Let’s not pretend that we haven’t all heard the questions being raised about the Vancouver Canucks in the wake of their two recent losses to waivers.
Minus Jonah Gadjovich and Zack MacEwen, the Canucks are down the two most pugilistically-talented individuals in the organization, and that’s led to some understandable concerns about team toughness.
Despite the ongoing debate as to the importance and necessity of fighting in hockey, most can agree that toughness/grit/truculence/tenacity are all genuine issues worthy of at least some worry. There are teams in the sport of hockey that are unsuccessful because they’re too easily pushed around, and specifically because they allow the physicality of their opponents to throw them off their games. That’s what people are really talking about when they say a team isn’t tough enough.
And not being tough enough is a bit of a sore spot in Vancouver.
There are still those who will contend that the 2011 Vancouver Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins because the Canucks were not tough enough — and certainly not when viewed in contrast to the Bruins.
That’s not actually true, but it’s easy to see from whence the misconception has risen. The dominant image of the series has become Brad Marchand repeatedly punching Daniel Sedin in the face with no retaliation. Hockey media at large did their best to sell the idea that the Canucks had simply been outmuscled in the Finals, and didn’t have the temerity to overcome the Big, Bad Bruins.
But those who were really paying attention at the time know that that was really just an attempt to cover up for the other, less-media-friendly reasons that the Canucks lost the series.
Call it corruption or bias or merely unfairness, but something hinky was going on with the NHL’s front office in 2011. Greg Campbell was a member of the Bruins, and his father Colin was the Senior Vice President of the league, until he stepped down on the day of Game One. After that, he was just the Executive VP and Director of Hockey Operations.
The Canucks didn’t lose because Marchand tickled Daniel’s beard hairs for a couple of seconds. They lost because the league’s front office was very clearly rooting for the other side.
The officiating sure looked to be biased in a similar direction. Same goes for the disciplinary committee, which handed Aaron Rome a four-game suspension in the Finals for his late hit on Nathan Horton, a punishment that roughly translates to a 20-game ban in the regular season.
That only served to exacerbate a rash of blueline injuries that had already hurt the Canucks’ chances of coming out of the series with a win. In fact, the only time that the Bruins’ superior size seemed to really make a difference was when the full weight of Milan Lucic’s massive frame came crashing down on Dan Hamhuis’s poor, poor hips. Losing Hamhuis, arguably the team’s best all-around defender at the time, was a crushing blow, but it didn’t really have anything to do with toughness. Hamhuis was trying to hip-check Lucic, after all. That’s pretty darn tough.
Roberto Luongo occasionally forgetting how to tend goal had nothing to do with toughness, either, at least not in the way that hockey fans typically understand it.
Johnny Boychuk piledriving Mason Raymond into the boards, literally breaking Raymond’s back, and getting away with it, had nothing to do with toughness, either. It had to do with poor officiating. Which, in turn, brings us back to the NHL and its lack of ethics.
We could go on about this forever — and, a decade out, we kind of already have. But that’s not the point here. The point is that by any objective measure, the 2011 Canucks were tough enough to beat the Bruins, and thus tough enough to have won the Stanley Cup. Even with all those aggravating factors, they still nearly pulled it off.
Why is any of this relevant today?
Because the 2021/22 Canucks, even without MacEwen and Gadjovich, compare pretty favourably with the 2010/11 squad when it comes to toughness. And if the 2011 Canucks were tough enough to win it all in an arguably much tougher era, then the current Canucks are tough enough to experience playoff success.
In 2010/11, the Canucks dressed no true heavyweight fighter. Darcy Hordichuk had left in the summer, and he was not replaced. Rick Rypien, Aaron Volpatti, and Guillaume Desbiens each did some gloves-dropping in the regular season, but none of them dressed for the playoffs.
The toughest player on the postseason roster was probably Tanner Glass; a gamer, but not an intimidator. Kevin Bieksa was around, but had to reduce his rough stuff due to his importance on the ice. Raffi Torres was there to do Raffi Torres things. Andrew Alberts eventually found his way into the lineup due to injury.
Nothing too extreme, especially by the standards of the early-2010s.
If you’re talking pure old-school toughness, the 2021/22 team lines up perfectly fine. Like Glass, Luke Schenn is willing to take on all comers, and he’s been known to eke out an upset victory every now and then. Post-demolition of Duncan Keith, Tyler Myers is finally being recognized for the beast he is. Alex Chiasson was signed in part due to his willingness to stick up for teammates. JT Miller is always down for a fracas. Bo Horvat is surprisingly legit with the gloves off, and once stood toe-to-toe with Darnell Nurse. Jason Dickinson’s only two NHL fights have been against John Hayden and Nicolas Deslauriers, two genuine heavyweights, and he’s done just fine. Kyle Burroughs is a scrapper. Vasily Podkolzin is going to rip someone apart with those big bear hands someday, maybe as early as this season.
— Hockey Night Punjabi (@HkyNightPunjabi) April 9, 2017
Will Lockwood is sitting down there in the minors, waiting. There’s your new-era Raffi freakin’ Torres, right there.
But most folks recognize that team toughness in the modern NHL isn’t really about dropping the gloves. Fighting is increasingly less relevant, and while some will contend that it will always have a place in the sport, that place has definitely moved to the fringes of effectiveness.
Today, team toughness is recognized as the exact sort of attributes that were exuded by the 2011 squad; the perseverance of the Sedin twins, the relentlessness of Ryan Kesler, the pestilence of Alex Burrows.
Those are the things that really made those Canucks tough to play against, and they’re attributes shared by most members of the current roster.
Is Elias Pettersson not downright Sedin-like in his steady demeanor? Is Horvat not simply a much more likeable Kesler? Is Quinn Hughes, a player who has spent his whole life being ran at by much larger players, not the very definition of unflappable?
Seriously, which players of importance on the 2021/22 Canucks are fans seriously concerned will get too intimidated to play their own games?
Not Miller, that’s for sure. Not Tanner Pearson, the friendly giant. Not Conor Garland, who’s spent his entire career mixing it up with people a foot taller than him.
Brock Boeser may be an excessively nice guy, but no one’s been able to knock him off his game so far. Boeser is cool, and cool is tough. It’s a Paul Newman sort of tough.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is as physical and ornery as a prime Alex Edler. Tucker Poolman is a shot-blocking machine, corner-battling machine. Myers is literally too big to frighten.
Even the newly-acquired Juho Lammikko is said to play the game with “playoff-style” grit and determination.
But no play embodies the sort of toughness that the 2021/22 Canucks possess quite like Nils Höglander. He’s exactly the sort of player — small, European, flashy — that mouthbreathers might describe as “soft,” but anyone who knows anything about hockey doesn’t need too many viewings to figure out that Höglander is one of the toughest players in the league. Every single game, Höglander heads into the corner against opponents twice his size, and he usually comes skating out of there with the puck on his stick. Höglander is tough in the same way that Peter Forsberg was tough, and Peter Forsberg was tough in the way that won hockey games.
Time and again, it’s been shown that the team aspect of team toughness is far more important than the toughness itself. If a team is willing to stand up for itself, and to stand up for each other, who cares if it wins fights? The real key is resisting intimidation, and that’s something that the Canucks can definitely do.
Last season, plenty of attention was given to MacEwen’s beatdown of Derek Forbort after the latter had jumped Höglander — and rightly so, because it was awesome. But people always seem to forget that Forbort never really landed a punch on Höglander in the first place. That’s because, long before MacEwen got his chance at vengeance, all of Brandon Sutter, Adam Gaudette, Nate Schmidt, and Myers literally leapt to Höglander’s defence, piling onto Forbort before he could even haul Höglander down to the ice.
All the Canucks immediately go after Derek Forbort after he jumps the rookie Nils Hoglander pic.twitter.com/4VP9Bhqg4C
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) February 20, 2021
It didn’t matter that Forbort probably could have beaten the lot of them up in a one-on-one situation. Hockey is rarely ever a one-on-one situation. Team toughness is, as always, far more important than having a tough time.
Myers may be the only player from that group remaining on the opening night roster, but the fighting spirit remains. And that’s always so much more important than the fighting itself.