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Mission Improbable: Can the Canucks realistically leapfrog any Pacific teams ahead of them to claim a playoff spot?
5 months ago
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Jarkko Ruutu. Alexandre Burrows. Maxim Lapierre. Elliotte Friedman.
Truly, the Vancouver Canucks have been blessed with some truly capable agitators in their franchise history, but one of these things is not like the others.
Yes, no one can rile things up in Vancouver quite like Friedman, who dropped an already-infamous midnight boat interview with Elias Pettersson last week that has the fanbase in a veritable tizzy.
The two main takeaways from the floating sit-down were that Pettersson and his camp prefer to wait until the end of the 2023/24 season to negotiate a contract, and that their desire to get a long-term deal done will be reliant, at least in part, on the Canucks’ on-ice success in the year to come.
As Friedman further elaborated, “I just think he wants to make sure that he feels everything is going in the right direction. And I got the sense that he is confident in what they have. He just wants to see the results. And as long as the Canucks do, what he believes and what they’re selling him they can do. I don’t think this is going to be an issue. They know they’re going to have to pay him. I think they are prepared to pay them. They’re prepared to pay him long-term. I think the guy just wants to win and he wants to make sure that it’s going to be there.”
The interpretation of Pettersson’s comments has been wide-ranging, and the real truth is probably impossible to guess at without the possibility of some follow-up questions. But there are definitely those in the fanbase and mediasphere who interpret them as simply and as direly as: the Canucks need to make the playoffs in 2023/24, or else Pettersson is going to take his one-year qualifying offer and walk in 2025 as a UFA.
We’re not fully convinced that things are quite so black-and-white. But for the purposes of a fun(?) little preseason thought experiment, let’s imagine that they are.
Let’s say that Pettersson meant what it sounded like he said, and that he’s communicated as much to the Canucks’ front office in private: “Playoffs or bust.”
What happens next?
For one, the Canucks, as a business enterprise, are ecstatic at having an excuse to chase the postseason that’s not just playoff revenue.
But how likely is it that they can actually pull off this Mission: Improbable?
In this three-part series, we’re going to start with the theoretical assumption that the Canucks are now dead-set on making the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and do our best to determine the probability of that coming to fruition.
We start today with a look at those Pacific Division teams that finished ahead of the Canucks in the standings last year, and whether any of them are realistically “leapfroggable.”
Vegas Golden Knights
2022/23 Record: 51-22-9, 111 points (28 ahead of Canucks)
Key Stat: 229 goals against, lowest in division
Departures: Reilly Smith, Phil Kessel, Jonathan Quick, Teddy Blueger, Mark Stone (kinda)
It’s rare for anyone to be cheering for a hangover, but other teams in the Pacific have to be hoping that the excessively celebratory summer of the Vegas Golden Knights transitions into a slow and sedentary 2023/24 regular season.
If there’s one concrete factor, aside from a Cup hangover, that will hurt the Golden Knights’ chances, it’s that (kinda) departure of captain Mark Stone, who is expected to be out for the bulk of the season, or all of the season, or maybe just forever? It’s hard to imagine a keyer piece being out of the lineup, and there’s no telling how that might affect team chemistry and performance.
That said, there’s slipping in the standings, and then there’s slipping a full 28 points in the standings, which is what the Knights would have to do for the Canucks to leapfrog them.
It’s just really, really difficult to imagine that happening this year. A hangover, Stone’s absence, and ongoing question marks in the crease will all combine the hamper the defending champs, but not enough quite yet for the Canucks’ playoff-chasing purposes.
2022/23 Record: 50-23-9, 109 points (26 ahead of Canucks)
Key Stat: 325 goals for, most in NHL. 32.4% power play, highest in NHL
Arrivals: Lane Pederson, Brandon Sutter, Sam Gagner
Departures: Kailer Yamamoto, Klim Kostin, Nick Bjugstad
It seems that the runaway locomotive that is the Oilers’ offence is not slowing down anytime soon.
One can argue all they want about how well Edmonton is built for the playoffs, but there’s little debate to be had about whether they’re built for regular season dominance. The Oilers scored 20 more goals than the second-highest-scoring team in the league last year, and their 325 tallies were the most by a team since the ‘95/’96 Pittsburgh Penguins.
To boot, all of Edmonton’s most potent pieces are still firmly ensconced within the prime of their careers. If they get even borderline passable goaltending this year, they’re cruising to the playoffs, and even without it, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are probably enough to carry them there.
If there’s one drawback to being the Oilers, it’s that they are absolutely capped out and have no room to add talent to the roster. Our list of prominent arrivals, composed entirely of Canucks castoffs, is definitely tongue-in-cheek. But more talent isn’t exactly a need in Edmonton. Barring a series of brutal injuries, there’s just no way the Canucks catch the Oilers this year.
Los Angeles Kings
2022/23 Record: 47-25-10, 104 points (21 ahead of Canucks)
Key Stat: Average age of 26.7, second-lowest in Pacific behind Canucks
Arrivals: Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Talbot, Trevor Lewis
Departures: Gabriel Vilardi, Joonas Korpisalo, Sean Durzi, Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari, Sean Walker, Alex Edler
The Kings are both a team on the rise and a team in transition. Long-lauded for having the best prospect pool in hockey, Los Angeles is now seeing some of those young pieces start to make some noise at the NHL level, and they’ve had to shuffle around some roster pieces to make it all fit.
No other team in the Pacific lost as many important players this past offseason than the Kings. Sure, the talent of Pierre-Luc Dubois alone probably outweighs all of their departures combined, but he’s an often mercurial personality, and that’s a lot of turnover regardless.
Here, some vague glimmers of hope emerge for the Canucks to start making a climb. The Kings have question marks in net, they’ve disrupted team chemistry a bit, and they’re definitely still young enough to be experiencing growing pains. Combine that with an expected and continued drop-off from the likes of Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar, and the Kings become the most difficult-to-place team in the Pacific.
We can imagine the Kings continuing to rise up the rankings, and we can just as easily imagine them taking a step-back year and falling out of the playoffs. There are just too many uncertain factors at play here…but no one should feel as though the Kings are totally out of reach for the Canucks.
2022/23 Record: 46-28-8, 100 points (17 ahead of Canucks)
Key Stat: Top-two scorers each 20 points ahead of previous career best
Arrivals: Kailer Yamamoto, Brian Dumoulin
Departures: Daniel Sprong, Carson Soucy, Martin Jones, Morgan Geekie
Was last season the real Kraken, or a flash-in-the-pan-style overachievement? It’s tough to say. On the one hand, it’s no longer unprecedented for an expansion team to become a regular contender right away thanks to Vegas’ example. On the other hand, Seattle really does read as a roster that played above its head in 2022/23, as evidenced by the sheer amount of players experiencing career-best or near-career-best results.
Is Jared McCann really going to be a consistent 40-goal scorer? Will Vince Dunn continue to put up 60 points from the back-end? It’s possible, but far from certain, and we have to acknowledge that even with those players at their very best, the Seattle roster is still full of holes.
The 2023/24 season will be one of ‘ifs’ for the Kraken. If their top scorers don’t miss a beat, if Matthew Beniers avoids a sophomore slump, if Shane Wright comes in as a star rookie, if their goaltending doesn’t fall apart; there are many avenues through which Seattle can maintain their current level of success.
But if any of those ‘ifs’ turn out to be ‘if nots,’ then we’re looking at a team that the Canucks can absolutely leapfrog — so long as some of Vancouver’s own ‘ifs’ work out in their favour. When one compares the two rosters in a vacuum, it’s hard not to feel like the Canucks possess the superior set of players.
2022/23 Record: 38-27-17, 93 points (10 ahead of Canucks)
Key Stat: 17 overtime losses, most in NHL
Arrivals: Yegor Sharangovich
Departures: Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis, Milan Lucic
Who really knows what to make of the Calgary Flames anymore?
They were supposed to be a top contender in the Pacific last year, but seemed to fall apart under the questionably-bitter coaching of Darryl Sutter. An awful performance by several key players, including Jacob Markstrom, ensued, and so did a bevy of trade requests that have yet to be fully sorted out. Things could definitely be called a bit of a mess in Calgary at the moment.
Then again, the Flames dropped 17 overtime losses in 2022/23, and wound up missing the playoffs by two points. Just a couple more good bounces in their favour, and despite all this complicating factors we mentioned, the Flames would have been a playoff team last year.
It figures, then, that if Calgary’s performance can rebound even a little, and if just a smidgen more puck-luck goes their way, they should be in the postseason again in 2023/24. But there’s still ample reason for caution. The Flames are an aging team, Markstrom is no longer a sure thing, and they did trade their top scorer in Tyler Toffoli for what amounts to a serious downgrade in Yegor Sharangovich. There’s also no real way of knowing how the Flames will react to a brand-new coaching staff.
We won’t really know what this Flames team is going to look like until they hit the ice. On paper, they look like a team that should finish ahead of the Canucks, but also a team that might not. Head-to-head matchups between Calgary and Vancouver will be key to determining which of the two finishes higher in the Pacific this year.
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