dressing room and undermined the message of commitment that Green, like all coaches, has been preaching.
But the team has been unrecognizable through seven games since goalie Jacob Markstrom and defenceman Chris Tanev went to Calgary for huge contracts that no one in Vancouver thought the Canucks should match, although history revisionists are already starting to edit that narrative.
It feels like the Canucks’ three home games this week against the Ottawa Senators, starting Monday, are a referendum – a test of their identity.
Can they be the team they were? Are they even going to stay in the fight in the North Division?
“We have such high expectations of winning from last year,” captain Bo Horvat said Sunday after just the Canucks’ second practice this season – one for each win. “Especially in the playoffs, I thought we played some of our best hockey since I've been here. And it's just frustrating when you're not getting those wins. You want it so bad, and I know everybody in that room wants it bad, too. Everybody wants to win.
“(But) it's just going to take some time. We've got some new guys. We've got some young guys coming up who haven't played. You know it's going to take some time with no exhibition games and not a lot of practice time. We've got to find a way to figure that out and get the ball rolling here because it's such a short, condensed season. We’ve got to figure that out and start getting some wins.”
Since their opening-night victory in Edmonton, the Canucks have lost five of six games and been outshot and outplayed in all of them. Opponents have scored five or more goals in five of seven games so far, and neither new goalie Braden Holtby nor Thatcher Demko has yet to allow fewer than three goals.
“It's not too complicated,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said. “I think one of the biggest strengths of our team is our forecheck. We have guys up front that can be really hard on the puck, and we've just got to get a little step quicker, get up the ice as a five-man unit to where it's tougher for the other team to break the puck out.”
Giveaways in Saturday’s 5-2 loss were officially 11-2 against the Canucks. High-danger scoring chances were 11-6 for the Canadiens.
Large swaths of games have been played in the Canucks’ zone, Vancouver unable to pass the puck cleanly or sustain offensive zone time.
You know things are badly askew when Elias Pettersson, the Canucks’ young, star forward, is bobbling the puck on the power play or, as he did Saturday, simply tripping over it to yield a breakaway. Or when even younger defencemen Quinn Hughes, another potential superstar, is skating and passing the puck into turnovers that lead to easy goals against.
At 5-on-5, the Canucks have been outshot 60-32 this season with Pettersson on the ice. Linemate J.T. Miller’s deficit is 32-11.
“I'm not going to directly say what I say to players, but I've had lots of long conversations with our young guys,” Green said. “This is something that ... they haven't gone through, and not just from a team standpoint but from an individual standpoint. When you go through adversity and you get through it, you're going to be better off for it. There's not many players in the history of the game that don't have some type of adversity that they go through, even if they're great players.
“I'd like to think we play an in-your-face style by how we track the puck, how we force teams, our backpressure. And I've said this many times that it's all connected. If your breakouts aren't strong then your forechecking game isn't strong. If your decisions in the neutral zone aren't right, then you're spending a lot more time in D-zone coverage. And you're defending tired. So, I just think our overall game hasn't been sharp enough. I think if we went through (the lineup) and everyone was honest with their game, are they playing their best right now? No, we probably haven't.”
Everyone can see that. But why?