The Vancouver Canucks‘ finely-crafted plan to continue building confidence, momentum and a winning culture has hit a little snag: the team is now winless in four pre-season games.
The Canucks fell to 0-2-2 and have scored just five goals after a fairly dismal 4-0 loss Saturday in Seattle against the Kraken.
It’s only pre-season for the National Hockey League, but the Canucks have looked little like the team that was glorious in defeat last season, missing the playoffs despite finishing 32-15-10 under Bruce Boudreau after a December coaching change.
After blowing a two-goal, third-period lead on Thursday when a spartan Kraken lineup rallied for a 4-3 overtime win at Rogers Arena, the Canucks just didn’t look competitive in Saturday’s rematch. They were outshot 11-4 in the first period – at one point, shot attempts were 18-4 – and made it to the final period trailing 1-0 only because goalie Thatcher Demko was easily the best Canuck.
He looked like the Demko of last season. Too much so.
The Canucks relied an extraordinary amount on him last year, and unless Demko was excellent, the team didn’t win. Boudreau has stated the importance of changing that this season, making it easier on their MVP. Demko was outstanding on Saturday and it still didn’t matter as the Kraken scored three third-period goals, two on needless turnovers and one into an empty-netter, to improve to 3-0 on home ice in the pre-season.
The second-year expansion team has outscored the Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames 10-0 in Seattle.
Even with a lineup that included three NHL-calibre forward lines and five NHL defencemen, the Canucks looked slow and sloppy with the puck and were significantly outplayed by the Kraken, which outscored Vancouver 7-0 over four-plus periods. The Kraken finished 32 points behind the Canucks last season.
“We couldn’t handle their speed a little bit,” Boudreau said. “And consequently, they get the (scoring) opportunities. We’re going to get better, but it’s just not happening as quick as I’d like it to.”
The coach has three more pre-season games, starting Monday in Edmonton, to get his team together.
TURNOVER AND ITS OVER
Down 1-0 to start the third, Canucks defenceman Tyler Myers blindly reversed the puck to the Kraken behind his own net in the opening minute, which left defence partner Jack Rathbone in no-man’s land and allowed Yanni Gourde to bury an open shot from the low slot at 58 seconds.
Six minutes later, Vancouver blue-liner Tucker Poolman forced a pass that was intercepted, then fell while trying to turn 180 degrees in transition, gifting Gourde a breakaway that he finished with a short-side deke on Demko to make it 3-0 at 7:15.
That was terrible puck management by two veteran defencemen.
Myers, at least, did some positive things, finishing with four shots on net – three of them good scoring chances – and led his team with a shot-share of 60.7 per cent.
There was nothing redeeming about Poolman’s game. He had one hit and three blocks but was crushed territorially, finishing with a 25 per cent Corsi, and an expected-goals-for of 11.1 per cent. It’s encouraging that 10 days since training camp opened, Poolman remains healthy after missing all but four minutes of the final three months of last season due to neurological complications from migraines.
But not only does he still look nothing like a player worthy of the $10-million, four-year contract he was bestowed as a free agent before last season, he hasn’t looked like an NHL player so far.
MEANWHILE, BACK ON DEFENCE
While there has been a great deal of public focus and debate about what will/should happen at the top of the Canuck defence with Quinn Hughes experimenting on the right side, his off-side, there are guys other than Poolman genuinely battling for places in the bottom half.
Rathbone has been good since camp opened but had his quietest of three exhibition games on Saturday. Kyle Burroughs played a spirited game on Thursday, and veteran Luke Schenn countered with his own physicality on Saturday.
The robust right-shot blue-liner had two hits and a knockdown on his first shift and finished the game with four hits and three blocks. The Canucks weren’t hard to play against, but Schenn certainly was.
“My personal opinion is we need to have a little more poise with the puck in the D-zone,” Schenn said. “And when we don’t have the puck, we’re stick checking, we’re too soft.
“We need to figure out what hard-to-play-against means and what that feels like. That’s the only chance you have of winning in this league.”
No wonder general manager Patrik Allvin declared before the last trade deadline that Schenn was essential to his plans, given the player’s character and leadership qualities. It seems unlikely that Boudreau won’t feel the same way about Schenn and his lineup if the two-time Stanley Cup winner continues to play with this level of bite while leading by example.
THUMB UP AND THUMB DOWN
It was nice to see fourth-liner Dakota Joshua display his size and physicality for a second straight game, matching Schenn’s four hits. But until a couple of sustained offensive-zone shifts in the third period, he and experienced linemates Jason Dickinson and Curtis Lazar had negligible impact on momentum, let alone the score.
Like Joshua, Lazar was a tactical free-agent addition in July, signed from Boston to give the Canucks a more robust and legitimate fourth line that would be difficult to play against. Like their team at the moment, they have a ways to go.
With the lineup they dressed, the Canucks should have been better. The same goes for their power play. But the ineffectiveness of the man-advantage units was a little more understandable because Vancouver went without Hughes, Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko.
Those three players – the elite PP quarterback, the best player of the Canucks’ camp and pre-season, and the tantalizingly-skilled newcomer – contributed to a 2-for-5 performance in Thursday’s OT loss to the Kraken.
Without them, the first unit Saturday looked plodding and predictable. The Canucks had only two power plays, but they came nearly back-to-back late in the second period when the score was 1-0. The top unit, which included first-stringers J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat, failed during the first opportunity to even set up in the offensive zone. And on the second chance, they generated only a flubbed shot for Tanner Pearson. There was no sizzle or speed without Hughes, Pettersson and Kuzmenko.
THE VIEW FROM 20,000 FEET
Second-overall 2021 draft pick Matty Beniers scored the opening goal for the Kraken, beating Demko in the second period with a shot that appeared to clip the stick of Canuck defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. During his 10-game (and nine-point) NHL cameo at the end of last season, Beniers, 19, was the most dangerous Seattle player when the Kraken played the Canucks.
Shane Wright, 18, the fourth-overall pick in July, was tough to spot in two pre-season games against the Canucks. He still projects to be a Trevor Linden-type player in the NHL. But Beniers could be Mike Modano. We’re just saying.