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Mission Improbable: Who do the Canucks need to fend off as they chase a playoff spot in 2023/24?
5 months ago
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Welcome back to Mission Improbable, a series we could have called The Hunt For Red-Hot Playoff Revenue.
Of course, in the scenario we’ve crafted for ourselves here, it’s not just playoff revenue the Canucks are chasing in 2023/24, it’s also the promise of future returns on franchise centerpiece Elias Pettersson.
If you missed either of our first two columns, we’re operating under the premise that Pettersson’s boat-interview with Elliotte Friedman was as pointed as it sounded, and that Pettersson meant what he (kinda) said: he won’t sign a long-term extension with the Canucks unless they improve as a team in 2023/24.
That interpretation is, of course, up for debate, but not here. This column is all about whether the Canucks could make the playoffs in this upcoming season, if they decided that they needed to pull out the stops to do so.
We’ve looked at those Pacific Division teams that finished ahead of the Canucks in 2022/23, and we’ve glanced at the Canucks’ own ability to pick up additional points as they try to leapfrog those teams.
But the Canucks won’t be the only team attempting to do some leapfrogging. As they do their level-best to secure a postseason berth, there are going to be a handful of other teams trying to do the very same, and below we’ll examine those teams and the Canucks’ chances of fending them off in 2023/24.
Central Division teams that are out of reach for the Canucks
If the Canucks aren’t able to land one of the top-three slots in the Pacific Division standings, that means they’ll have to rely on a wildcard position to get into the playoffs, and that means competing directly with the Central Division.
So, before we get into that, we’ll take a brief pitstop at all those Central locations that won’t figure much into our topic, because they’re essentially out of reach for the Canucks in this upcoming season.
Fortunately, the number of said teams is only two.
Colorado Avalanche: Even with captain Gabriel Landeskog expected to potentially miss the entire season, the Avalanche are still a force to be reckoned with, and remain a genuine Stanley Cup contender. Their core is more than young enough that there’s no expected drop-off coming anytime soon, and even another catastrophic injury or two still probably results in the Avs finishing ahead of the Canucks in the standings.
There are, quite simply, a lot of easier teams for Vancouver to catch.
Dallas Stars: The Stars really snuck up on everyone in developing into the top-tier contender, but it’s happened, and their very best players are only getting better. On the strength of Jason Robertson, Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz, and Jake Oettinger alone, Dallas is going to be a good-to-great team for the foreseeable future, and 2023/24 might be their single-best opportunity at a championship.
They’ll be competing with the Avalanche for the Central Division crown, as opposed to competing with anyone else for a playoff spot.
Basement-dwelling teams for whom the Canucks are out of reach
There are also those teams that are in such a dire state, competitiveness-wise, that they’re really not worth mentioning much within the context of this article.
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks have the young talent to one day be a strong contender, but that’s all they have right now, and it’s not enough to even get a sniff of the playoffs in 2023/24. Even if all of their under-23s take a step forward this year, Anaheim doesn’t have the depth surrounding those players to be any sort of consistent threat as of yet. Expect another basement finish.
Chicago Blackhawks: The Hawks lost hard for Connor Bedard, and they’re almost certainly going to continue to lose hard so as to draft him a few future linemates. Chicago grabbed veterans like Taylor Hall and Corey Perry to insulate Bedard, not to put wins on the board. They seem to have accepted their role as a cap dump haven for now, and will take steps to reshape the roster in the years to come.
San Jose Sharks: There may not be a team in the Western Conference in as bad of shape as San Jose. They’ve ostensibly begun a sort of rebuild, but they don’t have the top-level prospects required for such an endeavour (Will Smith aside) and still have far too many overpaid and underperforming veterans kicking around the roster.
Closing out the Erik Karlsson trade was a win for the Sharks, but only the first step in what will be a long and painful process.
Central Division wildcard contenders
With those nonfactors out of the way, and with no one left in the Pacific to consider, we can jump right ahead to those teams in the Central Division against whom the Canucks can reasonably expect to be competing for a wildcard playoff position in 2023/24, listed in order of 2022/23 finish.
2022/23 Record: 46-25-11, 103 points (20 ahead of Canucks)
Key Stat: $14.744 million in dead cap on books for 2023/24
Arrivals: Pat Maroon
Departures: Mathew Dumba, Sam Steel, Ryan Reaves, John Klingberg, Jordan Greenway, Gustav Nyquist
It’s tempting to look at the Wild’s performance in 2022/23 and deem them also out of reach for the Canucks. But that season can best be understood as Minnesota’s last gasp at competing before they absolutely schwacked with buyout penalties for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.
With that much dead cap on the books, the Wild have had to shed roster players with abandon this summer, and they only piece they’ve been able to add back is…Pat Maroon.
Incoming prospects should help prevent Minnesota from absolutely tanking, but they can be expected to take a step back all the same, and should probably find themselves in about the same ballpark as the Canucks. A close look at the Minnesota rosters reveals one that Vancouver actually matches up quite favourably against, blueline aside.
2022/23 Record: 46-33-3, 95 points (12 ahead of Canucks)
Key Stat: Eighth in NHL with 45 ROW.
Arrivals: Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, Laurent Brossoit, Rasmus Kupari
Departures: Blake Wheeler, Pierre-Luc Dubois
The Jets are another team in a very odd spot. They’ve already begun moving on from their previous core with the buyout of Wheeler and the trade of Dubois (the return for Patrik Laine), but they’ve still got a couple of expiring veterans in Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck that have them stuck in between a couple phases.
On the whole, there’s no reason why the Jets couldn’t put together a similar performance in 2023/24 as they did last year. Wheeler is addition by subtraction, honestly, and they did get plenty of immediate talent back in exchange for Dubois. How they do from here on out depends on how the roster deals with all the turmoil and the impending departure of even more key pieces.
In other words, Winnipeg is a hard team to place. We could see them staying well ahead of the Canucks, but we could also see them crashing and burning to the cellar of the Central. Only time will tell.
2022/23 Record: 42-32-8, 92 points (nine ahead of Canucks)
Key Stat: Sixth-worst power play and sixth-best penalty kill
Arrivals: Ryan O’Reilly, Luke Schenn, Jeremy Lauzon, Denis Gurianov
Departures: Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen
The list of departures above is a bit deceptive, because it doesn’t include the major players that the Predators dealt away within the 2022/23 season, including Mattis Ekholm, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Tanner Jeannot/
Really, Nashville is another tricky team to figure out, because for a minute there it looked like they might be entering a rebuild under new GM Barry Trotz…until he went out and spent big money on vets O’Reilly and Schenn. Now no one is really sure where they stand.
It’s a lot of talent out, and not nearly as much in, but Trotz seems confident that it was a culture change the Predators needed more so than a roster upgrade.
A team with Juuse Saros and Roman Josi on the backend will probably always be at least in the playoff conversation. The Predators could be seen as a good club for the Canucks to test themselves against in 2023/24: a team they should be able to beat regularly if they want to consider themselves worthy of the postseason.
St. Louis Blues
2022/23 Record: 37-38-7, 81 points (two fewer than Canucks)
Key Stat: 3.63 goals against per game, sixth-worst in league
Arrivals: Kevin Hayes
Departures: Noel Acciari
The Blues went from Stanley Cup winning defensive powerhouse to an especially porous roster in just a few short years. In 2022/23, there were only three teams to finish with more than 80 points and a GAA of 3.50 or higher, and they were the Sabres, the Blues…and the Canucks.
In many ways, the Canucks and Blues find themselves in a similar position heading into 2023/24, with the major difference that the Canucks are a team on the rise, and the Blues are a team on the decline. They’re two ships passing in the night, essentially.
Like Nashville, St. Louis’ list of departures is deceptive, because it doesn’t include the in-season trades of O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Ivan Barbashev. That’s a lot of talent out the door, and not much coming back in the immediate future.
We’ll stop using wishy-washy language at this point, and switch over to bluntness: if the Canucks can’t finish ahead of the deteriorating Blues in the 2023/24 standings, they really don’t have any business with the playoffs, as far as we can see it. This is a team the Canucks should be and have to be better than.
2022/23 Record: 28-40-14, 70 points (13 fewer than Canucks)
Key Stat: Average age of 26.3 at end of 2022/23, second-youngest team in West after Canucks
Arrivals: Jason Zucker, Alex Kerfoot, Sean Durzi, Mathew Dumba, Troy Stecher (return), Nick Bjugstad (return)
Don’t laugh. The Coyotes can’t be bad forever, not when they’ve been stockpiling picks and prospects like nobody else for so many years running. With Logan Cooley the next to arrive on the scene, the talent is starting to show in Arizona, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them skyrocket up the standings this year.
Aside from in-season trades of Jakob Chychrun and a few others, the Coyotes have kept most of their quality players in-house, and have taken steps this offseason to supplement them with some solid veterans.
They’ll still be too reliant on unproven quantities to call them anything approaching a guaranteed playoff contender, but the potential is there. At the very least, as the only team in the Western Conference younger than the Canucks, the Coyotes are someone that Vancouver should keep their eye on. The desert won’t be giving up easy wins for much longer.
That said, what we stated about the Blues definitely applies here, too: if the Canucks can’t outcompete the Coyotes in 2023/24, they don’t belong in the playoffs.
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