NEWARK, N.J. — Organizations sometimes tank. Players never do.
There is just too much for them to play for. And trying to safeguard their team’s draft position, so that better players can be obtained — players good enough to replace those on the current team — never enters their mind.
Instead, you have guys like Phillip Di Giuseppe, the Vancouver Canucks’ 29-year-old callup from the minors who is on his fourth National Hockey League team. CapFriendly.com lists 63 “transactions” for Di Giuseppe in his 10-year professional career, including seven waiver placements and another 13 demotions from the NHL.
In his second game for the Canucks this season, Di Giuseppe buried a wrist shot on a third-period two-on-one to tie Vancouver’s game Monday against the New Jersey Devils. It was the winger’s first NHL goal in nearly two years.
And there is goalie Collin Delia, still trying at age 28 to prove he belongs in the NHL, playing his heart out because you never know when it might be your last good chance.
Then there’s Curtis Lazar, the grinder who has suffered through a pretty miserable first season with the Canucks, finally healthy after the All-Star break and skating miles while scoring his first goal since Oct. 17 on a beautiful setup by bubble defenceman Riley Stillman.
And, of course, there’s Luke Schenn scoring, too, starting Vancouver back from a three-goal deficit, knowing that there is a strong possibility the Canucks will dump him for a draft pick before the March 3 trading deadline.
Not tanking is the Canucks, who just added a head coach and traded their captain and are hopelessly out of the playoff race, rallying back against a frighteningly fast and skilled Devils team that hasn’t lost at home to Vancouver since the visitors were coached by John Tortorella in 2013.
Monday was a bad night for West Coast tankists, who were heartened only by Jesper Bratt’s overtime winner for the Devils on a four-on-three power play amid some suspect officiating at the end of the Canucks’ 5-4 loss.
But that pushback from a team going nowhere this season was actually a pretty encouraging sign for the people who run the Canucks and, especially, new coach Rick Tocchet and his aim to instill higher standards and build a more noble identity for Vancouver.
“I thought a lot of guys played hard tonight — a little more of the identity that I want them to play,” Tocchet said. “I thought they felt it tonight.
“Bad things can happen sometimes; things don’t go your way. And you’re looking for fight from guys, and I saw that.”
The bad things were mostly confined to an odorous 50-second stretch in the middle of the second period when the Canucks inexplicably stopped skating and playing and allowed three goals to the Devils, who blew open what had been an even 1-1 game.
Vancouver defenceman Tyler Myers handed the puck away in his own slot to Ondrej Palat on one of the Devil’s two goals in 32 seconds and, before Bratt’s overtime winner, had a couple of chances to clear the Canucks’ zone shorthanded.
On the job four games, Tocchet said decision-making has to get quicker and that his staff needs to develop some “wall guys” and “inside guys” who can do more of the difficult and thankless gritty work required to win.
But the good outweighed the bad against the Devils, whose winning goal came after a hooking call against the Canucks’ Andrei Kuzmenko (his third minor penalty this season) followed a surprising non-call when New Jersey’s Yegor Sharangovich brought down J.T. Miller with a hook in the Vancouver slot.
Power plays were 4-1 for New Jersey. But the Canucks’ historically-bad penalty killing kept the game tied through the third period despite a continuous disadvantage of three-and-a-half minutes that included a 36-second five-on-three for the Devils.
Vancouver forward Dakota Joshua appeared to get slashed with impunity by New Jersey defenceman Doug Hamilton on a breakaway late in regulation time.
“We’re trying to win every game,” Miller said, “But being down 4-1 to one of the better teams in the league with some high-end talent, it showed a lot of balls coming back, I think.”
Should the Canucks have had a power play before the Devils did in overtime?
“It is what it is,” Miller said. “I’m not surprised by anything. That’s part of the game.”
“We know there’s a lot of work to do here,” Lazar said after finishing with five hits and three shots on net. “For the current game, for next week, next season, whatever it is, you’ve got to put your best foot forward. We’re trying to build a culture, build that identity, and you’ve got to show up every game.
“We’re starting to identify the right way to play and how to play. And then you can see when we don’t do it, the puck ends up in the back of our net. To have the maturity and character to kind of right the ship again and claw back… we fought hard all night. They just happened to make one more play than us.”
Jack Hughes, Canucks defenceman Quinn’s younger brother, had two goals, one assist and nine shots for the Devils, whose fans chanted “M-V-P! M-V-P!” for him several times. Hamilton had three assists but was embarrassed by Kuzmenko’s toe drag on the Canuck’s opening goal.
Schenn, Conor Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson each had two points for Vancouver. Anthony Beauvillier, one of the players the Canucks acquired in last week’s blockbuster trade of captain Bo Horvat to the New York Islanders, had two shots, two hits and was minus-two (but with an expected goals-for of 60.4 per cent) in his first game with Vancouver.
Elias Pettersson wore a newly-sewn ‘A’ for the Canucks, who have a permanent alternate captain in Miller and are expected to rotate ‘A’s between Pettersson, Hughes and Ekman-Larsson.
Di Giuseppe, meanwhile, is just hoping to get another game after Jack Studnicka was scratched Monday due to illness.
“I think my last (goal) went in off my shinpads, so it was nice to put one in with a shot,” Di Giuseppe told Sportsnet. “These opportunities don’t come that often. It’s a special league and there’s only about, what, 600 or 700 guys that get to play in it? Whoever you are, you’re always fighting for a spot for next year, for contracts and all that. We get paid to play hockey and we’re going to play hard.”
Like it or not.