After many seasons when simply scoring a goal, any goal, was a major accomplishment for the Vancouver Canucks, the offensive floodgates have now suddenly opened and the 2019/20 edition is starting to evoke memories of the fire-wagon brand of NHL hockey last seen in the 1980s.
The term “fire-wagon hockey” was coined in the 1950s to describe the fast hockey style played by the Montreal Canadiens who won five Stanley Cups during that decade. They skated with speed end-to-end making pin-point passes storming the opposition net in search of goals. The focus on offence made for very entertaining hockey to watch. Eventually that high octane offensive mode of play culminated in the 1980s decade of Gretzky and company. A fire-wagon was a horse-drawn carriage filled with water and fire fighting equipment, the forerunner of the modern fire engine rushing to extinguish flames. Sort of like, Pavel Bure in 1994.
Okay, maybe calling the current Canucks’ offensive firepower reminiscent of a blitzkrieg-type offence is a bit of an exaggeration. But they are on pace currently to net 266 pucks against their opponents which is four more than the 262 put in by their 2010/11 Stanley Cup Finalist forerunners. They certainly are obliterating the 191 and 182 mesh-benders scored in years two and three by Team Willie.
There are many reasons for the offensive resurgence of the club this season but the main reason I think is the ability now to ice three offensively dynamic center icemen. Unlike his predecessor, Travis Green can roll three lines that are a real threat to score on every shift. In fact, Green’s arsenal contains the NHL’s best young trio of pivots in the league today. I define young as age 25 or younger in this calendar year. So anyone born in 1994 or later...what I call the Canucks’ post Flames-extinguisher sentient generation.
The first member of the three youthful middle-men is Bo Horvat. Mike Gillis’ one and only parting gift to the Aquilini family has noticeably improved both his offensive and defensive games over the years. Now in his 6th NHL season and still only 24 years old, he has been anointed Henrik Sedin’s successor as the wearer of the holy C. He is the next one tasked to lead a repeat of the success of the 1915 Vancouver Millionaires.
Horvat, taken 9th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft by then soon to be lame-duck former general manager Mike Gillis, has become the rock-solid young leader of the Canucks’ next generation of elite talent setting its focus on bringing the ever elusive silver chalice to the home of Stanley Park. He never complains. He does all the dirty work asked of him and he has put up decent numbers for the most part with less than ideal NHL wingers.
His idol growing up was Captain Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. Toews has managed so far to bring three Stanley Cups to the Windy City. If Captain Horvat has one-third the success of his idol, Canucks’ fans might become so delirious with joy they may decide to replace their standard post Stanley Cup Finals’ riot with a parade. The headman of the Canucks’ on-ice crew has established himself as a solid 25 goal, 60 point pivot. He may still have more to give but even if he has topped out at that point pace, he is an ideal number two center man on a team looking to drink bubbly from the shiny Cup.
The Canucks’ undisputed number one sometimes face-off taker is the galactic wonder said not to be of this world. He is recent former teenager Elias Pettersson. He may already be the best Canucks’ center to ever lace on a pair of skates although Henrik Sedin may raise an objection. However, the Alien is definitely most likely to become the first numero uno to parade down Robson Street with the major prize in his possession. Every clue he gives to the throngs in Rogers Arena indicates he will not rest until he has done so. The 2019 Calder Trophy winner put up 66 points in 71 games in his inaugural NHL season. In his current sophomore ‘slump’ season he is on pace to score 37 goals and 86 points. He is just getting started.
So you say big deal. The Edmonton Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as their top two centers (when they’re not playing on the same line together). Petey and Bo are great but those two are one-two in the Art Ross race. You do have a point. This then brings us to the third man in the Canucks’ young gold mine of endless red-dot treasures.
While the Oilers are stuck with a rapidly aging Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their third-man-in (okay he is only 26 but he isn’t young anymore), Gentleman Jim Benning has graced us with celebration-specialist Adam Gaudette as the Canucks’ third line young stud. His emergence this season, replacing the foundational Brandon Sutter, has taken the middle of the Canucks’ universe into the next galaxy. The 23 year old Boston Bruins’ fan forced his way onto a Canucks’ team overflowing with forward candidates against all odds at training camp. It took him one more brief 2-game stint in Utica after making the big club’s roster before he established himself as the now undeniable third best young non-winger on the team. His play has improved so much that some Canucks’ fans predict he may yet usurp the Captain as the club’s 2nd line pivot. I certainly wouldn’t yet put a ceiling on the fifth round 2015 throwaway pick who turned himself into the 2018 Hobey Baker trophy winner through sheer hard work. His 7 goals and 16 points in 27 NHL games so far this season in just 12 and a half minutes per game of ice time is likely just the tip of the iceberg for what he is likely capable of producing in the seasons yet to come.
There is absolutely no argument whatsoever that any other NHL team can make to claim they have a better young trio of center icemen on their NHL roster right now. Why not? Because no other NHL team currently has a top three of face-off takers on their roster age 25 or younger. Some like the Oilers’ can boast two. The Calgary Flames have two 25 year top two centers in Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm for example but not three of a kind. The Devils can show you 20 year old Nico Hischier and 18 year old Jack Hughes but no young third wheel.
There is an old hockey-saying that Stanley Cup winners are built down-the-middle. If there is any truth in this old axiom then the Canucks’ are well positioned centre-wise for a serious run at the ultimate prize in the coming years.
And the Canucks’ youthful center ice position is likely only to get better when 20 year old center and 2020 Hobey Baker candidate Tyler Madden bursts onto the Vancouver scene as early as the spring of 2020.
4th line, 24 year old center Captain Bo Horvat, anyone? Probably not. Bo will likely assert his C and say not so fast kid. I have this slot for you on my right wing.