More than one way to the bottom of the standings

With each loss in this seemingly endless tailspin of a season for the Vancouver Canucks, comparisons are made to the last time things were this bad for the organization. That was 1998-99: a season that saw Mike Keenan fired, Brian Burke and Marc Crawford hired, Pavel Bure traded and ultimately led to the Canucks landing Daniel and Henrik Sedin in the draft. It’s fair to say that was the most eventful six months in the nearly 50-year history of the hockey club.

This season has hardly held such drama, yet the on-ice results are so similar. If misery does love company, these two versions of the Vancouver Canucks are a perfect match although it proves there is more than one way to the bottom.

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The 1998-99 team finished 23-47-12 picking up 58 points along the way. This year’s team (aided by a few overtime & shootout victories) will finish with more wins and a few more points. Where this year’s team has struggled mightily on home ice (13 wins so far), the 98-99 Canucks were a disaster on the road going 9-26-6.

The struggle to score goals was a common thread between the two teams. Without the services of Bure, the 1998-99 Canucks finished with 192 goals (2.34 per game). Only the John Tortorella team of 2013-14 scored fewer goals in a season (191/2.33 per game). This year’s version has 165 goals through 73 games (2.26 per game) and is on pace to set a new franchise low with 185 goals over an 82 game season. The 1998-99 Canucks finished with a goal differential of -66 while this year’s team is currently sitting at -41 with nine games to go.

A 25-year-old Markus Naslund led the 1998-99 Canucks in scoring with 36 goals and 66 points. A 38-year-old Mark Messier – in his second season with the organization – finished second with 13 goals and 48 points while averaging 22:36 of ice time a night. Alex Mogilny finished third on that team with 45 points while rookie Bill Muckalt was fourth with a career-best 36 points. Overall, the 1998-99 Canucks finished with six double-digit goal scorers – the same number this year’s team has.

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One of the biggest differences between the two teams is the fact that 1998-99 squad struggled to score despite Adrian Aucoin setting a franchise-record with 23 goals as a defenseman. Aucoin had 23 (including 18 on the power play) while Mattias Ohlund chipped in with nine and Bryan McCabe added seven. That year, the Canucks got 49 goals from their defensemen. The current crop has 20 goals led by Alex Edler with six. In all, the 1998-99 Canucks got 49+86=135 from the defense corps. This year’s team currently has 20+87=107 with nine games to play.

With the offensive ineptitude of the two Canucks teams, it should come as no surprise that both teams were blanked often. The 1998-99 team was shutout eight times including back to back games after the Christmas break that season. This year’s team has been shutout eight times as well, including the three straight shutouts earlier this week that were part of a new franchise record for futility. The earlier version of the Canucks averaged just 23.7 shots per game while surrendering 29.3. This year’s team generates more shots per game (28.6), but also gives up more (32.0).

In goal, the 1998-99 Canucks used three netminders – Garth Snow, Corey Hirsch and Kevin Weekes with Snow accounting for 20 of the team’s 23 victories that season. Weekes made 11 appearances after coming over in the Bure deal and failed to post a victory (0-8-1). The team save percentage that season was a dismal 89.5%. This season, goaltending has been the least of the Canucks concerns with Ryan Miller, Jacob Markstrom (and Richard Bachman) combining to stop 91.7% of all shots faced.

The 1998-99 Canucks used 32 skaters including youngsters Todd Bertuzzi (then 23-years-old), Ed Jovanovski, Dave Scatchard and Brent Sopel (all 22), Peter Schaefer and Josh Holden (both 21) and Matt Cooke (20). With the recent infusion of youth from Utica, this year’s team has used 34 different skaters so far this season. The earlier team was 15.7% (57/358) on the power play with Aucoin and Naslund the only players to score more than four goals with the man-advantage. That team was also 373/450 (82.9%) on the penalty kill. The biggest difference between the two teams isn’t the percentages, but rather the sheer number of times they were on both the power play and penalty kill. By comparison, this year’s team is currently running at 16.5% (37/220) with the man-advantage and 183/223 (82.1%) on the penalty kill.

While the current Canucks are in a free fall in the standings having lost six straight (0-5-1) and 14 of 19 (5-13-1), the earlier version finished on a similar run. The 1998-99 team won one of its final eight games, just three of its final 16 and went 5-18-5 in its final 28 games that season. Marc Crawford didn’t inherit much to work with when he replaced Mike Keenan 45 games into the season winning only eight of the 37 games he spent behind the Canucks bench.

Ultimately the fallout from the failure of that 1998-99 team was felt for a few years in this market. That season, the Canucks averaged 15,803 fans at their home games, but the following season that number dropped by 1200 to 14,649. The 98-99 Canucks missed the playoffs as did the team the following year and when the Canucks returned to the post-season mix they got swept by the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. The organization did not win a playoff round until they knocked off St. Louis in 2003 – the only playoff series the Canucks won between 1996 and 2007.

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Of course, the silver lining to that dreadful 1998-99 season was the addition of Daniel and Henrik Sedin at the draft that year in Boston. From there, the Canucks began the long climb to respectability and then on to being a legitimate contender in the National Hockey League. Where this year’s team goes from here is anybody’s guess. The Canucks should land a cornerstone piece to their rebuild at the draft in Buffalo, however history shows it will likely be a while still before the young players on the current roster announce their arrival as any kind of force to be reckoned with.

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  • LTFan

    Nice article, Mr.Paterson, but did you have to remind me of the messyears. Those were the most darkest of years for us Canucks fans.

    This current version of Canucks will be fine. Patience will be needed.

    Go Canucks Go.

  • LTFan

    Yeah what Bob Nill said about Messier. Actually what may have been worse was SN’s insistence on running all those Messier TV ads. After the first one I muted my TV and looked away until I hoped it was over.

  • LTFan

    According to the NHL lottery predictor, Vancouver now has an 11.5% chance at the first overall, Edmonton and Toronto at 20% and 13.5%. I admit to checking it every day now, trying to be optimistic.

  • LTFan

    Barring a superhuman effort first-last is beyond the Canucks due to the remaining schedule which has Edmonton but four games remaining whereas Toronto and Vancouver have eight challenges to lose.
    Our boys of Orca have SJ twice, Blues, Hawks, Ducks, Kings, Oil, and Flame-outs. Alas no loser-take-all with the Laffs. At all costs, we must avoid loser points so sorely encountered with the Preds though it was gratifying to see a 2-goal lead so rapidly demolished.

    Laffs have Boston, TB, Florida twice hurray, Sabres (Go Eichel!), Wings, Flyers, and, Columbus. So no Auston, sob, but a choice of Finnish Flashes, and we can pray for the lottery Auston.

    Was it only four years ago when the Nucks had first overall wrapped up with five games remaining?
    But this year, with a few bad plays we can secure the replacement for one of the Sedins on a first line and pray for a Gaudreau/Lucky Luc Robitaille late round star.

    It is a race for the ages! Go Canucks, you can do it! And for the love of your fans, no loser points please!

  • LTFan

    Surely it’s time to give Cannatta an eight-game look at the NHL. And our boys in Kalamazoo. Try jumping up a D-man to give the team hope that they can escape just like Burr clawed his way up from the ECHL!

  • LTFan

    The main difference between the two situations is that 89/99 team was loaded with vets and this team is all about youth. Young guys playing hard is quite different from apathetic vets.

    Getting a top three pick would be a great step towards having a group of young forwards that will lead this team for a decade. Mix in some intriguing Dmen and we got something going forward.