As the 2019/20 NHL regular season gets going, most pundits have the Vancouver Canucks finishing outside of the playoffs looking in. The Canucks have definitely improved their betting odds, and most prognosticators see them climbing the standings to a certain extent—but they’re anything but playoff favourites, and the smart money still appears to be on their season ending in early April 2020.
Some may look at the odds as a reason to be cynical about the 2019/20 season—and another middling finish that neither results in the playoffs nor advances the rebuild. Dreamers like this author, however, look it at the situation with a touch of Lloyd Christmas-like optimism—and start charting out a path to the Canucks achieving their postseason ambition.
We’re saying there’s a chance that the Vancouver Canucks overcome probability to crack the top-eight of the Western Conference and compete in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs—but only if these ten things come to pass.
Both Elias Pettersson And Brock Boeser Must Take A Step Forward
It’s no great secret that Vancouver’s playoff hopes rest primarily on the shoulders of Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. Bo Horvat is mostly a known quantity at this point and Quinn Hughes is an unknown element—so it is Pettersson and Boeser who have the most potential for growth in 2019/20, and it is they who will lift the Canucks past the regular season. Or not.
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) November 30, 2018
For Pettersson, it’s as simple as avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump—and continuing what seems like his destined progression into one of the league’s premier talents. With the Canucks offense built so heavily around Pettersson’s contributions, it’s hard to imagine them making it very far without him putting up point-per-game numbers or higher.
Boeser, on the other hand, will require more of a direct step forward after his development briefly flatlined in 2018/19. Getting back on an upward track this season—and finally reaching the 30-goal plateau and beyond—will give Vancouver two elite offensive threats on their top line, a near-requirement for playoff contention.
Someone Needs To Click With Pettersson And Boeser
Henrik and Daniel Sedin started to blossom after the 2004/05 NHL lockout, but they didn’t reach elite status until years later when Alex Burrows joined them on the wing. By himself, Burrows almost certainly wasn’t a first line talent—but he possessed the uncanny ability to draw the very best out of the twins. His presence on their line and the chemistry he created made the Sedins better players—and now it’s time for Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser to find their Alex Burrows.
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) September 27, 2019
Whether it be Micheal Ferland, JT Miller, or Josh Leivo, coach Travis Green should endeavor to find a semi-permanent fixture on the left wing of the top line—and he should be looking for the player who most complements and elevates their play. Finding a linemate who clicks with them—even if that linemate isn’t supremely talented themselves—will help push Pettersson and Boeser into the upper echelon of the league’s forwards—and push the Canucks into a playoff position.
Travis Green Will Have To Lean More Heavily On The Top-Six
The Vancouver Canucks have an obvious issue with their bottom-six forwards—which we’ll be getting to in a minute. Their top-six, however, looks vastly improved over the 2018/19 edition—and so it’s past due that Travis Green started to lean more heavily on his top two lines.
Both Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game last season, so there’s definitely room for expansion there—and hopefully some of Bo Horvat’s already-heavy minutes can be transferred to more offensive situations now that he has a bevy of quality wingers.
The Canucks are currently built a bit top-heavy up front—and that’s why they should play to their strengths. Having the top-six on the ice means having the bottom-six out less—and that’ll make for quite a swing in on-ice results.
The Right Players Need To Stay Healthy
Originally, this segment was titled “The Canucks Need To Be Healthier Than They Have Been The Last Few Seasons”—and that’s still largely true. The Canucks had a ridiculous amount of injuries in 2018/19, and they’ll struggle to make the playoffs if that’s the case again this year. With that being said, injuries are a reality in the Pacific Northwest both because of the Canucks’ preposterous travel schedule and the apparent ancient curse that haunts the franchise.
Updated graph: Vancouver Canucks are most injured team since the 2010-11 season. Pittsburgh Penguins are 2nd, but have 77 more wins (and a couple of Cups) during that span #Canucks #Penguins https://t.co/Vqmne8nuQ2 pic.twitter.com/1MW1lhaZBu
— Man-Games Lost NHL (@ManGamesLostNHL) May 9, 2019
As such, it’s probably safer just to hope that significant injuries don’t strike significant players. Vancouver has a bit more depth in 2019/20 than it has in the last few seasons, and that should allow them to weather the IR storm with more success—so long as Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and Jacob Markstrom stay mostly healthy. Again, the Canucks are built top-heavy at the moment—and they’re definitely not built to easily replace the contributions of any of the aforementioned four players. Alex Edler might also bear mention here, but we’ve given up almost all hope of him actually playing 82 games.
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) September 27, 2019
At Least Two Players In The Bottom-Six Need To Show Serious Improvement
The fact of the matter is that the Canucks are currently suffering from a dearth of success in their bottom-six. While the varying talent levels of Vancouver’s lower two forward lines can be—and has been—debated ad nauseum, it’s inarguable that most of them are coming off of bad 2018/19 seasons, poor preseason performances, or both. Of the six individuals who suited up in the Canucks’ bottom-six for opening night against the Edmonton Oilers, only Josh Leivo can be said to have delivered to expectations of late.
It’s entirely possible for the Canucks to make the playoffs with an underperforming fourth line, but they won’t do it if the entire bottom-six is lackluster. The return of Antoine Roussel should provide the team with at least one competent third liner, but at least two more players will need to show some serious improvement in the near future to form the rest of Roussel’s unit—whether it be the young guns like Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette, or the much-maligned vets in Brandon Sutter and Loui Eriksson. The top-six will be leaned on, but the bottom-six can’t be a hindrance.
Alex Edler Must Continue To Defy The Passage Of Time
GM Jim Benning revamped his blueline with the additions of Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn—and Quinn Hughes has the potential to add more to the Canucks’ D corps than either player as soon as his rookie season. Those three players—along with Troy Stecher and Chris Tanev—will all play important roles on what promises to be an egalitarian blueline in 2019/20—but Alex Edler will still be the leading man on defense.
At the age of 33, Edler scored at a career pace—though he only played 56 games. He’s playing some of his best hockey as a Canuck and defying the typical age curve of an NHL defenseman—and Vancouver will need him to continue doing so for at least one more season if they’re hoping to ice a playoff-quality set of defensemen. Edler staying healthy would be a further bonus.
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) October 3, 2019
Unlike the other maybes on this list, Edler’s continued late-career renaissance is already in progress after a stellar preseason—and a starring role in the Canucks’ season opener.
Quinn Hughes Has To Be A Gamebreaker
Quinn Hughes is inevitably going to make mistakes during his rookie season with the Vancouver Canucks—and he’s going to do so under an unforgiving microscope. Fortunately, the Canucks don’t need him to be perfect in order to make the playoffs—nor do they need him to win the Calder Trophy.
In fact, Hughes can outright struggle at various points throughout the 2019/20 season and the team will be just fine—so long as he continues to bring his gamebreaking skill to the table. With five veteran defenders, Vancouver shouldn’t be relying on the rookie Hughes too heavily anyway—but his ability to bust ankles, lap the offensive zone, and affect a one-man breakout is unique among the Canuck blueliners. It makes the team dangerous and unpredictable when Hughes is on the ice—and that could make him the X-factor to their success, even if he doesn’t pile up the points.
Jacob Markstrom Cannot Falter
2018/19 was the first time that Jacob Markstrom played like a genuine starting goaltender—and he deserves as much credit for the Canucks’ slow climb up the standings as the arrival of Elias Pettersson. He doesn’t need to replicate his blistering performance of last December and January for the entire 2019/20 season, but he also can’t afford to take much—if any—of a step back. Markstrom will still need to steal games as the team scraps for every possible point.
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) October 3, 2019
Thatcher Demko looks like he’ll be a competent backup this season—and he should be able to spell Markstrom off for at least 20 games—but he’s almost certainly not ready for full-time duty. If Markstrom falters—or suffers a serious injury—it will likely sink Vancouver’s playoff hopes.
The Canucks’ Possession Game Must Improve—Particularly When Trailing
Several of the Vancouver Canucks’ team stats will need to improve in 2019/20—including their powerplay percentage, possession metrics, and—ideally—overall point total.
If there’s one statistical column to focus on, however, it might just be the Canucks’ possession performance while trailing or tied—also known as the ability to overcome adversity.
Sutter turnover. Loui watching. 97 scores. pic.twitter.com/PxR0TbHakT
— Dan Riccio (@DanRiccio650) October 3, 2019
Last year, the Canucks finished a paltry 25th overall in Corsi For % with 47.89%–but they were worse off when behind at 27th overall. If the Canucks can’t find a way to affect comebacks and control the play in one-goal games, they’re going to miss out on some achievable points in the 2019/20 season—and that will cost them a spot in the playoffs.
The Central Division’s House Of Cards Must Collapse—And Someone In The Pacific Needs To Take A Step Back
Of course, much of what the Vancouver Canucks need in order to qualify for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be entirely out of their control—because it involves the other teams of the Western Conference. As the Canucks climb up the standings, they’ll also need some other organizations to start dropping down.
The Central Division—recently heralded as the class of the West—seems like a house of cards that could collapse at any moment. Minnesota seems doomed to obscurity, Winnipeg has had the offseason from hell, and the reigning Cup champion Blues still don’t look like a legitimate contender. Chicago and Dallas are full of question marks. Only the Predators and Avalanche seem like locks for the playoffs coming out of the Central—and Nashville will still have to deal with the loss of PK Subban.
That bodes well for the Canucks’ chances of snagging a wildcard slot—but they could also benefit from one or more teams in their own division taking a plunge. All of the teams ahead of them in the Pacific Division last season have shortcomings—goaltending with Calgary, cap space with Vegas, age and roster depletion with San Jose, anemic offense in Arizona.
That means there is potential for the Canucks to move up—all the way up to the playoffs—provided everything else falls into place for them.