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Photo Credit: © James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Canucks Have Problems, But They’re Good Problems To Have

You can tell a team is getting good again when fans start arguing about who should be on the fourth line, and for the first time in years, that’s what Canucks fans have been doing this week.

The team has had their fair share of problems over the past few seasons. Finishing near the bottom of the league had become the norm, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and it’s looking like they may finally be turning the corner.

The Canucks had a great month of January. They went 9-3-0, despite a colossal collapse in the state of Florida and going through “Hell and Buyck” in Winnipeg. They’re currently sitting on a nine-game winning streak at home, and took to the road for a five game road trip that saw them begin in San Jose before travelling across North America to have back to back weekend games against the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders, taking away five of a possible six points in those three games.

They were outshot at 5-on-5 in those three games, but were able to outscore their opponents by a count of 9-7.

The Canucks also only had one power play goal in those three games. They appear to finally be learning how to win tight games, which is something that Bo Horvat and veterans on the team have been talking about for years.

This team has all the potential in the world. Young players are becoming leaders and the veterans are playing support roles to round out the team. The Lotto Line doesn’t get the offensive zone time without the Horvat line and the Gaudette line doesn’t get the offensive zone starts without the fourth line taking all the defensive zone faceoffs.

The team is balanced, has depth scoring and is getting closer and closer to securing a spot in the playoffs if not winning the division.

The website SportsClubStats is a great for gauging the likelihood a team will make the playoffs, and are currently projecting that the most likely scenario for the Canucks is that they finish is with 100 points. That is if they close out the season at 16-10-3.

As per SCS, if a team in the pacific division finishes with at least 96 points they will have a 100% chance of making the playoffs. There are over 3,248,136,952 counts that this website has run through. Over 1,700,000,000 have the Canucks finishing the season between 97-102 points.

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The Canucks are in a good spot right now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some problems, too. There are always things to be worried about. Let’s talk about a few of those things. I’ve been ultra-positive for too long!

The 2nd Period Problem

The Canucks have been heavily out-played in second periods this season.

They have been out-shot by their opposition by a count of 634-569 and out-scored by a count of 56-51.

Second periods are also the only period where the Canucks haven’t dominated at home.

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The Canucks have put up a 62 goals and only allowed 35 in their 1st and 3rd periods at home this season, but their second periods have been all squared up. They’ve scored 26 goals and allowed 26 in second periods at home this season.

The Canucks worst goal differential situation comes from when they are on the road in the second period. They have scored 25 goals and allowed 30. If this is the worst situational period for them it is not that bad. It is likely just a strange statistical occurrence, as Travis Green-coached teams actually have a positive goal share in second periods on the road in his three years of NHL coaching.

It seems like opposing teams have come out in the second period and controlled the pace of play this year. That could be due to the Canucks having been pretty good in their opening periods this year. They have only been trailing in 16 of a possible 53 games after the first period this year.

They have scored the first goal in 25 of 53 games this season. Winning 20 of those 25 games.

Second periods on the road can be tough, you don’t get the push like you do in the first or third period. Overall, it’s a small problem, and nothing to get worked up about until we see how they finish off the season in second periods on the road.

The Fourth Line Problem

The Canucks fourth line has been talked about more this season than in the past four years combined. Remember arguing about the fourth line?

Feels good, man.

The Canucks have players like Jay Beagle, Brandon Sutter, Tim Schaller and Zack MacEwen to be on their fourth line. With a return of Micheal Ferland we could see a couple names like Antoine Roussel or Loui Eriksson thrown into the conversation. It’s good to talk about the fourth line, because it means that the top nine is producing.

The fourth line has been a lot of Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter this year. Both these players are also relied upon to be the team’s top penalty killing centres. Beagle will lead off every penalty kill and Sutter will be the guy to jump over the boards after Beagle blocks a couple shots.

Tyler Motte was proving to be a reliable fourth line player before his injury. He was skating hard, getting involved in the forecheck and even chipping in a few goals in the 24 games that he played in this season. In a lot of ways, Motte is the archetype of the ideal fourth-liner. He kills penalties, hustles on every shift and helps drive the puck towards the net.

Tim Schaller is currently getting time on the fourth line with Beagle and Sutter. Schaller gets absolutely caved in when playing with Beagle. The duo has a 37.81 Corsi % at 5-on-5. They have been outscored by a count of 17-5 in 398 minutes of 5-on-5 this season.

Tim Schaller had some success at the beginning of the season but since October 30th he and Beagle have been outscored by a count of 14-2 when they are on the ice at 5-on-5.

Schaller may be heading back into the background of the roster if his game continues to disintegrate. Luckily, the Canucks currently have some additional options to try out on their fourth line and they are all intriguing.

At this stage, Green should feel comfortable giving Sutter or Beagle a night off here and there. Even if it’s not a the level we see in the NBA, some level of load management could be good for the two veterans who have struggled with injury on a regular basis throughout the last few seasons.

With the current roster, the idea of a Zack MacEwen-Sutter/Beagle-Justin Bailey line is exciting. We have not seen #BigMacZack play in many fourth line situations this year, but he has seen some time with Miller and Horvat. MacEwen can bring a physical side to the fourth line that we haven’t really seen, and his play in tight and near the net has also been impressive.

Justin Bailey just got his first call-up of the season. He is tied for second in the AHL in goals, leads the Comets in power play goals, and is now up to 114 shots in 45 games. Bailey is arguably the fastest player in the AHL and would bring a pace to the fourth line that we haven’t seen in years. Tyler Motte is Mr. Hustle, but if Bailey can be be Jr. Hustle, we could see a fourth line that is hard on the puck when they dump it in instead of a line that dumps and changes every time.

The Goaltending Problem

Unlike some of the Canucks other minor issues, their goaltending situation is the one problem that has the potential to get away from them if it’s not handled correctly.

The team’s goaltending has been a topic of frequent discussion, even in comparison to all the other big stories this season. The goalie situation has been broadcasted on every sports radio station and written about at length on all the blogs and newspapers.

Jacob Markstrom will be a free agent after this season and Thatcher Demko is starting to prove that he belongs in the NHL. Jacob Markstrom even made his well-deserved debut at the All-Star game earlier this season..

Jackson McDonald recently wrote about how Markstrom is a prime candidate for this year’s Masterson trophy. Markstrom has earned himself a contract in Vancouver with his leadership on and off the ice. He has gone through a lot this season and still shows up everyday with a winning attitude.

For the first time in years, the Canucks have a goaltending tandem that can steal games. Markstrom has the highest goal differential from expected goals to actual goals allowed. He has been the Canucks MVP this season and the debate on his contract will likely continue late into the season.

Chris Johnston of Sportsnet reported on Saturday that the Canucks had offered Jacob Markstrom a two-year deal, but it was declined. Realistically, if Jacob Markstrom continues his early season pace he will be looking at something closer to four years at 5-7 million per season.

The issue for the Canucks is that with the expansion draft coming and the age gap between Markstrom and Demko, they will have a tough decision to make. It’s unlikely that they will be able to retain both goaltenders, and both Markstrom and Demko have made a strong case to be the goaltender the Canucks should invest in. Markstrom has been a revelation this season, but is likely to command money and term for longer than he’s likely to provide the Canucks with peak performance. Demko is 10-5-2 this season and is making a case that he has a future as an NHL starter, but he’s still a bit of an unknown commodity. This problem won’t be solved any time soon and once the Canucks make a decision, there will likely be more to follow.

Conclusion

To recap, the Canucks’ biggest issues appear to be their uneven play in second periods, who is going to play on their fourth line, and the fact that they have two very good goaltenders.

These are very different problems than Canucks fans are used to in recent memory. It’s another example of how much things have changed for them this season. They’ve been able to fire off a couple of impressive win streaks and look more consistent than they have in years. One more of these impressive stretches will guarantee them a playoff spot and could set them for home-ice advantage to boot. For the most part,  these are champagne problems, with only the goaltending situation likely to have long-term ramifications.

The Canucks will have to decide which of their goaltenders will rise and which one may not. For this year and next year the Canucks should be in a good spot for their goaltenders. They will likely sign Markstrom and already have Demko locked in for next year. Mikey DiPietro is primed to become a back-up by the 2021-22 season and though there’s a lot of talk about the goaltender situation right now, we really won’t know what the right decision is until the expansion draft in June of 2021.

Markstrom is 30 and Demko is 24. The core of this team is so young but Markstrom is ready to be a playoff starter and Demko may not be there yet. This team is ready for the playoffs right now and that likely means that the Canucks should be looking to lock Markstrom down for the foreseeable future, even if Demko’s age is closer to this team’s core.

There’s definitely a strong argument to be had from both camps. There is so much that can happen before then. This year’s playoffs may help the Canucks decide on the future of their two promising goaltenders.

As for now, let’s just argue about the fourth line and watch this goaltending duo continue to be one of the elite pairings in the NHL.