Canucks' future hard to read as team enters key off-season

Mikko Koskinen had 39 saves and Devin Shore had the game-winning shootout goal as the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-2.

VANCOUVER -- The last time the Vancouver Canucks came home from Edmonton at the end of a National Hockey League season, summer was turning to fall but the hockey team was just bursting into bloom.

The Canucks departed the Edmonton bubble, during COVID’s premiere in 2020, having won a couple of playoff rounds for the first time since the franchise lost its third Stanley Cup Final in 2011. The tight-knit and likeable team had a 25-year-old warrior-captain, an elite defenceman just 20 years old, a sublime forward only 21 and a goalie who would soon emerge as one of the best in the NHL.

Thatcher Demko played so spectacularly well in stymieing the Vegas Golden Knights until late in Game 7, getting the Canucks within one win of the Western Conference Final, that he was known for a while as Bubble Demko. The nickname could have been applied to his rising team; they were the Bubble Canucks, full of youth and skill and promise.

And then the bubble burst, starting with the loss in free agency a month later of Tyler Toffoli and a couple of key veterans whose departures shattered the leadership group.

Two years ago feels like 10.

When the Canucks left Edmonton late Friday night, after losing 3-2 in a shootout against a playoff-bound Oilers team resting Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, it concluded a season that proved unsalvageable after an atrocious start – despite a remarkable five-month run under new coach Bruce Boudreau.

The Canucks finished with 40 wins and 92 points, which left them out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

There is understandable satisfaction and excitement about the Canucks’ 32-15-10 finish under Boudreau, who after Friday has 599 NHL wins but no guarantee of getting his 600th in Vancouver due to an exit option in his contract. But it’s possible that salary-cap pressure and the potential unrestricted free agency of leading scorer J.T. Miller a year from now could force the Canucks to take a step back this summer.

As if the collapse over the last two seasons were not enough.

Star defenceman Quinn Hughes is still only 22 and getting better. Gifted forward Elias Pettersson is now 23, captain Bo Horvat is 27, and Demko, who should get at least a smattering of Vezina Trophy votes, is 26.

Two years after the bubble, there remains loads of promise in the Canucks. But it was impossible to be here Friday night, recall that magical, bubble adventure two summers ago, and not feel the waste of the last two seasons.

It wasn’t a waste individually. Just look at the evolution of their young stars, especially Demko and Hughes, the formidable 99-point season of Miller, who scored Friday, and even the emergence late this season of 20-year-old winger Vasily Podkolzin.

But where is the team? Tenth in the Western Conference, fifth in the Pacific Division.

Where is it going next season – and with whom? It’s impossible to know.

“We proved we were a really good hockey team,” veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said. “Where we got in trouble was the start of the year, specifically the PK. We have to remember that feeling because we don't want to come in next year and have the start we did this year. It's not the result we wanted, but it makes you more hungry coming in to the next season.

“It really makes you sick thinking about. . . what could have been if we just cleaned some things up at the start of the year.”

After starting 8-15-2 under Travis Green, who was fired with general manager Jim Benning on Dec. 5, the Canucks were a .649 team under Boudreau, who provided indisputable proof that at age 67 and after nearly two years out of the NHL that he still has his coaching chops.

Over a full season, .649 hockey would get the Canucks 106 points.

It looked for a while Friday that Boudreau would get his 600th win – in just 1,041 games – but the Canucks couldn’t hold leads of 1-0 and 2-1 and lost when Devin Shore beat Spencer Martin with the only goal of a six-round shootout.

“If I don't get my 600th next year, I'm not going to last to the end of October,” Boudreau joked, a refreshing trait he has regularly displayed since arriving in Vancouver. “It would have been nice. When I lost my job (in Minnesota), I was more upset because I had 986 games and didn't know if I'd get to 1,000. But who knows, I've got to believe that the 600th win is next year at some point.”

Asked, for the record, if he wants to be back, Boudreau said: “Yeah, I would love this. It's a great place. I think it's a team that's on the rise. It's a team that, you know, only lost 15 games (out of 57 in regulation). I don't know why we wouldn't be excited. There's a lot of exciting things to come.”

“I don't think we want to be a team that just gets into the playoffs,” winger Conor Garland said. “We have a lot of talent in that room (and) one of the best goalies in the league. That's usually a recipe for teams that can go far and compete for the Stanley Cup, and that's what our focus should be -- not just to get into the playoffs. We understood what we did at the start of the year killed us, so I think we'll be focused right from Day 1.”

About 160 days from now.

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