5 keys for the Canucks to make the playoffs in the weak Pacific Division
Photo credit:© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
The Pacific Division is probably the weakest it’s been in quite some time.
Outside of the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, there’s reason to believe that any of the remaining five teams in the division could vie for that third playoff spot or the wild card position — well, except for the San Jose Sharks, who are presently in no man’s land with an aging core, a bottom-tier prospect pipeline, and one of the ugliest-looking CapFriendly pages in the NHL.
Down the I5, the Seattle Kraken had themselves a juicy summer, starting with highly-touted prospect Shane Wright falling into their lap at fourth overall in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. A few weeks later, the Kraken acquired Oliver Bjorkstrand in a cap dump by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Besides those coups, it was relatively quiet for the squids. Perhaps the addition of Matty Beniers and Shane Wright pushes the needle forward. Or newly hired goaltending coach Steve Briere make enough of a difference on defence? However, the odds are that Seattle will sit this year’s playoffs out as they continue to build with an eye toward the future.
The Anaheim Ducks raised some eyebrows this offseason when they spent big to acquire one year of John Klingberg. Klingberg is likely a trade deadline asset for the Ducks to acquire more futures for their current rebuild. If the defence churns out a better effort than it’s managed over the past four seasons, then maybe the Ducks could be a sleeper in the same vein as the 2021–22 Los Angeles Kings, but something tells me Pat Verbeek knows what he has in this lineup and will sell under any circumstances.
Speaking of the Kings, they showed the league how critical a well-constructed prospect pipeline is for a team. After injuries to Mikey Anderson, Olli Maatta, Matt Roy, Sean Walker, and Drew Doughty, no one expected the Kings to retain their playoff spot. But, the Kings relied upon a laundry list of U24 defencemen from the Ontario Reign who all showed promise in spot duty for the club.
Despite the question marks in net, the Kings’ addition of Kevin Fiala to their developing forward group could make them the Canucks direct competition for the third playoff spot.
Vegas is a complete wild card with their own question marks in goal. Will Logan Thompson be good enough to be a full-time starter? The tandem of Thompson and Adin Hill doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for a team with hefty playoff expectations.
The Golden Knights are getting older, and management has struggled to bring in the same quality of players they keep shedding for free. The quality of the remaining core is still enough to make them one of Vancouver’s direct competitors for a playoff spot, but it might be a much closer battle this year than in past seasons.
With all this divisional uncertainty in mind, let’s look at five things that absolutely need to happen for a legitimate Canucks playoff push.
Spencer Martin needs to be as close to his 2021–22 form as possible
Before we dive into the numbers, let me be clear: Spencer Martin seizing the AHL starter job and putting up outrageous NHL numbers at 26 years old to earn his first NHL one-way contract is an incredible story. Easily one of the few good stories to come out of the Canucks disappointing 2021–22 campaign.
That being said, with $1.5 million on the books for Braden Holtby’s buyout, uncertainty surrounding Michael DiPietro, Collin Delia’s unspectacular numbers, and Arturs Silovs still being years away from an NHL role; Spencer Martin needs to replicate or be as close to his 2021–22 form as possible as the Canucks backup.
The problem is that Martin’s goals-against-average and save percentage from last year were incredibly high career benchmarks. Martin’s 2021–22 NHL numbers leapfrogged his career bests set in both the NHL and the AHL.
For better or worse, Martin set an incredibly high bar for expectations with his Demko-like performance last season. His stats and his win rate were the best of his entire career. There is a good chance that Martin won’t replicate his 2021–22 successes, and who could blame him? His save percentage in Vancouver was 2.9% better than his career peak in the AHL!
Fortunately, Martin only has to be better than Jaroslav Halak and Braden Holtby before him. Which is a low bar.
However, the track record is not on Martin’s side as it was on Holtby’s or Halak’s. Therefore, the closer Martin is to his last year’s form, the better chances the Canucks will have of qualifying for playoffs.
Brock Boeser’s shooting percentage should improve
Look, we all know Brock was going through a tremendous amount of off-ice hardship last season. This bullet point isn’t a criticism of Boeser’s season nor a point of concern about his play moving forward. No, Brock will be better than he was last season. This bullet point should be viewed as a ray of positivity as there is zero chance he replicates his on-ice shooting percentage from last season.
Last year, among forwards who played over 500 minutes at 5v5, Boeser had the 55th lowest on-ice shooting percentage at 5v5. The only Canucks forwards with worse shooting percentages were Jason Dickinson and Nils Höglander at 5.79% and 5.85%, respectively.
A regression towards his career average will be a massive boon toward the team’s 5v5 goalscoring rates.
Elias Pettersson needs to be who he was through the back half of last season
The first half of Elias Pettersson’s 2021–22 campaign was rough. Really rough, like “purge from your memory banks” rough.
Pettersson looked like a shell of his former self throughout the first half of the season. His shooting percentage cratered, his sticks were breaking on every one-timer, and it seemed like absolutely nothing was going right for him.
After getting over a nagging wrist injury alongside a coaching change that brought on increased responsibility on the penalty kill, Pettersson’s production swelled through the back half. Most impressive was Pettersson’s ability to nearly triple his production rate while adding consistent penalty-killing minutes to his arsenal. Pettersson finished with the highest shorthanded on-ice save percentage among forwards with more than 25 minutes of cumulative PK time!
Pettersson’s better-late-than-never production rate still saw him finish second in overall team scoring. If Pettersson can replicate that late stretch over an entire season, and JT Miller repeats his production rate, the Canucks could have two players pushing for 90 points or more. A feat that hasn’t been accomplished by the Canucks since the Sedins did it back in 2010–11.
The penalty kill must be average or better
Speaking of penalty killing! The Vancouver Canucks penalty kill needs to be above-average, something they have not accomplished since the 2018–19 season.
The tall task of turning around the Canucks’ struggling special teams falls on the plate of recently promoted Trent Cull, who takes over the defence and penalty kill for the outgoing Brad Shaw. Cull is reportedly a solid tactics coach who frequently gets a lot out of his players. We’ve seen this in execution with the breakout seasons of players like Sheldon Dries, Sheldon Rempal, and John Stevens in Abbotsford last season.
While Cull’s track record as a PK coach leaves a lot to be desired, the fact that the organization brought Cull in to replace noted “defensive guru” Brad Shaw speaks to the organization’s belief in his ability to help fix Vancouver’s struggling penalty-kill.
It would be genuinely shocking if the Canucks penalty kill operated as poorly as it did under Travis Green and Nolan Baumgartner to start last season. The team has plenty of skilled youth in their lineup eager to contribute to its shorthanded play. Bruce Boudreau leaning on Pettersson, Hughes, and briefly even Boeser, completely altered the function and look of the Canucks’ penalty kill for the better. Should Cull continue with that approach and involve more youth, such as Will Lockwood, Vasily Podkolzin, or even Nils Höglander, the Canucks could see a much-improved shorthanded team in both the short and long term.
The blueline (other than Quinn Hughes) needs to start scoring more goals
Last year, Quinn Hughes broke team records with eight goals and sixty assists through seventy-six games. He broke the all-time Canucks record for points in a single season by a defenceman and nearly became the first Canucks defenceman to produce at a point-per-game pace.
The Canucks tied the Buffalo Sabres with the fifth-lowest goals scored by defencemen with twenty-eight goals total. Among teams in the bottom ten of defencemen scoring, four made it into the playoffs, and all four were first-round exits.
There’s nothing wrong with the Canucks leaning heavily on Hughes to produce for the club. However, to be a true playoff-contending team, the Canucks need more than one defenceman who can push for double-digit goals-scored. Alex Edler was the last defenceman to crack double-digit goals-scored with ten in 2018-19. Before that? Yannick Weber, with eleven goals in 2014-15.
Perhaps Jack Rathbone establishes himself at training camp, and the team utilizes his one-timer on an “all-offence” pairing alongside Hughes. Or, the team manages Ekman-Larsson’s minutes better, such that he produces at a near-forty point pace like he did not four years ago.
Tucker Poolman has three points over his last 79 games. Kyle Burroughs has six points over his last 47, Travis Dermott has seven over his last 60, and recently signed training-camp PTO Danny DeKeyser was two points shy of matching Myers’ production rate from last year. No one should expect the Canucks’ blueline to turn into the Avalanches overnight. But the Canucks need to find a way to get their blueline to start contributing by committee.
Not everything is bound to shake right for the Canucks this season. They are, after all, the Vancouver Canucks. However, if at least a few of these things occur, fans should feel slightly better about their team’s playoff aspirations.
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