“This isn’t a ‘try’ league, it’s a ‘gotta get it done’ league.” That’s how coach Willie Desjardins explained his decision to make underperforming Sven Baertschi a healthy scratch against the St. Louis Blues last Friday, per Farhan Lalji of TSN.
The Vancouver Canucks didn’t get it done against the Blues—or, with Baertschi back in the lineup, against the Edmonton Oilers or Washington Capitals. Thanks to a late game-winner from Alex Ovechkin on Thursday night, the Canucks are now 0-2-1 on their current five-game homestand. They’ll need wins in their next two games against the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens in order to salvage even a .500 record through what should have been a favourable part of their schedule.
Last season, the Canucks were 4-3-0 through seven games. Early blowout losses to the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche raised questions about goaltending and team speed—issues that continued to plague the team throughout the year.
This season, Vancouver has been in every game, but a 3-2-2 record through seven games also adds up to eight points so far.
Here are the four early areas of concern for the Canucks in 2015-16.
So far this year, the Canucks are a perfect 3-0-0 on the road but have yet to deliver a win for the fans at Rogers Arena. Thursday’s loss to Washington dropped their home record to 0-2-2.
Last season, Vancouver was fifth overall on the road with a record of 24-14-3, but 17th at home at 23-14-4. The early results this year are trending to even greater extremes—Vancouver’s currently 24th in the league at home as one of just two teams in the Western Conference without a win in its own barn.
Desjardins had set a goal for the Canucks to be better at home this season. All four games have been close, but the results—and points—haven’t materialized. “I think it’s important for our team’s success, I think it’s important for the fans. So that’s disappointing when we haven’t (posted wins), Desjardins told Eric MacKenzie of 24 Hours after Sunday’s overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
After this homestand ends, the Canucks won’t have much of an opportunity to get in the groove at the Rog. They’ll play just four home games in November, compared to 10 on the road.
Last season, the Canucks were 2-0 against Washington, 5-0 against Edmonton and 3-0 against St. Louis. Vancouver hadn’t lost to the Caps at Rogers Arena since 2001 and was 9-0-2 in its last 11 games against the Blues. After the losses of the last week, all those streaks have come to abrupt ends.
It’s unnerving to see the Canucks fail to collect points against teams they traditionally dominate. If they hope to repeat their 101-point performance from last season, they’ll need to make up the difference when they face teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche, which all gave them trouble last season.
One of the most troubling elements of Thursday night’s loss to Washington was the fact that the Canucks controlled the game with a 2-1 lead going into the third period.
Vancouver had been outshot 23-18 through the first 40 minutes but held the edge on the scoreboard. Then, the road team took control over what should have been a well-rested Canucks squad, outshooting Vancouver 12-7 in the final frame and scoring twice to capture the win.
Last season, the Canucks were a virtual lock to take home two points when they built a lead through 40 minutes—their record was 30-1-3. This year, that record is already 2-1-1: in the home opener, Vancouver also turned a 2-1 third-period lead, against Calgary, into an overtime loss.
Shortening the Bench
Blown leads were one of the hallmarks of John Tortorella’s reign of terror in Vancouver: the Canucks went 21-5-2 during their season under the new Columbus Blue Jackets’ boss.
With Torts, single-digit ice time numbers were also common occurrences on the fourth line, something we didn’t see when Willie Desjardins consistently rolled four lines last season.
Willie’s determination to balance ice time burned him in the playoffs against Calgary, but it’s scary to see him shortening his bench with such regularity this early in the new campaign.
On Thursday night, Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann and Sven Baertschi all finished with eight minutes of ice time or less. Virtanen played five shifts in the third period, but two were less than 10 seconds long. Baertschi hit the ice twice in the final frame, with one one-second shift and McCann earned just one 35-second turn, while the Canucks were still leading early in the period.
Rather than keep playing the kids, who had been fine if somewhat unremarkable through the first two periods, Desjardins basically combined the second and fourth lines—moving Brandon Prust and Derek Dorsett up to flank Bo Horvat.
Horvat, Prust and Dorsett had just come onto the ice when Dmitry Orlov fired the long bomb from behind his own net that set up Alex Ovechkin’s game-winning goal, but Willie defended his strategy unequivocally after the game.
“Their line is a real good forechecking line,” Willie countered, per Jason Botchford at The Province. “They got on it. They turned some over. They had chances on it.
“Those guys can create. I had confidence in them.
“The play we just about scored on, Prust takes it wide, Horvat goes to the net. It was an empty net, we just didn’t complete it.”
For better or worse, Desjardins takes his time trusting his young forwards. Horvat paid his dues with limited ice time during the first two months of his rookie season last year before gradually seeing his role expand. It’s a different story for ultra-poised 22-year-old defenseman Ben Hutton: he has been thrown straight onto the front lines and is averaging a steady 18:58 a game.
By erring on the side of caution with the kids up front, Desjardins runs the risk wearing down his veterans as the season progresses, as Tortorella did. On Thursday, Willie might also have cost his club two points when the Canucks failed to “get it done” in the third period.