Are the Canucks tough enough for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
4 months ago
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It’s officially one month to go until the 2024 Trade Deadline, and the Vancouver Canucks can all but officially start planning for the playoffs.
The last MoneyPuck update had their odds of making the postseason at 99.98%.
And while, as a longtime follower of the Canucks, it’s hard not to look at that number and feel a little like Lloyd Christmas, it’s probably fair enough to start transitioning from thinking about the team as a regular season entity to wondering how their current success is going to translate to the playoffs.
We here at CanucksArmy hear directly from the fans regularly in columns like WDYTT, and while we haven’t heard too many questions raised about the team’s postseason fortunes, we have heard some.
Depth could be an issue, some might say. Playoff inexperience, another. And there are those who openly ponder whether or not the Canucks are really tough enough for the rigors of multiple rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where the game becomes suddenly and significantly more physical, and where the whistles of referees tend to disappear for long periods of time.
So, we thought we’d take a look at the question today (and will be following up later in the week with a list of potential deadline trade targets to shore up any potential lack in truculence.)
We begin our examination with a couple of the basic measures, hidden away in the Miscellaneous tab of NHL.com like many of hockey’s so-called intangible qualities.
Hits seem like as fine a place to start as any. As of this writing, the Canucks have thrown 1195 hits on the 2023/24 season, the sixth most of any NHL team behind the Predators, the Islanders, the Panthers, the Bruins, and the Sharks. They’ve done it in 50 games for a rate of 23.66 hits-per-60, also sixth in the league.
As always, there’s the numbers themselves to consider, and then the context. One thing about hits is that they’re rarely ever thrown while one’s own team has the puck. The Canucks, as the highest-scoring team in the league, have the puck an awful lot. So the fact that they’re simultaneously one of the NHL’s most offensively-potent teams, and one of its most physical, shows that the Canucks are really making the most of their limited opportunities to play the body while on defence. To wit, they only rank 24th overall in blocked shots, another stat heavily impacted by how much time a team spends defending. They are making a point of making hit happen.
Of course, some players contribute to this far more heavily than others (pun fully intended.)
Dakota Joshua is third in the entire NHL in hits with 176. JT Miller hits the list at 31st overall with 128 hits, and sizeably outscores every player ahead of him, with the exception of Brady Tkachuk. Nikita Zadorov sneaks in at #48 with 111 cumulative hits between Vancouver and Calgary. Only Nashville has more of its own players in the league’s top-50.
Noah Juulsen and Sam Lafferty just miss with 97 hits each, albeit in relatively limited ice-time.
But that’s just hitting, and even when measured, not all hits are created equal. There are other ways to measure toughness.
Fighting is increasingly less relevant in NHL hockey, and especially so in the playoffs, where fighting is next-to-nonexistent. But it still happens, and scrums are a frequent occurrence, so fisticuff-related skills should probably be considered when analyzing team toughness.
Our friends over at HockeyFights.com tell us that the Canucks have 12 fighting majors on the 2023/24 season, which is right around the league average. They also tell us that the Canucks have gone approximately 3-4-5 in those 12 fights, meaning they don’t win every time they drop the mitts. In fact, no Canuck is recorded as winning a fight until Zadorov took exception to Reese Johnson’s antics on December 17.
Again, here we definitely have some players carrying far more weight than others. Zadorov and Joshua have each fought thrice. Ian Cole has done it twice. But the rest are all one-shotters, like Mark Friedman, Phil di Giuseppe, Teddy Blueger, and Miller. That’s an encouraging sign of team toughness.
It’s some of those individuals who will take a more prominent role as the schedule flips over from regular to postseason. Joshua, as one of the league’s few remaining light-heavies that can play. Zadorov and Juulsen (and Carson Soucy, when healthy) as a constant threat in the middle of the ice. Miller as a relentless forechecking presence. Lafferty, Cole, and Friedman (if he makes it into the lineup) as agitating factors.
Where the Canucks really start to look tough, however, is in comparison to the other likely playoff teams that the Pacific Division has to offer.
The Vegas Golden Knights are as playoff-ready as ever, but at least the Canucks’ own collection of bangers matches up well with the likes of Keegan Kolesar, Brayden McNabb, and Nic Hague.
The Edmonton Oilers pale in comparison to either set. They’ve got the sparingly-physical Evander Kane and the sparingly-effective Darnell Nurse, along with semi-heavyweight Vincent Desharnais on the blueline, who doesn’t play all that much. The Oilers are so soft, in fact, that they had to bring in Corey Perry in the middle of a massive win-streak to try to supplement their rambunctiousness.
And the Los Angeles Kings? Don’t make us laugh. They haven’t even thrown a hit since Alex Edler retired.
The Canucks strike us as a team that can both meet any physical onslaught brought on by a playoff opponent and dictate the pace of that physicality if they so choose. Though we’ve highlighted many individual contributors here, what stands out when actually watching the Canucks play is the truly “team” approach they take to team toughness. That obviously starts with head coach Rick Tocchet and assistant coach Adam Foote, two all-time playoff warriors back in their day. But one can also look up and down the roster and find players that, for various reasons, should quality as “tough enough” for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Miller is self-explanatory. But the Vancouver faithful has also already seen core members Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes respond exceptionally well to extra physical attention in the 2020 Bubble Playoffs, each racking up close to PPG production despite a litany of attempted cheapshots.
Speaking of Hughes, he may genuinely qualify as the only non-physical defender on the roster. Zadorov is a killer, Juulsen and Friedman play with reckless abandon, and both Cole and Soucy pick their spots incredibly effectively. Even Filip Hronek gets down and dirty when the situation calls for it.
And then there’s Tyler Myers. Folks who remember the Bubble will remember that Playoff Myers is an entirely different beast altogether. While we hope that “Tyler Minors” doesn’t make an appearance this year, we can count on Myers upping his sandpaper factor as soon as the schedule flips over. Expect to see more of the Myers who demolished Duncan Keith and like three Maple Leafs at the same time come mid-April.
Much of the postseason is played in the corners, and we outright relish the thought of teams having to spend an entire series trying to get the puck off of both Conor Garland and Nils Höglander, who specialize in spinning off of attempted hits and transforming them into scoring chances.
And that’s not it. The recently-acquired Elias Lindholm has a real edge to his game. Blueger and Suter play the sort of close-and-cloying game down the middle that tends to draw the ire of opponents. Even ol’ Nils Åman is starting to throw his weight around out there. And we can’t forget Di Giuseppe, soon to return to active duty and always willing to check a defender into the endboards on the forecheck.
So, are the Canucks tough enough for the playoffs? The real answer is that it’s impossible to know until the rubber hits the road in April.
But there are at least indicators here that this won’t be a weakness of this particular batch of Canucks. It might even be a strength.
That said, even strengths can be improved upon. So, you’ll still get that list of potential toughness-enhancing acquisitions in the days to come.
Until then, just keep your head up.
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