2022 was the year the Vancouver Canucks brought the spark back
Photo credit:Twitter via @Canucks
By Geo Collins8 months ago
For seven seasons, Canucks fans have become used to the fading light of a playoff spot becoming further and further away from them. The 2011 Stanley Cup Final has felt more like an urban legend than a recent memory, and the first-round loss to Calgary in 2015 has seemed like a lofty dream in the subsequent years. The feeling of rock bottom transformed into a grim reality in the 2020-2021 season, with COVID sweeping most of the roster, and ostensible star player Elias Pettersson missing thirty games due to an injury. Coming into 2021-2022, all this team and its fans could dream of was something to reignite those fires again.
And what was given to them was not perfect; it was not the dream Cinderella story of flawless redemption that would elevate them back to where they’d been just over a decade earlier. But, in its own albeit messy way, we have seen one thing define the future of the Canucks this season: hope.
The 2021-2022 season started off in a less-than-appetizing way for the team, with questionable management decisions that left fans skeptical at best, angry at worst. Every day it seemed like a new discussion about the Canucks’ finances was sprung. The buyouts of Braden Holtby and Jake Virtanen left some cap space, but the acquisitions of Conor Garland, Alex Chiasson, Jaroslav Halak and, controversially, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, raised the hairs on the backs of the necks of many.
Concerns arose around the upcoming salary changes with Brock Boeser, and the looming UFA status of JT Miller and Bo Horvat over the next few years, which could likely demand more money from the ever-desiccating well of the Bank of Aquilini. The 3 year, $7.35 million per year bridge contract for Elias Pettersson, and a 6 year, $7.85 million per year deal for Quinn Hughes certainly cost the team a lot of money.
With these kinds of expenses, the Canucks really had no choice but to perform. They had invested in their defence, but the Ekman-Larsson acquisition was one that left people exceptionally nervous. His onboarding was, in some ways, the rain on the parade of the relief that many felt with the departure of Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussell, and Loui Eriksson; $7.26 million for six years for a player whose aberrant performance was seen as a threat to the Canucks’ need for expiation.
And yet… They didn’t perform. As the fans held on with baited breath, desperately hoping these management decisions would pay off and redeem them from the results of seasons past, the ignominious truth was that things looked much the same. The first ten games yielded a score of 4-5-1, which seemed even more dire ten games later, where it became 6-12-1. Pettersson’s points standing sat at 3-7-10, with no goals scored in a 5-vs-5 situation despite having taken 56 shots on goal. Boeser was at 4-5-9, Miller 7-12-19, and Garland 5-9-14. Quinn Hughes was characteristically high on assists, at 2-13-15, while Ekman-Larsson tallied two goals and two assists with 58 shots on goal — more attempts than any of the team’s star forwards.
It became tiring to watch the losses over and over. Knowing this was the year to prune the roster and rise from the ashes of 2020-2021, to see such a flop stirred nothing but feelings of despondency. Demands for Jim Benning’s firing echoed louder amongst the fans, with Travis Green’s competency as a coach being dragged in as well. It felt like there was nothing else that could be done. These results were unacceptable, and for the fans, years of expensive mediocrity was no longer tolerable.
Tensions grew their highest after a four-game loss streak on the road became five upon finally returning home. A 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on home ice was the end of the tether for many, with the game culminating in boos from the fans, harshly harmonized amongst chants for changes in management. At this point, it became hard to ignore. The Canucks were performing terribly, and something had to change.
Finally, on the 5th of December 2021, it was announced that change was coming. Travis Green, Jim Benning, John Weisbrod, and Nolan Baumgartner were all relieved of their duties, with the head coach role to be overtaken by Bruce Boudreau, and for Stan Smyl to step in as interim GM.
This was the change the Canucks needed.
Instantly the differences were palpable. Smyl was preaching accountability while wearing his heart on his sleeve, and Boudreau brought hope. Couple that with clear and honest messaging from newly-hired president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford, and seemingly out of nowhere, Canucks fans were believing in the team and its direction again.
The Canucks were beginning to bring the spark back.
The first ten games post-change went 8-1-1 — already matching the number of wins of all games prior to that in the season, but a 15th of the number of regulation losses that had so far been accrued. In the first twenty games, that jumped to 12-4-4. Just 20% of the games the Canucks played were regulation losses, compared to 63% in the first twenty games of the season.
And the players looked different too.
Elias Pettersson’s points standing for these twenty games was 7-5-12, which marked a 133.3% increase in the number of goals from the first twenty of the season. Six of them were in a 5-vs-5 situation, compared to the 0 he achieved previously. Across the first twenty games post-change, there were only six games in which J.T. Miller claimed zero points, and that included all four regulation losses the Canucks suffered.
Brock Boeser, however, saw an opposite trend with shooting. True to his word, Boudreau got Boeser to start shooting more. In the first twenty games post-change, Boeser took 61 shots on goal compared to 51 in the first twenty of the season, and increased his points by 66.7%, taking it from 4-5-9 to 9-6-15.
Under Boudreau, the longest win streak was seven, and the longest losing streak was three. And while Travis Green found a win-loss ratio of 33.3% to 66.7%, Boudreau transformed that to 56.1% to 43.9%. The Canucks, under this new leadership, were almost unrecognizable from the shell of a team that struggled at the start of the season.
Sure, the Canucks ultimately failed to qualify for the postseason again this season. But this time, it doesn’t feel like a hopeless wreckage of anger and abnegation. The improvements for this team didn’t come quick enough to qualify, but they came at a time when a reminder was desperately needed that this was a team worth believing in. Perhaps with some of those loss streaks early in the season reduced, the points would be there now. If this game had just gone this way, or that one that way, the Canucks could have actually made it.
But what this season has shown is the providence the Canucks have in hand for 2022-23. The players we sincerely doubted have shown there is more to them. The players we knew were great have proven they can be so much more. The fresh leadership has given the Canucks a new direction to follow — one which will hopefully direct them to victory in the coming seasons. It is a good time to be a Canucks fan, because more than anything right now, fans are ablaze with hope for the future.
That dimming light is flickering brighter, and damn, that’s a good feeling.
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