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Photo Credit: © Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Four Things That Can’t Go Wrong If The Canucks Want To Make The Playoffs This Season

With the regular season on the horizon, it’s time for the NHL’s pundit class to make their predictions for how the Vancouver Canucks will fare over the upcoming campaign. It’s clear from the team’s moves over the offseason that their goal is to make the playoffs, and anything less is likely to be viewed as a failure, though perhaps not an unexpected one.

From my experience, trying to predict the outcome of an NHL season for all but the very best and worst teams in the NHL is a fool’s errand, so instead, I’m going to take a look at four things that need to go right (and can’t go wrong) for the Canucks to make the postseason in April.

Staying Healthy

At this point, it almost feels hack to point out that injury trouble is likely to make or break the Canucks’ playoff chances this season. It’s blatantly obvious to even the most passive observer of the Vancouver Canucks that the team has a long history of sending players to the infirmary, and management has made a habit of pointing this out at the end of many a lost season.

What some observers may not be aware of, however, is just how dire the Canucks’ injury history has been, and jus how far back the trend goes. Since 2010-2011, the Canucks have lost more man games to injury than any other team in the NHL.

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There’s a dearth of conclusive evidence of why this might be, but there are a few theories that merit consideration. The first is surrounds the brutal travel schedule that comes with playing on the west coast. It stands to reason that a team on one side of the continent with few close neighbours might be more prone to fatigue over the course of a long season, and thus more prone to injury. The second theory revolves around the players they’ve committed to, some of whom have a questionable history when it comes to durability. Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Sven Baertschi, Antoine Roussel, and Jay Beagle are all players with significant injury trouble in their past that the Canucks have committed significant term and money to, and it’s possible this has manifested in a high overall man games lost total over the course of the team’s recent history. The third theory is that it’s simply dumb luck, which is something that the Canucks have generally found themselves on the wrong side of throughout their 50 years in the NHL.

In all likelihood, some combination of all three factors has conspired to make the Canucks the NHL’s least healthy team for nearly a decade. It goes without saying that bucking the trend of health issues would go a long way towards insuring the team’s first playoff berth in five years.

Deployment

We’ve published a slew of articles over the course of the offseason regarding how the Canucks should construct their forward lines, and with good reason: it could very easily be the difference between a successful campaign and another lost year.

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While a lot of noise was made last season about the need for a winger to play alongside Bo Horvat or Elias Pettersson, the situation in the bottom-six was even more dire. According to the Athletic’s Harman Dayal, no bottom six had a worse goal-differential at even-strength than the Vancouver Canucks in 2018-19.

It was just two seasons ago that Brandon Sutter was the the team’s second-most utilized centre at even strength on a per-game basis, and it should be obvious by this point in his career that the Canucks can’t go back to that well if they want to finally put their long postseason drought behind them. Sutter’s TOI took a dip last season, but it’s unclear if that trend would continue if he remains healthy.

If the Canucks want to be on the right side of the goal share, they’ll need to significantly restructure the bottom-six, which probably means less Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle, and Loui Eriksson, or at the very least, keeping those players in a limited shutdown role. What’s still unclear is whether or not Travis Green agrees. If the Canucks spend nearly half the game with one of Brandon Sutter or Jay Beagle on the ice, that’s going to stifle their offense significantly, and could keep them out of the playoff picture in 2019-20.

Development

It’s no secret that the Canucks’ fate this season rests on the shoulders of their emerging young core. While new additions J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland will play a big role in the Canucks’ offense this season, they would be best described as support pieces rather than players who can drive a line all on their own.

No player on the roster will be more relied upon to produce offense than Swedish wunderkind Elias Pettersson, and with good reason. Pettersson was the team’s best skater last season, flashing the kind of offense and creativity Vancouver hasn’t seen since the heyday of the Sedin era. It should be clear based on what he achieved in his rookie season that Pettersson is going to be a special player for many years to come, but based on how previous rookie phenoms have developed, expecting him to repeat the success he had last season without hitting a few bumps in the road might not be entirely fair.

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Eight of the last ten forwards to win the Calder Trophy scored less points in their sophomore season than they did in their rookie season. In some cases, such as Auston Matthews in 2017-18, the player improved on their point-per-game total, but spent part of the year on the injured reserve. In others, such Patrick Kane in 2008-09, the decline in points was so insignificant that it warrants no further examination. But for players like Jeff Skinner, Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mathew Barzal, the decline was swift and steep, placing them firmly in “sophomore slump” territory. Considering Pettersson significantly outperformed his expected goal total last year, there’s reason to be concerned he could be headed down the same path.

Elias Pettersson isn’t the only player in danger of taking a step back, either. Many of the Canucks’ major offensive pieces in Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Jake Virtanen, Josh Leivo, as well as Sven Baertschi and Tanner Pearson (who were limited to just 26 and 19 games with the club, respectively) also outperformed their expected goal totals last season, in some cases quite significantly.

Player G/60 ixG/60 Goals above expectation/60
Elias Pettersson 0.86 0.5 0.36
Brock Boeser 0.96 0.64 0.22
Bo Horvat 0.7 0.63 0.07
J.T. Miller 0.62 0.5 0.12
Jake Virtanen 0.74 0.61 0.13
Josh Leivo 0.87 0.71 0.16
Sven Baertschi 1.18 0.72 0.46
Tanner Pearson 1.67 0.87 0.8

Data courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com

There are some obvious flaws that come along with expected goals, and chief among them is their poor ability to account for individual shooting talent; but the fact that the majority of the Canucks’ offense outperformed expectations last season should at the very least warrant a raised eyebrow, if nothing else.

Anyone in their right mind should expect players like Pettersson, Boeser, and Hughes to develop into all-star-calibre players when they reach their prime, but history teaches us that this development doesn’t always unfold in a linear fashion. Most of the Canucks’ best players are under the age of 24, and if any of them hit a major stumbling block, it’s likely they’ll be on the outside looking in for another year.

Goaltending

While the team’s overall health, the development of its young players, and the way the lineup is deployed are all liable to have a significant impact on the team’s playoff hopes, these factors all pale in comparison to their goaltending, which is the biggest wildcard for the team this season.

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After years of middling performances, Jacob Markstrom had himself a hell of a season in 2018-19, especially towards the back half of his campaign. He finished eigth overall in goals saved above average among goaltenders who played at least 2000 minutes last year, and was a big part of the reason the team took a step forward from where they were over the prior three years.

Last season, the Canucks allowed a high number of high-danger shot attempts, and also benefited from a strong high-danger save percentage from Markstrom, but couldn’t get solid goaltending from backup Anders Nilsson, who was traded to make room for the team’s Goalie Of The Future, Thatcher Demko. While the new-look defense will probably improve things on the first front, a step back from Jacob Markstrom could easily be enough to sink their playoff chances.

While Thatcher Demko looks like he’ll be firmly supplanted in the backup role for the upcoming season, his performance will have important playoff implications as well. It’s difficult to account for the effect Thatcher Demko will have on the team’s outlook in net given his limited track record at the NHL level. He gave the Canucks a quality start in six of his nine appearances, but it’s unclear whether or not that trend would continue with more starts.

For the Canucks to withstand what will likely be an onslaught of scoring chances over the upcoming season, it’s imperative that they get above-average goaltending. Whether or not you think that will happen says a lot about whether you believe Jacob Markstrom is the goalie he showed he can be over the latter half of last season, or the one he’s been for most of his NHL career prior to that moment. If he’s truly taken a step late in his career, the Canucks are in good shape. If he takes the step back that the numbers suggest he will, it’s going to mean another season near the bottom of the standings.

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Overall, there are just too many question marks on the roster at the moment to comfortably label the Canucks a playoff contender. Their best players are still developing, they’ve benefited from some unsustainable puck luck, and they can’t seem to stay healthy, but at the very least, it’s a good sign that we can finally talk about the playoffs as a distinct possibility rather than a pipe dream. For a fanbase that’s been deprived of good hockey for much of the past few years, that amounts to a good start, if nothing else.