Happy as a Canuck, Conor Garland not panicking about lack of production

Vancouver Canucks' Conor Garland. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER — Sometimes sports are hard to figure.

Conor Garland says he has never had more fun in the National Hockey League, but the Vancouver Canucks‘ season began two months ago with reports he was unhappy and wanted out.

Garland is having a strong season, but not in the scoring part because he has just two goals in 27 games while being paid $4.95 million.

He is a top-six forward driving the Canucks’ third line.

He is from Boston, but likes Vancouver.

He says he wants to stay with the Canucks, but could still be traded.

Conor Garland makes your head spin. And not just with the way he stickhandles in the offensive zone.

“Yeah, it’s the most fun I’ve had in the NHL,” the 27-year-old reiterated after Friday’s practice at Rogers Arena. “This has been a blast.”

And then, to make his point, Garland talked about his first two seasons — the last two seasons — in Vancouver.

“You know, we travel a lot,” he began. “I don’t think people realize, like, when you’re travelling and you’re flying and you lose, those are long flights that are quiet. And they build up. If you go on a six-game road trip and win two games, there are four flights in there that are just miserable. It wears on you after a while when it’s just misery. Quietness and doom and gloom.

“So, this year has been a lot of fun. We have a great group that just competes and plays hard. There’s not many games you can say we’re not competing.”

And no matter what you think about Garland, there have been very few games when he hasn’t competed.

The five-foot-nine dynamo leads the Canucks in five-on-five shots-for percentage at 57.6, and expected-goals at 58.6 per cent. Linemates Dakota Joshua and Teddy Blueger are top-five in both categories. 

And while the Canucks’ 2-0 win Thursday against the Minnesota Wild nudged them to 5-6-0 in their last 11 games, only once in the last nine has Vancouver been outshot at five-on-five when Garland is on the ice.

Yet, he hasn’t scored since Nov. 12, and Garland’s beautiful pass on Blueger’s breakaway goal against the Wild was just his fourth assist in 12 games.

Depending which statistics you value most, Garland has been either terrible or brilliant. Mostly, it feels like he has been unlucky, scoring on only 3.5 per cent of his shots — barely one-third of a career shooting percentage of 10.1 that has made Garland, more or less, a 20-goal, 50-point forward in the NHL.

In his first two seasons with the Canucks, the winger from Scituate, Mass., compiled 36 goals and 98 points in 158 games and trailed only star teammates J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson in even-strength points. This season, Garland is on pace for six goals and 27 points.

“I’ve produced for a while in my career, kind of every year,” he told Sportsnet. “It’s not like I just woke up and became a … bad finisher. It’s just sometimes they don’t go in and that’s kind of been the case this year. But when the team’s winning and you’re contributing in other ways, it doesn’t really matter if you have a goal or assist. You’re just trying to play well and help the team win anyway you can.

“I think the team doesn’t pay you to just go out and score; the team pays you to help them win. Maybe if I was playing on the first line, first power play, 20 minutes a night, not scoring and the team’s losing? Yeah, I think they could have some issues. But we have a pretty good record right now. I understand my role is different than it has been, really, my past six years in the league. But sure, I understand there’s lots of complaints about (his lack of scoring).”

Not quite halfway through his five-year, $24.75-million contract, Garland’s even-strength average ice time of 11:56 ranks 10th among Vancouver forwards. But it is also revealing that head coach Rick Tocchet has changed all his forward lines except Garland’s during the team’s current dip in play.

Last week, when asked about leaving Garland on the Canucks’ third line, Tocchet said: “I think Gars is a buzzsaw. He’s, ‘Where’s the puck?’ Go get it (instead of) just kind of hanging around waiting to see where the puck is. 

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“Like, Brock (Boeser) is really good at finding areas and kind of being a methodical guy. Gars, at his best, he can’t be methodical. He has just got to go. Let him be a buzzsaw. I had him in Arizona when he scored 20-something goals and that’s what he did there. He just goes. When he starts to play a little bit of a thinking game … I think sometimes that’s when he gets lost. He’s been playing well. I don’t care about the points.”

In other words, Tocchet believes Garland is most effective on the puck and driving his own line rather than trying to be a complementary piece in the top six and deferring to Miller or Pettersson.

Tocchet said he likes Garland on his team.

It’s too bad Garland didn’t just say he likes the Canucks and wasn’t interested in going elsewhere when he was cross-examined by reporters on Oct. 10 — the eve of Vancouver’s season-opener — after the story broke that his new agent, Judd Moldaver, had been empowered to seek a trading partner for his client.

Garland had the chance to shoot down the story, if untrue or misleading, but didn’t. But neither did he confirm the reports.

“You know, I never asked for a trade,” he insisted Friday. “That just wasn’t the case.”

So why didn’t he say so two months ago?

“That wasn’t my business to comment on a report the night before a game,” he said. “I assumed — silly me, knowing this market — that trying to not answer it, trying to just be quiet and make it a non-issue, would help.”

Reporter: “You fool.”

Garland: “’You fool’ is right. But we’re so past it. I understand people still think I asked for a trade, but I never did. People can believe what they want.”

Garland said he is not only happy as a Canuck, but at a “great point in my life” after getting married in August. He said he has played long enough not to panic about his lack of offensive production through the first third of the regular season.

The Carolina Hurricanes visit the 17-9-1 Canucks on Saturday night.

“You know if you’ve played well,” Garland said. “If you’ve played bad, you know you played bad and you better be good next game. I think I’m a pretty good self-evaluator. I go home (after games) and I have a spot on my walk home where I always say to myself on the way to the rink, ‘Make sure you come home feeling good about your game.’”

Wait, he walks to and from games?

“Sometimes. I live close.”

And do fans recognize him?

“Yeah, sometimes. And they’re great.”

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