Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Are The Canucks Tough Enough To Survive The Pacific Division?

The Pacific Division once had a reputation as the quite literal Wild West of the National Hockey League—with the Vancouver Canucks forced to carry such notable hockey luminaries as Wade Brookbank and Darcy Hordichuk just to get by in a division full of monsters.

But the Pacific—and the NHL as a whole—just ain’t what it used to be.

Fighting and other forms of physical play are down across the board. Enforcers, with a handful of exceptions, have become extinct. The goons are gone. Even those players who used to make their bread and butter by inciting questionable collisions—the Matt Cookes and Zac Rinaldos of the world—have all but disappeared in a league that is waking up to the threat of head injuries at a van Winkle-like pace.

With all that being said, the question of toughness and grit are still not moot points when it comes to discussing life in the Pacific—and the more things change, the more they stay the same. Those aforementioned surviving enforcers? Most of them ply their trade on the west coast. And the disappearance of their bellicose brethren has only given rise to the age of the agitator—with some of the game’s most antagonistic personalities taking up residence across the Pacific Division.

All of which leads us to a question that has been asked before nearly every NHL season for the past couple decades—Are The Vancouver Canucks Tough Enough To Survive The Pacific Division?

It’s a question that takes on more importance now that the league’s playoff format relies so heavily on divisional matchups—and now that the Canucks have set their gazes firmly on a postseason berth. With that in mind, we’re here to assess how Vancouver stacks up against its divisional rivals in terms of Consistently Physical Players, Agitators, and true Enforcers—those intimidating individuals who could theoretically throw down with anyone else in the league.

Let’s dust off our knuckles and get to it.

Anaheim Ducks

  2018/19 Total 2018/19 NHL Rank
Fighting Majors 11 T-25th
Penalty Minutes 736 9th

Consistently Physical Players: Ryan Getzlaf, Max Jones, Josh Manson, Nick Ritchie

Agitators: Ryan Kesler?, Nick Ritchie

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Enforcers: Nicolas Deslauriers

There once was a time when the Ducks were the terror of the division—but those days have gone the way of the Hollywood Tower of Terror. They acquired legitimate toughie Nicolas Deslauriers in the offseason, but he doesn’t project to play much—while noted pain-in-the-ass Ryan Kesler doesn’t project to play at all. Beyond that, Anaheim has a standard array of physically punishing players—but they just can’t bully like they used to.

Arizona Coyotes

  2018/19 Total 2018/19 NHL Rank
Fighting Majors 7 29th
Penalty Minutes 579 28th

Consistently Physical Players: Lawson Crouse, Ilya Lyubushkin

Agitators: None

Enforcers: None

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The Coyotes have become progressively softer over the years since Shane Doan’s retirement—though they’ve also improved quite a bit over that same period, so take that how you will. Lawson Crouse remains the only player of any physical note on the Coyotes’ roster, though he’s not an insignificant one and can forecheck with the best of them. Arizona is a team that will be looking to win with skill, not grit, in the 2019/20 season—as their offseason acquisition of Phil Kessel clearly demonstrates.  

Calgary Flames

  2018/19 Total 2018/19 NHL Rank
Fighting Majors 15 T-13th
Penalty Minutes 695 13th

Consistently Physical Players: Sam Bennett, Travis Hamonic, Milan Lucic, Matthew Tkachuk

Agitators: Sam Bennett, Matthew Tkachuk

Enforcers: Milan Lucic

If there’s a team that has the potential to “bully” the Canucks’ young stars in 2019/20, it’s probably the Calgary Flames. Matthew Tkachuk might be one of the most consistently annoying players in the league, and Sam Bennett has been similarly despised in Vancouver since his playoff debut in 2015. Milan Lucic may not be as much of a physical factor as he once was, but he’s still one of the most imposing figures in the league when the gloves come off—and he’s been known to take swings at pacifist opponents on numerous occasions. The Flames are the kind of team against whom a game could quickly spiral out of control.

Edmonton Oilers

  2018/19 Total 2018/19 NHL Rank
Fighting Majors 14 T-18th
Penalty Minutes 754 6th

Consistently Physical Players: Josh Archibald, Zack Kassian, Jujhar Khaira, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse

Agitators: Brandon Manning?, James Neal

Enforcers: Zack Kassian

The Edmonton brass hasn’t done a fantastic job of surrounding the generational Connor McDavid with talent, but they’ve at the very least provided him with a wide array of physical teammates. Zack Kassian leads the pugilistic charge, but Jujhar Khaira has also developed into the sort of player that opponents must keep their eye on at all times—and Darnell Nurse is just an unmitigated badass. Brandon Manning and James Neal may look like a couple of bloated contracts, but they’re also individuals who have been known for their cheapshots in the pasts. The Oilers hope that these players will at the very least keep opposing teams honest when it comes to McDavid.

Los Angeles Kings

  2018/19 Total 2018/19 NHL Rank
Fighting Majors 15 T-13th
Penalty Minutes 663 19th

Consistently Physical Players: Dustin Brown, Kyle Clifford, Drew Doughty, Austin Wagner

Agitators: Austin Wagner

Enforcers: Kyle Clifford, Kurtis MacDermid

The Kings are a team without a clear identity heading into 2019/20—caught between their glory years and a full-on rebuild—and that even extends as far as their physical presence. Their big hitters from the Cup years—Dustin Brown, Kyle Clifford, and Drew Doughty included—are all still around, but each of them is older, slower, and less effective. Los Angeles does have an old school tough guy on the roster in Kurtis MacDermid, but he probably won’t be in the lineup regularly.

San Jose Sharks

  2018/19 Total 2018/19 NHL Rank
Fighting Majors 17 8th
Penalty Minutes 749 7th

Consistently Physical Players: Brent Burns, Brenden Dillon, Barclay Goodrow, Evander Kane

Agitators: Brendan Dillon, Evander Kane

Enforcers: Dalton Prout

The Sharks have an advantage in that so many of their top players have a prominent physical component to their game—and so opponents have to worry about dodging checks from the likes of Brent Burns and Evander Kane on every other shift. San Jose has toughness throughout their roster, as opposed to concentrated in a few designated players—with the organization having moved on from the always-furious Micheal Haley in the offseason.

Vegas Golden Knights

  2018/19 Total 2018/19 NHL Rank
Fighting Majors 6 T-30th
Penalty Minutes 583 27th

Consistently Physical Players: William Carrier, Deryk Engelland, Brayden McNabb, Ryan Reaves

Agitators: Ryan Reaves

Enforcers: Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves

The Golden Knights are an interesting team in this regard, because they possess arguably the two best fighters in the NHL in Ryan Reaves and Deryk Engelland. Both are holdovers from the halcyon days of enforcers, though each has adapted their games to suit the evolved NHL since. Despite that seeming advantage, Vegas tied for the least amount of fighting majors in the entire league—perhaps indicating that the old school notion of fistic deterrence still works to some extent.

In Reaves specifically, the Golden Knights have one of the few players in the league who can wear opponents down physically, agitate them with his antics, and then beat them up when they try to do something about it—truly a unique threat in the modern NHL.

Vancouver Canucks

  2018/19 Total 2018/19 NHL Rank
Fighting Majors 13 T-20th
Penalty Minutes 721 12th

Consistently Physical Players: Jordie Benn, Alex Edler, Micheal Ferland, Tyler Motte, Jake Virtanen

Agitators: Micheal Ferland, Antoine Roussel, Jake Virtanen

Enforcers: Micheal Ferland, Zack MacEwen

With all the cards on the table, the 2019/20 Vancouver Canucks stack up rather favourably against the rest of the Pacific Division. Though they lack a true nuclear deterrent, the addition of Micheal Ferland gives them perhaps the most well-rounded physical threat in the division aside from Ryan Reaves—with Ferland tying for the league lead in fighting majors in 2018/19 despite missing 11 games with injury.

In a throwback to the early 2010s, the Canucks have potential to be one of the more annoying teams in the league—with Ferland, Antoine Roussel, and Jake Virtanen honouring the legacy of Alex Burrows and Max Lapierre with their bodies and their banter. Alex Edler’s consistent physicality on the blueline will be supplemented by the addition of Jordie Benn, who’s been known to take himself out of position on occasion just to land a huge hit. If Zack MacEwen makes the roster, he’ll instantly become the toughest player on the team, and add one further layer to the team’s overall intimidation factor.

Vancouver may not have the best fighters in the Pacific Division, but that’s an increasingly irrelevant component of physicality in today’s NHL. Consistent checking, standing up for one’s self and teammates, and the ability to get an opponent off their game, however, remain important factors in a team’s success—and that’s where the Canucks promise to excel this upcoming season.

  • speering major

    Good article

    Just nitpicking but I think you’re underselling Khaira’s game and role. He’s willing to drop the gloves with anyone and constantly stirring it up. He didn’t hesitate to stand up for his mates against Haley and he also dominated Clutterbuck

    “If Zack MacEwen makes the roster, he’ll instantly become the toughest player on the team, and add one further layer to the team’s overall intimidation factor.”

    I like Zack and his game and I hope JB can unload a couple vet contracts to give him a shot but I don’t think he’s as tough as Ferland, and I don’t think he has Ferlands presence around the league either. Players get the book on other fighters and the book on Ferland is he swings like a savage looking to take your head off, not trying to land a few shots and get the W

    • Agreed on Khaira. Didn’t intentionally undersell him, but he’s one to watch.

      Also, I’d say that MacEwen’s history of opponents in the AHL suggests he’s a slightly higher calibre of fighter than Ferland, but it’s all fairly ambiguous. They’re about in the same tier, more or less.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    The real issue becomes when your physical players and your good players are different people. Part of the reason Getzlaf, Tkachuk, Burns etc are so effective is that they can punish you physically, and then can actually do something with the puck when they get it. Ferland, Roussel et al are ok, but they are not a substitute for having physical players who can also score in bunches. The latter are top of draft players, of course, but that just re-emphasizes why it’s so important to focus on the draft. Podkolzin might have that potential, but you simply can’t get that combination in the bargain bin or without giving up something huge in return in a trade.

    • truthseeker

      Except that Tkachuk’s a cheap shot artist more than he is a “physical” player. And he’s been disappearing in the playoffs so far in his career as well. Kid’s got talent for sure but I’m still very happy the canucks chose to pass on him.
      Roussel is physical in a good way. Ferland too, although he does run around a bit more.

  • apr

    I’m still holding out that Gadjovich develops. It takes the bigger guys time, and 50 goals in junior is still 50 goals, even if he is physically mature. Also, really high on the Keppen, Focht, Malone, and McDonough picked this year – that’s an awful lot of truculence…

    • This is a very important year for Gadjovich. I think he’s got potential as a fourth line banger no matter what, but he needs to take a step forward this season if he has any hope of becoming something beyond that.

  • J-Canuck

    St Louis showed that being physical throughout the line up is essential in hockey. The Canucks have wanted to play a tougher style and now have a team that balances skill and toughness.
    Meyers is a physical presence even though he doesn’t throw his body around as much and Bo Horvat is a physical center also. One of the things I really like about the new Canucks team

    • truthseeker

      I disagree. The Pens won cups without being overly physical. There is no rhyme or reason to the NHL. Luck is the single most important factor in winning a cup. Some years “physical” teams get lucky, and put it all together and other years not so physical teams put it all together and win the cup.
      Chasing a “recipe” based on previous winners is just stupid. Assemble the best possible collection of talent you can in whatever form you can and make your run. Simple as that.

  • Fred-65

    Khaira is a player I’d want on my roster. MacEwen cam become a player recognized around the league because he get’s what it takes to fight in the NHL. He has good range, can throw it either hand and he has that cool that genuine fighters have. He holds off, takes a look, and then throws meaningful opportune punches ie he doesn’t punch himself out and has the confidence in his abilities take his time. At the same time, he can play the game

  • Defenceman Factory

    Last season (Oct 2018) the average size by team in the NHL was 6’1 and just under 200 lbs. The Canucks were about average for height but a couple pounds below average. We won’t know for sure until the roster is finalized but Myers may push the team above average height in 2019. Adding Myers, Miller and Ferland, shedding Granlund and hopefully Eriksson the Canucks should be above average weight.

    I think only Gaudette, Pettersson, Hughes and Stecher would be the only players under 190 lbs.

  • Gino's 3rd Cousin

    Coming from a more old school outlook, I was pretty happy with the pickups of Benn, Miller and of course Ferland. I grew up watching this team in some pretty dire seasons, but there were was usually enough tough/gritty players on the team to keep the games interesting. Watching the Canucks get pushed around during their peak years and into this rebuild has at times been hard to watch. I understand the game is moving towards skill, speed and not as much contact, but it will always be an element to the game that can turn the tide. Looking forward to the matchups with the Flames.

  • Kanuckhotep

    Don’t be fooled. Toughness and grit have never gone away as necessary attributes for a club to be a winning team. Yes, much is lauded about speed and finesse in today’s game but the Canucks have lacked their fair share of physicality for quite some time. This may be a turning point concerning this issue because the good teams have all the assets it takes to be successful. Time for Vancouver to be one of those teams.

    • Jim M

      Presumably that’s based on Pettersson being removed from the list. Elite Prospects has them at 4 and I’m curious where Pronman from The Athletic will put them.

  • hm

    The heavy teams by far still dominate the league for sure, and while there has obviously been an improvement in speed and skill, its the teams that have that speed and skill but also size and toughness that are dominating the league. its not just st. louis, last years final four featured Wpg. Las vegas, and washington all heavy teams with Washington perhaps the toughest of all. This year you also had Colorado whose #1 line pretty much typifies the new game with three giants who are also super skilled and who completely dominated the much softer Calgary flames. And san jose, Anaheim and LA dominated for years with heavy line ups, that were also not short on skill, not to mention the Bruins who have always featured grit along with skill.

    So even if you don’t like the price paid, and i for one am not crazy about that, this years moves were definitely what the doctor ordered especially given that are skilled core that includes Hughes, Petey, Brock and Stetcher definitely lack size. And though you can’t love the addition of Beagle or Schaller, you could kind of see what Benning was trying to do last year, (i.e. seek to protect are small core) which was why I have given him a bit of a pass for some of last years moves.