logo

Seven things we need to see from the Canucks before the Stanley Cup Playoffs

alt
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Lachlan Irvine
1 month ago
If you said that you felt the 2023-24 Vancouver Canucks season has been a whirlwind, a lot of people would probably share that sentiment.
When you’re caught in the middle of a losing season, they seem to drag on and on until you’re eventually put out of your long-awaited misery. This year has mostly been the exact opposite for the Canucks, but their last month has started to slow time down in a familiar way.
With just seven games left on the calendar and a playoff spot already locked up, the Canucks have only a division title and home ice advantage left to play for, but so much of a playoff run is based on momentum. If they enter the postseason with none in the reserves, they’ll have a massive uphill battle to climb.
Rick Tocchet’s group will be desperate to flip their recent woes starting tonight in Tempe against the Coyotes. Here are seven things to keep an eye on across the Canucks’ final seven games.
1. Recaptured chemistry
With Dakota Joshua’s return to the lineup this week, the Canucks essentially have all the same pieces from their opening night roster, give or take a few minor trades. But Rick Tocchet’s line formula has felt a bit off lately. The forward groups just aren’t clicking the way they were earlier in the year, or even compared to a few weeks ago.
Joshua moved up to the second line with J.T. Miller and Conor Garland, and the built-in chemistry between the wingers paid immediate dividends against the Ducks. But that move came at the cost of one of the NHL’s most effective third lines with Teddy Blueger at centre. Now Blueger is leading the fourth unit between Sam Lafferty and Arshdeep Bains, and they’ve been struggling to keep their head above water. Reuniting the Good Job Boys would require Pius Suter to take on the 4C spot again, but it would open the door for a player like Vasily Podkolzin and/or Ilya Mikheyev to jump back into a top six role.
Granted, all of this is made more difficult by the lone absence of Elias Lindholm. If he comes back, the extra depth option would hopefully make a huge difference.
2. A healthy Thatcher Demko (still)
It turns out that Thatcher Demko is still pretty crucial to the success of the Canucks.
Casey DeSmith’s stint pinch-hitting for Demko started out well enough, but the team’s reliance on their goaltenders to win them games is rearing its’ head again. DeSmith has lost his last three straight starts, including allowing six goals on 30 shots against Vegas yesterday. Arturs Silovs performed admirably in his only start against the Ducks on Sunday, but he’s far from a long term solution either.
Just like in Nashville and Winnipeg, above-average goaltending is absolutely essential for the Canucks to go anywhere in the playoffs. While some teams have the horsepower to make up for shakier netminders, the Canucks can’t afford to take that chance and need Demko back at top form before the end of the year.
With Demko accompanying the team on their road trip this week, it seems likely that he’ll be returning sooner rather than later and will get more than enough reps ahead of the postseason. But if he suffers any setbacks – knock on wood – the Canucks will have to decide if entering the playoffs with an underprepared Demko is still the best option 100% DeSmith is the
3. A defenceman scoring title for Quinn Hughes
Ever since he got the captain’s ‘C’ on his jersey, Quinn Hughes has been playing on another echelon.
For the third straight year, Hughes has continued his annual tradition of breaking the Canucks’ single-season record for points by a defenceman. But this year has been a massive step above at both ends of the ice, and Hughes is arguably the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy.
With his pair of goals against the Knights, Hughes leads Cale Makar by three points in the race for the Coffey Cup (my name choice if they gave out a separate scoring title for defenders, hire me NHL). Hughes also sits only six points away from 90, which would give him the 27th-best scoring season by a defenceman in NHL history. The end goal for Hughes and the team might be a championship, but finishing ahead of all his defensive counterparts in points would tie a nice bow on his year.
If the race is close in the last game of the year, expect Hughes’ teammates to feed him the puck like crazy.
4.  Special teams consistency
The Golden Knights only had three power play opportunities against the Canucks, but they made Vancouver’s PK unit pay on two of them.
The most egregious was the 5-1 goal, when all four penalty killers followed the puck to one side of the ice, leaving Alex Pietrangelo a wide-open path to the net when the puck made its way across to him. Filip Hronek and J.T. Miller were caught in no man’s land, DeSmith couldn’t control the rebound and William Karlsson evaded Ian Cole’s stick check to poke the puck in.
And yet, the Canucks’ penalty kill is still ranked eighth in effectiveness since the start of March. It’s the power play where the real struggles have been surfacing. Across the same month-long span, the Canucks’ power play has been in the lower third of the league and has fallen into old habits, over-cycling the puck and waiting for the perfect shot to open up. If not for Quinn Hughes carrying the unit singlehandedly
Perhaps adding some new blood to the power play unit would fix that?
5. More opportunities for Nils Hoglander
Speaking of new blood, we’ve already found him!
Nils Hoglander has done nothing but prove himself this season. The team’s best even strength goal scorer. Consistently aggressive play that drives opponents crazy. And hockey IQ beyond his years that’s earned a spot on the top line next to Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
But despite his strong year, Hoglander has yet to be granted a real opportunity on the man advantage. And as a player who’s not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice or take a few chops, Hoglander is a perfect candidate for the bumper spot in front of the net. Being able to open up space for his teammates on PP1 would be the main draw, but so would his ability to create chaos and traffic that opposing goaltender’s would have to fight through.
Rick Tocchet might still be unsure about giving the 23-year-old that crucial a role on the team’s power play, even if it has been struggling. But if there’s one player who responds when asked to rise to the occasion, it’s Nils.
6. Reversing the tide of luck for both Elias’s
If you’re a Vancouver Canuck with the first name Elias, the last month has been one to forget.
For Pettersson, his scoring touch has suddenly dried up over the last four games. For Lindholm, he’s dealing with an unknown injury that’s rumoured to potentially keep him out for the foreseeable future.
Pettersson is clearly the lesser concern of the two. While having your superstar forward go pointless for four games is very troubling, it’s only a matter of time before that puck luck finds him again. And his sole visit to the postseason with the Canucks in 2020, he proved that he can perform on the biggest stage.
As far as Lindholm is concerned, the hope is that his injury won’t drag into the playoffs the Canucks specifically acquired him to join them for. What’s toughest to gauge on that front is that even if he is able to make a return, there’s no telling what version of Elias Lindholm the team will be getting. If it’s not the 60-point man from Calgary, Rick Tocchet might be cagey about putting him back into a top six or even third line role.
7. Handling business against playoff teams
The reason the Canucks won so many extra games in the first few months of the season wasn’t just because of an inflated scoring rate; it was also because they played like a team with nothing to lose. Right now, they’re playing like a group we saw all too often last season; a team that’s scared to make a mistake, making them more prone to those errors.
Since Demko was lost to injury in the Canucks’ 5-0 win over the Jets on Mar. 9, Vancouver has gone winless against teams in playoff positions (0-4-1). And that’s a stat line that doesn’t inspire confidence, especially compared to the recently hot runs of lower-seeded teams like Nashville, Vegas and St. Louis.
But this cold streak doesn’t have to be a negative for them, so long as they don’t let their struggles snowball into a bigger issue like it has in each of the last couple of seasons. If Tocchet has the ears of his players, and by all accounts he does, he can use these games as a motivational wake up call for how hard they’ll have to work to earn any playoff wins. Or how opposing teams might start writing the Canucks off again like they did at the beginning of the season, opening the door to catch their first round opponent off guard.
In their final seven games, the Canucks will face four guaranteed playoff teams: the Kings, Golden Knights, Oilers and Jets to round out the regular season. Four games to put together a better impression of who this team is and seven games to finish the 2023-24 season out on a high.

Check out these posts...