Thanksgiving weekend in the United States is a standard benchmark for judging where a team stands, with the National Hockey League season at or near the quarter pole.
Coming off a big 4-3 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday, the Vancouver Canucks are 7-10-3, sixth in the Pacific Division and three points out of a playoff spot. Given their terrible start to the season, going 0-5-2 in their first seven games, that’s not a terrible position to have pulled themselves back to.
But in the big picture, they’ve still given up nine more goals than they’ve scored, hardly a recipe for long-term success.
With one-quarter of the season now gone, let’s take a look at what’s driving, and dragging, the Canucks’ roster.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Vegas Golden Knights
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Bo Horvat has 16 goals, tied for the league lead with Connor McDavid and Jason Robertson. After just 20 games he’s already halfway to beating his career best of 31 goals in a season, which he had last year in 70 games. Horvat is one of the best faceoff men in the league and has made himself into one of, if not the, hottest trade chips in the NHL. He’s an unrestricted free agent next summer and will be due a big raise on the US$5.5 million he’s making this season. The Canucks will struggle to afford him, even with the salary cap expected to increase.
The best scoring chances are the ones on top of the crease and no Canuck has done a better two-way job of generating chances in close than Elias Pettersson. When he’s on the ice, the Canucks are getting 56.3 per cent of the high-danger chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. These are scoring chances that are right in front of the crease. Only two Canuck regulars, Nils Höglander and Luke Schenn, have been on the ice for fewer high-danger chances against than Pettersson per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time. Only two players have been on the ice for more high-danger chances for the Canucks than Pettersson, his wingers Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko. Pettersson leads the Canucks in scoring with 10 goals and 14 assists, two points more than Horvat.
Brock Boeser is putting up points, but has only two goals. Goals will likely come for him — the Canucks are generating lots of shots for while he’s on the ice — but most concerning is how badly things are going for him defensively. He missed six games while his surgery wound re-healed, but his 14 games is a solid sample size and while he’s been on the ice the Canucks’ goals-against rate is far and away at its worst. The opposition are scoring 6.25 goals per 60 minutes of even-strength time with him on the ice. And he’s only got two goals, along with 11 assists.
Vasily Podkolzin’s sophomore season is not going to plan. The 21-year-old winger hasn’t scored a goal and has only three assists. He’s taken just 18 shots in the 16 games he’s played. He’s a regular healthy scratch right now and there’s no obvious case for him to come back into the lineup.
Sheldon Dries has five points in nine games, with two goals and three assists. That’s the kind of production that can keep you in the lineup when you’re a depth centre.
Ilya Mikheyev was signed, partly, to help the penalty kill. And while the unit as a whole continues to struggle, the opposition’s shot rate against the Canucks is lowest when Mikheyev is on the ice. He has the second-lowest rate of shot attempts against when he’s on the ice, 91.8 shot attempts per 60 minutes of short-handed time, behind only Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The 27-year-old has also been able to chip in offensively, with five goals and six assists in 17 games.
The Canucks are scoring lots, but Conor Garland has just three goals so far. He’s on pace for just 12 goals, well off his career pace of roughly one goal every four games and well behind the 19 he had last season, his first with the Canucks.
For all his defensive struggles to start the year, J.T. Miller has been a very positive offensive influence. He’s formed a powerful scoring partnership with Horvat. And he’s drawn the most penalties on the team, 10, twice as many as he’s taken. That’s a sign of a player who is making the opposition chase him. Miller has 10 goals and nine assists through 20 games, but is a -10 on the season.
There are many things on offence that Andrei Kuzmenko does well. He’s been a big addition to the power play. There are still questions about his defensive zone play, but one good sign is that no Canucks forward has seen the opposition take fewer shot attempts against when they’re on the ice than Kuzmenko. His ice time has been managed smartly. The 26-year-old rookie has eight goals and eight assists in 19 games.
Nils Hoglander is working hard every night. He’s forcing turnovers on the forecheck and remains a good player on Horvat’s wing. But to stick in the NHL he has to score, which he hasn’t done with just one goal and two assists in 15 games. And he’s not finishing enough this season, shooting just 6.3 per cent, well below league average.
The Canucks’ fourth line of Dakota Joshua, Nils Aman and Curtis Lazar should be considered as a collective. They bash, they crash, they score a little, but mostly they’re there not to get scored upon. And they’ve done a solid job of that. Aman’s been on the ice for exactly as many goals for as against. The fourth line is treading water and that’s the least you can ask for when your stars are taking a break.
There have only been two games this year in which Quinn Hughes hasn’t picked up at least one point. Enough said, as the 22-year-old defenceman has 18 assists to this point. He is still looking for his first goal of the season.
Tyler Myers is playing the second-most minutes at even-strength of any Canuck, behind Hughes. He’s being asked to play a defensive-primary role, but the problem is the opposition is still getting lots of shots on goal while he’s on the ice. Only one defenceman’s presence on the ice is yielding more shots against, Jack Rathbone, and he is now a regular healthy scratch. Most often Myers’ partner has been Riley Stillman, so switching Stillman out for Kyle Burroughs, who has a more solid track record, might help Myers.
Luke Schenn has thrown the most hits in the league with 86, but that’s really not his story this year. He’s been a solid partner for Hughes and while the Canucks as a whole have not defended well, he’s been a dependable customer. Is he playing too high up the lineup? On a better team, yes. But he’s a guy every team wants, too. He can handle the puck and play physical and doesn’t complain. And he’s a bargain at just US$850,000.
The Canucks are actually playing relatively even hockey when Oliver Ekman-Larsson is on the ice, though it’s not pretty at times. But the veteran blueliner has struggled on the power play. When he’s on the man advantage, the Canucks are generating shot attempts at a dismal rate, just 63.9 shots per 60 minutes of power play time. That’s the worst of all regular contributors to the power play. It shows up in his offensive totals as he has just one goal and eight assists through 20 games.
Rathbone has struggled to make an impact. He’s now the team’s eighth defenceman and the truth is, when he’s played, he’s been a problem in his own end. No player on the Canucks is seeing more shots go towards his own goal than Rathbone, with the opposition firing 72.9 shot attempts per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time. If you can’t take care of business in your end, whatever else you do doesn’t matter.
The Canucks are shooting just 2.4 per cent with Burroughs on the ice. Teams usually score on just under 10 per cent of their shots, so if you’re looking for a player who might seem to suddenly get on a hot streak, Burroughs is actually a decent pick to generate a burst of points. He has just one goal and no assists in 11 games.
Stillman has had some bad moments in the early days of his Canucks career, but he’s also been a victim of bad luck to a degree. The Canucks’ goalies are stopping just 85.9 per cent of shots taken at even strength while he’s on the ice. By comparison, Thatcher Demko posted a 93.2 save percentage at even strength last season. Even this year Demko has stopped 91.1 per cent of even-strength shots against him.
The opposition have scored just two goals from a high-danger chance while Ethan Bear is on the ice for the Canucks. The Canucks’ newest defender is slowly forming a partnership with Ekman-Larsson and they’re doing a solid job of keeping chances to the outside. It’s likely a few more goals will go in from in tight while Bear is on the ice, that’s just how luck works, but early signs are good for him.
Demko has just two wins on the year. He struggled out of the gate but has shown signs of improvement recently. He had his best game of the season last Friday in the Canucks’ 5-1 defeat of the Los Angeles Kings. He then fell ill during the Canucks’ 5-4 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday, but the Canucks are hopeful he’s rediscovered the form that carried them so close to the playoffs last season. Fortunately, backup Spencer Martin has been as good as the Canucks hoped he’d be. He’s given the Canucks a chance to win every game he’s played, most recently their impressive 4-3 comeback win in Denver.
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