The most promising race of the Vancouver Canucks’ season is towards the top of the draft order.
As the COVID survivors stagger through the rest of their hyper-condensed schedule, playing their final seven games in just 10 days starting tonight with the first of back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Jets, the Canucks are 26th – and falling – in National Hockey League winning percentage.
The Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks are impossible to catch, but the Canucks, 1-7-0 in their last eight games, should still have time to duck under the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, and possibly even the New Jersey Devils if all goes, uh, well/awfully.
This isn’t tanking. The Canucks’ tank is just empty.
Too many games, too many injuries, too much coronavirus back in April.
The most impressive aspect of the team’s four games last week against the Edmonton Oilers is that the Canucks actually pushed back in the second half of the series, splitting two games in Alberta even as Connor McDavid ran wild to reach the 100-point mark in a pandemic season.
Rookie defenceman Jack Rathbone, who is expected to get a turn on the Vancouver power play tonight, played his first three NHL games against the Oilers. The week before, Kole Lind made his debut for the Canucks.
Next up with be minor-league callup Jonah Gadjovich, who skated Monday morning with the Canucks after completing his one-week travel quarantine in Winnipeg. The winger who had 15 goals in 19 games for the Utica Comets won’t play tonight but will play soon.
And speedy winger Will Lockwood, another American Hockey League call-up, is serving his quarantine in Vancouver and will be available for the Canucks’ final three games next week against the Calgary Flames.
With eight forwards missing, these auditions for next season are timely.
They follow other recent Canuck season debuts for more experienced pros like Tyler Graovac, Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd.
“They're competing for jobs,” coach Travis Green told reporters after the morning skate in Winnipeg. “They're finding some ways to contribute as well. I've said it many times that the league is getting faster. You need to have some contributions from your bottom six, but they've also got to be able to play certain roles on the team as well -- kill penalties and play against tougher matchups. And that's all part of the process as well.
"But I can say that our bottom six has been competing and working very hard here. And they've done a nice job the last few games.”
Green has used 33 different skaters this season.
“They don't need to go out and dominate the game,” Green said of the interns. “But there are certain areas in the game that you can really judge a player when you're watching. And a lot of it is their willingness to compete in certain areas. A lot of players can make a play when. . . there's time and space, and that's expected.
"Are they willing to put themselves in a spot to get that time and space? Are they confident enough to go and do it, hungry enough to go and do it? But also their details within their defensive part of their game, are they catching on, are they learning the things that we're trying to show our team?”
But here is another question with so many new, young faces in the lineup: Will the motivation of veteran players change because the Canucks are trying to gather intel on players for next season and beyond?
“Not at all,” Green said. “Our group, we've tried to establish a certain expectation, a certain culture that when we play, there's a certain compete level and a desire to win that never changes. We want players that want to win. They also understand that we have a lot of injuries, especially up front, and there is going to be different guys going in and out of the lineup. It's not just because we're auditioning players, it's because we think they also give us a chance to win and that's part of it.
“Our older players understand that. And our veterans want to play. They're not sitting there saying they want to take nights off and not play as well; they're competitive guys and they want to win the games. That's the kind of mentality we want with our players that when you go on the ice, you put that jersey on, that Canuck jersey on, you're playing to win and you're playing for keeps.”
Goalie Thatcher Demko, who has stopped only 87.8 per cent of shots over his last five games, will start his third straight game tonight.