There is a lunatic fringe theory that claims that when the much-awaited biggest earthquake ever to hit California strikes it will cause the Golden State to break off of the left side of the mainland USA into the Pacific Ocean. I am not a geological expert so I will leave that one to the seismologists to debunk. But I can tell you that a seismic change has occurred in the Pacific Division of the National Hockey League and all the ‘La La Landers’ and ‘Silicon Valley People’ have fallen through their fake beach ice into the bowels of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
With the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks all jockeying for the closest table to Bettman’s Stage in Montreal in June 2020 that leaves four teams battling your Vancouver Canucks for the Pacific Division bragging rights. Three of the five will be granted guaranteed playoff spots while the other two will have to fight it out with the leftovers from the Central Division for two Wild Card spots.
The supporters of the Canucks’ four challengers for the Pacific crown will likely have their own reasons why their teams will ultimately be victorious and seize-the-top of the flag pole. But here is why Rain City may ultimately prevail.
According to long-time former Vancouver Canucks’ general manager and airport chauffeur Brian Burke, Canucks’ Nation also has a small lunatic fringe. One of the things the ‘fringers’ want to do is deal off rock-solid number one crease-keeper Jacob Markstrom to another team maybe even to a Pacific Division rival competing for the same valuable playoff spot.
Burkie's #Canucks #LunaticFringe wants to send our #1 goalie to our division rival to solve the Oilers' goaltending crisis and create a goaltending crisis for us. You can't make this stuff up. https://t.co/wd9lFaEwi1 pic.twitter.com/cESx8ZoTCJ— CanucksAbbyFan2 (@Fan2Abby) December 21, 2019
Despite a season filled with personal tragedy that would cause even the strongest of us to lose their focus on mundane things such as keeping a piece of rubber away from netting, Markstrom has put this young team on his back and willed them into contention for the top spot in the Division. He appears poised to turn the grief of losing his father into a dedication of the rest of this season to his father’s memory. It appears he plans on playing well into the summer.
Markstrom has at least once in the past taken a team thought to be on the playoff-bubble into a championship final. In 2015, he placed the AHL Utica Comets on his upper back and carried an inferior team to the first seed in their conference and onto the Calder Cup finals before falling to a stacked Manchester Monarchs team in five games. During the regular season his save percentage was a gaudy .934 and his goals against average was 1.88. In the playoffs he continued his stellar play posting a .925 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.11. He also posted five regular season shutouts and two more during the playoffs. His AHL coach that season was Travis Green.
AHL hockey..Utica Comets goalie Jacob Markstrom made 65-saves tonite at home-lost playoff game 2-1 to Oklahoma City Blazers. Wow.— Lee Hacksaw Hamilton (@hacksaw1090) May 8, 2015
Despite all his personal turmoil this season, Markstrom is currently posting his best save percentage as a Canuck at .917. As he regains his full focus on hockey matters he could become almost unstoppable like he was during the unexpected Utica run to the Finals. If his save percentage continues to climb this season approaching his Comets’ high the Canucks will be hard to keep out of the top spot in the Division.
PUTTING THE RUBBER IN THE MESH
The last time Vancouver saw snipers like this their team’s gun-barrels were aimed at the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. In that season of almost-glory, Canucks’ shooters tallied 262 goals during the regular season. This year’s version is on pace to light the red lamp 267 times.
This season’s iteration of the home team already boasts five players (Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen) projected to meet or exceed 20 goals scored. The 2011 team ended up with three (Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows) at the end of the season.
Tanner Pearson may yet join the 20 goal club and I wouldn’t count out Adam Gaudette celebrating goals 13 more times this season. In short, the Canucks have a nice balanced offence amongst their forward group right now although the recent long-term injury to Josh Leivo was a blow.
The 2011 defence point leader was Christian Ehrhoff with 50 points. Quinn Hughes is almost on pace for a 60 point rookie season and is only getting better from game to game.
A HEALTHY DEFENCE
If the two remaining defensive stalwarts from the 2011 team (Alex Edler and Chris Tanev) remain healthy from now through the end of the season and continue to play at the same high level they have so far this year, the Canucks’ will be primed to claim the first rung in the Pacific.
When you add rookie sensation Hughes and the other four solid veteran defencemen (Tyler Myers, Troy Stecher, Jamie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg) on the roster to the mix you can assert with confidence that you have seven capable NHL full-time defencemen competing for six available jobs. Competition is healthy and already Fantenberg has bounced Benn to the sidelines. I expect Benn to press hard to get back in the line-up.
Injuries have helped sink the Canucks’ playoff hopes in recent years. If injuries hit again this year it is reasonable to expect a different result.
Already this season, the Canucks have received valuable contributions from Zack MacEwen and Tyler Graovac when injuries have hit their forward group. Sven Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin still have their supporters amongst the fan base and if those folks are correct then they can still be summoned to help the big club in a pinch.
If Micheal Ferland can regain his health his addition will be more depth.
Thatcher Demko and Michael DiPietro though both young have had previous experience handling major pressure on a hockey stage internationally and both have the ability to step in should Jacob Markstrom need some more relief this season.
Kole Lind, Brogan Rafferty and a number of other players in Utica are itching for a chance to suit-up in Vancouver.
And come the spring of 2020 players such as Tyler Madden, Jack Rathbone, Will Lockwood, Nikita Tryamkin, Nils Hoglander and others may become available and anxious to get on the Canucks’ freight train.
If the injury bug hits between now and April 2020 the Canucks will have credible replacement options.
THE BENNING X-FACTOR
The Canucks do have the assets to add a major piece to their line-up before the NHL trade line on February 24th, 2020. Arguably they have never in franchise history been this flush with tradable assets that other teams would likely covet.
It will be interesting to see where the club is in the standings in another month or so. Will they be solidifying their Pacific Division title? Will they be fighting for a playoff spot? Or will they have fallen completely out of the race to the post-season?
If they are in a solid playoff position or very close to a playoff spot will Jim Benning pull the trigger on a deal for a pending free agent like Tyler Toffoli or Chris Kreider? Will he try and put together a hockey deal with a clear lottery team like Detroit, Ottawa or New Jersey that benefits the Canucks more in the short term? Or will he just put his cell phone in his pocket and let the organizational depth assert itself?
This re-birth season for the Canucks should only get more enticing and exciting as it enters the year 2020.
I said at the beginning of the year this season would be long and winding. Through everything the #Canucks are just 4 points behind the Coyotes with a game in hand, and we aren't even at the halfway point. Hang on it's going to be wild. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/coWbLwli0e— JABO Vancouver (@jabo_vancouver) December 24, 2019