VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are never boring.
Really, considering they have two of the most exciting young players in the National Hockey League of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, it is almost impossible for the Canucks to be boring. But you never know what you’ll get from this emerging (we think) Vancouver team.
In less than half a season, the Canucks took three points out of four from the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, but lost twice to the New Jersey Devils. In the end they beat the Las Vegas Golden Knights and also won in Washington against the Capitals, but were blitzed in Chicago against the Blackhawks and brought a three-goal lead from the third period to lose against the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
What is there to watch in the second half of the season? Everything.
ARE OR ARE NOT?
The clear, though unspoken goal for the Canucks this season was to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015. General manager Jim Benning needed to take the team to another level and, rather than just waiting for his excellent young players naturally improved over the next two years, he spent resources and money adding five new players over the summer.
The Canucks would have been better, but the odds were still against them going up 12-14 points in the standings after finishing the previous season with 81 points. So Vancouver started this season 9-3-3 and the conversation about the playoffs has changed.
In November, when the Canucks crashed 1-5-2, a high draw lottery seemed more plausible than a high finish in the Pacific Division rankings. But Vancouver went back before Christmas to go back two points from the playoff end point in the Western Conference.
Are they a playoff team? The odds remain against them. But the Canucks have beaten some excellent teams and, at least, seem able to stay in the fight until April, which would represent significant progress in the past four years.
Everyone needs a huge bear
As we have said many times, the franchise has never had a defender like Hughes. Readily nicknamed Huggy Bear by teammates, the dynamic blue-liner was a revelation not only for its skating and handling, but also for its intelligent and defensive ability. The 20-year-old led the Canucks with 24:36 average time on the ice in the last nine games before Christmas and reached the holiday break with three goals and 27 points in 37 games. Hughes is at the rhythm for 53 assists and 59 points.
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Not only could the rookie succeed his teammate Pettersson as Calder Trophy winner, Hughes has a chance to beat longtime defenders’ records by points in one season (Doug Lister’s 63 in 1986-87) and most assists (55 by Dennis Kearns in 1976-1977). On many evenings, Hughes was the funniest Canuck to watch, which considering Pettersson’s talents is also extraordinary.
HEALTH WISHES IN THE NEW YEAR
Until Hughes arrived, the best two Canucks defenders for several years – and third place wasn’t close – were Alex Edler and Chris Tanev. But Tanev has lost 96 games in the past three seasons and Edler 82 in the past four. Their record last season, when both were in formation, was 20-14-6. When one or both were injured, Vancouver was 15-22-5 years old. Let’s review: the Canucks were a playoff team with Edler and Tanev, a lottery team when one of them was injured.
So far this season, Tanev hasn’t lost a game and Edler, who has returned to the line-up of the game before Christmas, has lost 10. For the record, the Canucks are 14-10-4 with Edler and Tanev, 5- 5 when they have I don’t have both. It’s not exactly hilarious to watch kids trying to stay healthy, but it could make all the difference between the Canucks making or missing the playoffs.
BUY OR SELL?
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Tanev is eligible for an unrestricted free agency on July 1st, and so goalkeeper Jacob Markstrom is starting. GM Benning badly wants to keep Markstrom and said he plans to open negotiations on a contract extension soon. It will be more complicated than it seems, given the goalkeeper market and the development, at the moment blocked due to a second concussion in as many seasons, of the talented backup Thatcher Demko.
But what do they do with Tanev? The prudent thing is to pick a second or third round choice or a decent prospect at the February commercial deadline. If he is healthy, there should be a great deal of interest in the reliable defender of the arrest. But Tanev has just turned 30 and is obviously still important to the Canucks, especially as a defense partner and mentor for young Hughes. But with limited space for the cap again next season, can Benning risk losing Tanev for nothing by keeping the deadline?
If I am still in the battle of the playoffs in two months, could Benning even become a buyer on expiration? He said he would like another wing of the six best. There will be important decisions made before the end of this season that will affect the Canucks next year and beyond.
ELIAS PETTERSSON AND BROCK BOESER