Canucks’ Boeser shows how far he’s come one year after trade request

Brock Boeser scored his league-leading 16th and 17th goals of the season, Elias Petterson added a goal of his own, and the Vancouver Canucks topped the Anaheim Ducks 3-1.

VANCOUVER — It’s hard to believe now, seeing what we’ve seen, but in the Hockey-Fights-Cancer game 51 weeks ago, Brock Boeser was supposed to be a healthy scratch for the Vancouver Canucks.

With just three goals in his first 23 games last season, the winger who lost his father to cancer the previous spring was going to be sat out by former coach Bruce Boudreau until teammate Dakota Joshua awoke from his afternoon nap feeling unwell.

After warming up in a Duke Boeser jersey, to honour his dad, Boeser scored that night in a 3-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes. But the damage — or more damage — had been done and Boeser asked his agent to see if he could help facilitate a trade to another team.

Bombarded emotionally by the many sides of grief — anger, sadness, guilt and resentment — Boeser eventually realized it wasn’t his coach or team or sport that was making him unhappy. At the end of the season, he publicly rescinded his trade request and privately asked the Canucks at year-end meetings if he could stay.

On Tuesday, in the Canucks’ annual game to highlight the fight against cancer and support its survivors, Boeser scored his 16th and 17th goals of the season — in Game 23 — to move alone atop the National Hockey League goal-scoring race as Vancouver surged in the third period to beat the Anaheim Ducks 3-1.

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“It just shows how crazy this league is,” Boeser said after the morning skate about the dramatic change in his life from a year ago. “Times when you’re at the low of lows, and there’s times you’re at highs. It’s a roller-coaster but you’ve got to stay even keel and focus on the process and work hard.”

The even-keel part is the most difficult bit.

Boeser certainly focussed over the summer on the process and worked hard to re-invent himself as a player. And that’s what we’ve seen this season.

The 26-year-old from Burnsville, Minn., isn’t playing like a guy chasing the Rocket Richard Trophy. He’s just playing a 200-foot game, getting to pucks, battling for them when he doesn’t have them, and working as hard to defend as attack. 

The scoring? He has always been able to do that. But it’s all that other stuff that has allowed him to be on pace for 60 goals. 

He scored the Canucks’ opening goal at 6:34 of the first period on a rebound tap-in after establishing body position on Ducks defenceman Pavel Mintyukov. And Boeser capped the win by shooting 140 feet into the empty net.

The idea of a coach using him late in games to protect leads would have been preposterous last winter, but Boeser now has three empty-net goals for Rick Tocchet.

“It means a lot,” Boeser said of the responsibility. “It’s taking pride in following the process, and that starts in the D zone, in my opinion, and on the forecheck. . . with our line turning pucks over (in the offensive zone) and creating those chances. It’s obviously really nice when the coach trusts you.

“I just liked our response in the third period after we didn’t have a strong second there. I think in the past, we haven’t had good seconds and we haven’t had good thirds, so I’m just happy that we responded.”

Sharply criticized by Tocchet after earning a 4-3 loss Saturday against the last-place San Jose Sharks, the Canucks weren’t much better for the first 40 minutes against the Ducks, who had lost six straight games.

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But the Canucks bolted from the dressing room for the final period, outshooting the Ducks 10-0 in the first eight minutes and taking a 2-1 lead at 32 seconds when Elias Pettersson scored on a wraparound after Anaheim goalie John Gibson, astoundingly, drifted off his goal-line to cuff Vancouver forward Andrei Kuzmenko.

Implored by Tocchet in recent days to play with more speed and directness, Pettersson aggressively wrapped the puck past Gibson before the goalie was fully reset after his sortie to punch Kuzmenko, who had been pinned in the crease by an Anaheim defenceman, then tripped.

“I was just trying to protect the puck and did what I did,” Pettersson said of the goal. “But then I saw the replay, (Gibson) was out boxing Kuzie or whatever it was. But, yeah, we scored and I’m happy with that.”

The Canucks were outshot 27-12 through two periods, although the scoring chances weren’t nearly as lopsided. But the game continued a spell that has seen Vancouver struggle to find and sustain the form that allowed them to build a 12-3-1 start.

Despite their inconsistency over the seven games since, the Canucks have still managed to win three of them. In the first half of last season, they might have lost all seven. In fact, they did lose seven in a row to start last season.

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“Structure plays a huge part,” winger Conor Garland said. “You see a lot of teams that maybe don’t play with a lot of structure and you hear after games like, ‘Ah, we didn’t have it tonight.’ It’s hard to win when you don’t have structure and you don’t have your legs; it’s really impossible. (But if) you have structure to fall back on when you’re not at your best, it kind of keeps you in games until you find your legs. And we’re pretty fortunate we’ve got a couple of freaks on this team like Petey there. . . where you have a game-breaker.”

Canuck goalie Thatcher Demko stopped 30 of 31 shots, but really didn’t have to make many five-star stops.

“The emphasis is on the middle of the ice, you know?” Demko said of the priorities under Tocchet. “There’s been times this year where maybe we haven’t had our best, but the emphasis again is still on the middle of the rink. We’ve done a really good job of just kind of staying composed and realizing what’s important. A lot of guys have talked about not compounding mistakes and things like that, so it’s been a good improvement.”

It’s the same improvement we’ve seen from Boeser, who said Tuesday morning how special Hockey-Fights-Cancer night is for him.

“There’s so many hockey players, and not just hockey players but everyone in this room, everyone out in the world, that knows someone that’s dealing with cancer or has lost someone to cancer,” Boeser said. “It’s obviously something that hits home to me and it’s an important night, and I’m just happy that the NHL celebrates it.”

And then he scored twice, with an angel on his shoulder.

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