VANCOUVER – During their wild opening quarter of the National Hockey League season, it was difficult at times to tell if the Vancouver Canucks were a good team with defending issues or just a poor one that scored a lot.
Through 22 games, the Canucks are 30th in team defence with 3.73 goals-against per game. Their shot share of 46.7 per cent is 25th, and their shot deficit of 3.7 per game ranks 27th. Worst of all, they’ve lost seven games (salvaging only two loser points) after leading by two or three goals – an NHL record for the first quarter and on pace to blow through the all-time multi-goal collapse mark of 13 losses in one season.
Their ineptitude with the lead led veteran defenceman Luke Schenn to issue this call to action after only Game 3: “We’ve got to defend way harder. The good teams who are consistent and win, and are in the playoffs year after year and do well in the playoffs, are the teams that take care of the puck and the teams that defend well. That’s really all there is to it. We’ve had multiple-goal leads in all three games, so clearly scoring isn’t our issue.”
Scoring isn’t the issue. The Canucks are fifth in the NHL with 3.59 goals per game, their power play is crackling along at 28.6 per cent and a pile of players are among NHL leaders: Elias Pettersson (27 points), Bo Horvat (17 goals), defenceman Quinn Hughes (21 assists) and first-year winger Andrei Kuzmenko (11 goals, 21 points), who would nearly be lapping the field in rookie scoring if the 26-year-old were eligible for the Calder Trophy.
The Canucks have been like a carnival ride, an absolute tilt-a-whirl. That’s a fun ride for a lot of people. For others, it makes them queasy and wish they’d eaten less cotton candy.
Vancouver passed the quarter mark last weekend on a three-game winning streak, having swept a road trip that included victories against the mighty Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights. Astonishingly, after everything that has transpired through 22 games, the 9-10-3 Canucks are only one point out of a wildcard playoff spot in the Western Conference as they open a four-game homestand Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals.
And Bruce Boudreau is still the coach.
As if the chaotically unpredictable goals bonanza was not enough to entertain people, there has been a simmering drama off the ice with what appears to be an uneasy coexistence between Boudreau and president Jim Rutherford, whose pointed observations/criticisms of the Canucks’ “structure” began at the end of last season and reached a boiling point on Nov. 7 when the hockey-operations boss did an interview on Sportsnet 650 radio.
“At this point, I would have expected better,” Rutherford said. “I didn’t like our training camp and we continued into the early part of the season the same way. There’s a lot of things that have to happen. But in order for us to become a better team, we have to play with a stronger system and really be more accountable.
“If we were playing in a real strong structure, it would make it easier for our defence to play. But right now, we don’t have that strong structure, and we need to change the makeup of our defence.”
Trying to get his struggling team ready to open a road trip in Ottawa, Boudreau responded: “Listen, I’m not going to get into an argument of whether we do or whether we don’t (have structure). We play as hard as we can, we do as well as we can and we lay it all out on the line, I think, every night. You know, it’s my 47th year in the business. I’ve seen a lot of things, so I mean, it’s just another thing added to the book that I’ll never write.”
Just wait until the publishing houses start bidding and we’ll see what Boudreau writes after he retires. The Canucks could be a Netflix series.
Between them, Rutherford, 73, and Boudreau, 67, have nearly 100 years in professional hockey. They’ve experienced enough, know themselves and the game enough, to get through this. Or not. But it is still not close to the most dysfunctional era in franchise history.
That peaked with the 1998-99 team when Brian Burke was hired as general manager and inherited coach Mike Keenan, who took advantage of the management vacuum after Pat Quinn was fired the previous season – Quinn rejected an offer a couple of weeks later to return as coach; we told you it was dysfunctional – to get rid of all the players.
The hostility between Burke and Keenan was palpable. Were they a romance, it would have ended like “Fatal Attraction,” with someone’s rabbit boiling in a pot. Instead, Burke fired Keenan halfway through that season.
It’s possible that Rutherford may yet fire Boudreau, although the Canucks’ worst spell may be over and the team could soon be in playoff position.
Some of the good and bad of the first quarter:
Good thing: Pettersson reaching yet another level by adding defensive chops to a polished, responsible offensive game. He has become one of the best two-way centres in the NHL and should be, as Boudreau noted on Saturday, a candidate for the Selke Trophy.
Bad thing: Goalie Thatcher Demko, part of the preseason discussion about Vezina Trophy candidates, opened with the worst form of his young career. Demko has allowed fewer than three goals only once in 14 starts, lost some of his crease share to backup Spencer Martin, and is still carrying an .885 save rate despite showing recent signs of emerging from his slump.
Good thing: Horvat’s 17 goals in 22 games have him on pace to score 63. If he gets to 42, he’ll be the highest-scoring Canuck since the team went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.
Bad thing: Horvat’s expiring contract. Rutherford and GM Patrik Allvin prioritized re-signing J.T. Miller (seven years, $56 million) last summer and have been at a stalemate in negotiations with Horvat since then. With massive pay increases looming for Pettersson and, perhaps, Kuzmenko, it’s difficult to see how the Canucks find money to keep their captain unless they trade Miller before his new deal kicks in next season.
Good thing: The development of Martin, Kuzmenko and Swedish rookie Nils Aman, who wasn’t expected to get anywhere near the NHL roster in his first season in North America but has made himself a fourth-line staple due to his speed and defensive instincts.
Bad thing: The lack of development for sophomore winger Vasily Podkolzin and rookie defenceman Jack Rathbone, who played their way out of the lineup and were sent this week to the American Hockey League to get game time.
The good and the bad: Special teams. And Miller, the mercurial power forward, was awful early on at centre, but has been good lately at left wing. He pilots the power play and influences everything. It says something about how talented he is that even after an erratic start (minus-7, expected-goals-for of 41.3 per cent), Miller has 11 goals and 23 points.
Like we said, the Canucks have been a thrill ride. Nobody can say how it will end.