The Canucks can chase the playoffs on the ice next season, but they still shouldn’t do so off the ice
Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
4 months ago
The Pacific Division is imploding, and fans of the Vancouver Canucks are viewing it in one of two ways.
The first, and most natural reaction, is one of schadenfreude: a delightful German word that roughly translates to “taking pleasure in the misfortunes of another.”
The Calgary Flames are down a 100-point scorer, and another is about to be traded.
The Vegas Golden Knights have mismanaged their cap so poorly that they’re paying other teams to take their extraneous PPG scorers.
The Edmonton Oilers just pinned all their hopes on a goalie most famous for letting the Toronto Maple Leafs down in the first round, again.
The California teams are all in various stages of a rebuild.
Seattle is still Seattle.
All of a sudden, and without all that much roster movement on their end, the Canucks have soared up the probable 2022/23 standings. It’s now looking like the Canucks have a legitimate shot at finishing in the top three of this particular division, and that means a guaranteed spot in the postseason.
And that’s where the other reaction comes in: the one of apprehension, bordering on fear.
Because fans of the Vancouver Canucks have been here before. They’ve experienced what it’s like to support a team that is perfectly competitive for a fringe playoff position, but no a true Stanley Cup contender. They’ve also experienced what it’s like for their front office to chase playoff glory without having a realistic path to true contention. They’ve seen long-term sacrifices made for short-term gains, with those short-term gains being stuff like “making the playoffs” and “winning a round” and the long-term cost being never quite putting together a roster worthy of the Stanley Cup.
Most do not want to go through something like that again. Most, as Cody Servertson so eloquently argued here last week, are willing to put in the patience it requires to see the Canucks build up something excellent and sustainable.
So, it’s understandable why folks in that camp might be looking at the state of the Pacific Division, noticing the Canucks’ wide-open path to a top-three finish, and shuddering a little.
Make no mistake, the path is open.
The Canucks finished with 92 points in 2021/22, good for fifth place in the Pacific behind four other teams. They were seven points back of third place, and 19 back of first.
The Calgary Flames paced the Pacific Division last season. But they’ve since lost their top scorer and best player Johnny Gaudreau for absolutely nothing, and they were informed shortly after that that Matthew Tkachuk would not be re-signing and would prefer a trade out of town. Down two 100-point scorers, it’s tough to see how the Flames won’t plummet down the standings next year.
Vegas missed the playoffs themselves, but still finished a couple of points ahead of the Canucks. But the Golden Knights have gotten themselves into so much trouble via the Jack Eichel fiasco that, instead of building toward a rebound, they’ve been forced to jettison valuable players for less-than-free. That’s right, the Knights had to pay other teams to take talented wingers Max Pacioretty and Evgeni Dadonov, and are still unable to add any talent of note to that same roster that missed the postseason last year. The opportunity is definitely there for the improved Canucks to leapfrog Vegas in the standings.
If there’s one team in the Pacific Division to worry about, it’s probably the Edmonton Oilers. They took a real run at securing their goaltending position by committing big dollars and big term to Jack Campbell. Previously, Campbell has been decent-to-great in the regular season and a bit of a letdown in the playoffs. It would be a shocker for the Oilers to miss the playoffs altogether in 2022/23, but there are enough question marks surrounding the team to prevent them from being a total slam-dunk.
The most intriguing team in the Pacific are the Los Angeles Kings. They surprised by making the playoffs last year, with their delicate mix of uber-talented prospects and aging legends coming together in just the right way at the right time. As the likes of Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, and Jonathan Quick get older and the youngsters experience growing pains, the Kings could find themselves catapulting wildly up and down the standings, and are a difficult roster to place right now.
The Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, meanwhile, have more-or-less committed to the rebuild. The Ducks in particular will be difficult to handle for the next decade or so, but they’re not quite there yet.
The Seattle Kraken, on the other hand, can only claim to have just barely started their build. They look like an expansion team, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
If we had to call it right now, we’d say that we expect the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings to finish ahead of the Vancouver Canucks in the 2022/23 Pacific Division standings. The third spot remains wide-open, and we see the Canucks as about as likely to claim it as any of the Flames, Golden Knights, and/or Ducks.
Which, again, is kind of the problem.
Even the most optimistic of Vancouver fans should have no delusions about the Canucks’ chances of making it out of the Western Conference Playoffs.
Making it to the postseason? Sure.
Upsetting the Oilers or Kings in the first two rounds? We could see it.
Getting through the Colorado Avalanche, though? Or, if not them, the St. Louis Blues or the Minnesota Wild or the Nashville Predators?
Right now, that’s a bridge too far.
Could the Canucks get there, one day in the near-ish future? Most would like to think so, yes.
But most also recognize that doing so will require some long-term team building. The kind that takes years; collecting draft picks, acquiring prospects, shipping out veterans for future assets, avoiding commitments to lengthy contracts.
It’s the kind of team-building that is directly contradictory to short-term, chasing-the-playoffs, get-in-and-anything-can-happen management. Which, understandably, has Canucks fans nervous.
It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the Canucks find themselves comfortably in the top-three of the Pacific Division for much of the 2022/23 regular season. It’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which the front office — under presumable pressure from ownership to secure playoff revenue — starts making some compromises to their long-term vision.
Maybe they hang on to JT Miller as a “self-rental,” and even look to re-sign him.
Maybe they flip a second round pick for a veteran defender to shore up the blueline.
Maybe they sacrifice a couple of B-tier prospects like Danila Klimovich or Jack Rathbone for an upgrade on the roster.
It’s nothing that Canucks fans haven’t seen before. But something that Canucks fans also haven’t seen before is how this particular management team handles a situation like this. The Benning Regime has come and gone. The Rutherford/Allvin Experience has taken over. And there’s plenty of reason for optimism in that changing of the guard.
Yes, Jim Rutherford has paid lip service to competing for the playoffs in 2022/23, as virtually every NHL executive does at the start of every NHL season.
Thus far, he and Allvin’s actions have not followed. Instead, they’ve mostly kept in line with their stated vision of building the Canucks up to be a contender a few years down the road. While they’ve yet to really sacrifice anything long-term for the short-term, they’ve at the very least avoided doing the reverse.
But the real test will come when and if the Canucks begin to climb the standings as the regular season progresses. Should the Canucks find themselves in a playoff position by, say, January, the heat on Allvin and Rutherford to compromise will be intense.
Here’s hoping they can withstand the pressure. The only thing the Canucks should really be chasing is the Stanley Cup, and that chase is going to take them a lot longer than a single calendar year.
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