The Vancouver Canucks have had a disastrous start to their 2021 NHL season. Even the most pessimistic of predictions didn’t have the team struggling this hard in the early going and considering the shortened season, they don’t have very long to turn the ship around.
After a successful playoff run that saw the team miss out on the Western Conference Finals by one game last season, expectations were for this team to continue that upward trajectory. The maturation of the team’s young stars — who are now entering the final years of their entry-level contracts — was supposed to mark the opening of the team’s window of contention.
Instead, the Canucks currently stand at 2-5-0, good for dead last in the NHL in point percentage. Instead of pushing for the Canadian division crown, they’re on track to contend for the number-one overall selection in this summer’s NHL draft.
While the team is struggling in every facet of the game, it’s on defence where they have been exposed the hardest. Preventing goals — at both 5-on-5 and on special teams — has been a massive issue as they have allowed 4.66 Goals Against/60 mins at all strengths, the worst mark in the league by over half-of-a-goal.
Even if they weren’t struggling to score like they currently are, it’s difficult to win games when that many pucks are finding their way into your net. The Canucks are going to have to find a way to start limiting opposing teams if they want to challenge for a playoff spot, and to do that they’re going to need to diagnose the problem and hold those responsible accountable.
Diagnosing the Problem
These issues didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere.
Despite all their success last season it was clear that the Canucks were often outplayed and relied heavily on Jacob Markstrom to bail them out. But as the saying goes, “winning solves everything”, and it apparently did for the Canucks as their playoff success erased the memory of their sputtering finish to the regular season for many. In the last 17 games of the 2019-20 season, they went 6-9-2, with two of those six wins coming after regulation, and were dangerously close to finishing outside a playoff spot.
The departures of Markstrom and Chris Tanev in free agency to Calgary were expected to sting, but I’m not sure if many predicted the extent to which they would. When the two teams faced off recently, Markstrom managed to shut his old team out and Tanev had eight blocks in the Calgary Flames victory.
Newcomer Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko have taken over Markstrom’s duties and while they haven’t been able to replace his production, they have been far from the issue. Goalie coach Ian Clark — whose name carries mythological legend in Vancouver — managed to help transform Markstrom’s game over the course of a few years, and if he can achieve a fraction of those results with any of the current goalies it should be considered a success.
Instead, a large reason why the Canucks have been such a sieve defensively is the fact that nine different defencemen have taken a shift for them through the first seven games as the team has struggled with injuries on the backend. Young defencemen have been pushed into large roles earlier than planned for and it has resulted in plenty of holes in the defensive structure.
The injuries have created a ripple effect as they have not only forced untested players into the lineup, but they have also forced some of the veterans to shoulder huge minutes.
The fact is, the blame cannot be placed upon the shoulders of these young defenders as they have done a relatively strong job considering the tough circumstances. Jalen Chatfield impressed in the two games he played in, helping control 53.82% of the expected goals while he was on the ice at five-on-five. Olli Juolevi has had his ups-and-downs but generally has been good as he has allowed the least high-danger scoring chances per sixty minutes at 5-on-5 of any Canuck defender that has played multiple games.
— Cody Taxivertsquad (@CodySevertson) January 21, 2021
While the young defenders haven’t been outstanding, the barrage of goals conceded cannot be attributed solely to their performances. Instead, much of the blame can land squarely on the shoulders of the forwards who should be expected to play a more defensive style considering the lack of experience that is playing behind them.
Forwards who are expected to have an already large defensive responsibility have been getting caved in, and the group as a whole has been careless with the puck far too often. These mistakes are disastrous and costing them dearly, yet the Canucks continue to make them. They need to be held accountable, one way or the other.
Holding the Forwards Accountable
The Canucks have allowed a league-leading 165 scoring attempts at 5-on-5 and many of those have been the result of egregious giveaways. The defence group is tired and inexperienced and this has led to many of these giveaways being turned into odd-man rushes the other way, such as this careless play by JT Miller that results in a Montreal goal that sealed the game.
— Cody Taxivertsquad (@CodySevertson) January 24, 2021
Miller has helped the Canucks control a team-low 29.27% of scoring chances at 5-on-5 while he is on the ice — a far cry from the 51.45% mark he put up last season — and is just one example of many of how the Canucks’ forwards have been doing a disservice to their overworked defence.
It’s no secret that the Canucks’ top forwards have been struggling, but their issues run much deeper than just not being able to put the puck in the back of the net. Boeser, Pettersson, Virtanen, and Miller have all been on the ice for less than 40% of shots while at 5-on-5, displaying just how much they have been hemmed in their own zone.
The “Lotto Line” of Miller, Pettersson, and Boeser are so electric offensively but when they’re bleeding goals as they are at the moment — allowing 6.57 goals per 60 mins at 5-on-5 — they need to be held accountable for their shortcomings. No matter if they’re scoring goals or not, this level of defence should be inexcusable at any time and head coach Travis Green needs to figure out a way to fix it or split them up as he has started experimenting with in recent games.
The problems go deeper than just the top line and the same pattern of giveaways and careless defensive play can be seen with many of the forwards. With the Canucks’ playoff chances projected as low as 17% by some outlets, it’s time for the team to quit talking about how well they thought they played in post-game press conferences and start performing on the ice.
Watch this clip below as it starts with three Canucks in the frame before it ends with just Juolevi and Myers left to try to fend off three oncoming Canadiens. These odd-man rushes happen way too often and the defence is overworked enough as it is.
There’s enough blame to go around for everyone but the Canucks being forced to ice multiple rookie defencemen should result in a safer style of hockey from the rest of the team, not the frantic stuff we’ve been witnessing.
The team has clearly lost its mojo but an upcoming three-game homestand against the Ottawa Senators provides a golden chance to regain some confidence. They’ve now had the opportunity to hold practice for the first time in a long time and that should lead to some stronger systematic play. With the clock ticking on the Canucks’ season, how will they respond?