The once proud and arrogant Vancouver Canucks’ fan-base deteriorated into bitterness and negativity as its beloved team fell from regular Stanley Cup contender to bottom-feeding lottery dreamer. Sinking in a sea of ‘Granlunds’ polluted by an army of plastic ‘Megnas’ and ‘Chaputs’ their dreams of winning the Silver Chalice devolved into endless thoughts of deliberate-losing to try and capture the latest hot-shot top draft pick.
As every game now passes, more and more Canucks’ fans are starting to realize that the dark years are over and not only is the future of the team bright but that future is now. The ageing NHL roster and near completely dry prospect pipeline in 2014 that slick Mike Gillis left for talent assessment guru Jim Benning to fix has been overhauled and fully replenished. Benning has salvaged, developed and repaired the last few remaining remnants of the recent past (Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Bo Horvat, Jacob Markstrom), added a new support group of proven veteran NHL players (Tanner Pearson, Tyler Myers, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and more), collected a bevy of Calder Trophy talent (Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes) and filled the empty prospect cupboard with overflowing young studs dispersed throughout the world (Tyler Madden, Nils Hoglander and Vasily Podkolzin to name but just a few).
An imminent return to the NHL playoffs in April appears more and more certain as the wins continue to pile up. If the Canucks do make a return to the sweet sixteen tournament in the Spring do fans dare dream that the Second Season journey could become a long trip?
If the three most-maligned players of the Benning Era continue to play as they currently are doing then the answer might be a resounding “Yes!”.
THREE RIGHT WINGERS SEEKING REDEMPTION
He was derided by many self-declared experts to be a draft pick mistake almost before he reached the NHL Entry Draft day podium to meet his new employer. But this season, he has taken that big leap forward that power forwards often do long after their soft forward counterparts have peaked. He has been accused of lacking innate hockey-sense but now he is making sweet passes and exhibiting great vision on the ice. Perhaps age 22 was too early to give up on a top NHL power forward prospect? His age 23 season seems to be making that case.
Much of the derision heaped upon him was because the Canucks chose him over alleged superior forwards William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers. While those two have gone on to post nice regular season numbers, they have also both disappeared in the playoffs when the going got tough. ‘Shotgun’ will likely finally get his first chance to compete in the NHL playoffs a couple of months from now. One thing you can be certain of is that he won’t shy away from the hard areas and melt into the perimeter spots on the ice like the ‘superior’ Nylander and Ehlers have done in their post-Season appearances to-date.
Perhaps in the future, Canucks’ supporters may be better served by listening to those who have actually walked-the-walk instead of to the skate-less draft experts.
Todd Bertuzzi, on Jake Virtanen: "I'm a huge fan of his. I watch him. He has a lot similarities... a lot faster than me, and I was bit stronger and all that. But he's a guy that it might take a bit of time, people have to be patient with the bigger guys." #Canucks (1/3)— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) October 10, 2019
Bertuzzi on Virtanen, continued: "If you can accomplish those goals, anywhere from five to seven of each category, there's a good chance you're going to have success at both ends, and I think that's what Coach Green is looking for." #Canucks (3/3)— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) October 10, 2019
His story is well-known to fans. He was signed to play right wing with the Sedins in an effort to help the club return to the playoffs while the future Hall-of-Famers were still in the fold. But it was as if all the offensive skill he possessed and that he’d exhibited a few short months ago playing for the Boston Bruins left his body before the ink dried on his pricey 6-year/$36M contract.
It appeared he’d slowed a bit and the game had sped up a bit and he was now lost out on the ice surface. His scoring touch was gone, his shot was a muffin and he shied away from the tough areas on the ice sheet and looked disinterested and/or depressed.
After three very unproductive seasons, fans wanted him traded, put on waivers or worse. But with no takers, he remained on the club’s NHL roster spending most of his time in his 4th season in the press box like the crazy old uncle in the attic who no one wants anything to do with any more.
Then just before Christmas Josh Leivo sustained a fractured kneecap. Suddenly, he was needed again by his team. Coach Travis Green inserted him on the right wing alongside Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson who he’d had some modest success playing with at the tail end of last season. And the unexpected then happened. Both Bo Horvat’s and Tanner Pearson’s games suddenly rose to a higher level.
He had previously been ridiculed mercilessly by prominent members of the Vancouver media for the little things he could do in a game that went unappreciated. They called him “Little Things Loui” to mock him. But suddenly the little things he excels at were helping both Horvat and Pearson play better and helping the team to win. Then his goal scoring ability started to come back. First it was due to the opposition nets being empty but then on Saturday against the San Jose Sharks, he adeptly handled a misfired puck in his feet and swept it into the a goalie-patrolled net like he’d done 25 or 30 times a season before signing in Rain City. It caused him to smile on camera for the first time in a long time while wearing the blue-and-green jersey.
If he continues to be a calming presence on the ice and continues to recover more of his scoring touch, Canucks’ fans may be smiling come June.
I took some heat when I posted this, but Loui has been what I expected he could be defensively and as that line has become that much better in their own end their offence has flourished with it. #Canucks https://t.co/SBVqnxDW0K— JABO Vancouver (@jabo_vancouver) January 19, 2020
When he was acquired by the Canucks via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jim Benning described him as a “foundational” player. If Benning has one major weakness it is his choice sometimes in using descriptive words. He probably should have instead described him as reliable, consistent, defensively-sound with an excellent wrist shot. He was a solid third line center when he was acquired with some potential upside to become a decent second line center. He was also a player who hardly ever missed a game due to injury.
Twenty games into his first season in Vancouver he was off to solid start and then boom just like that he was injured and his season was done. The next season he played 81 games and it appeared for him that the injury bug was going to be an one-time occurrence. But in the subsequent two and-a-half seasons he has spent as much time off the ice as he has spent on it and is at the point where it is fair to describe him as injury prone.
Now he is back again on the ice. He is no longer the third best center on the team and may be its fifth best center now. But he is also a capable right winger and has played in that spot in the NHL before including a short stint on the right side of the Sedins one season. He is still a much better player than Tim Schaller who he has displaced on the Canucks’ fourth line since his return. Like Loui Eriksson he does the little things well. He adds offensive capability to the bottom line too.
If he can stay healthy this time through to the end of the season, the team-of-many-colours will not only have one of the most expensive bottom lines in the NHL but also one of its best.
IN SEARCH OF STANLEY
If Virtanen, Eriksson and Sutter all stay healthy and continue to play at the levels they are currently playing at then the Canucks will have no obvious holes in their top 12 forward group. With a solid D-corps of 7 capable NHL defencemen and a top flight first string goalie and an emerging young goalie as the back-up there is no reason to put a cap on what this team might accomplish in the Second Season.
Last season we saw that in Gary Bettman’s NHL League of parity, the Presidents’ Trophy winners can be sent packing four straight in the first round and the League’s worst team well into the season can win the ultimate prize.
The Vancouver Canucks are now an offensive powerhouse and their team defence is improving substantially as evidenced by their near complete shutdown of the Sharks on Saturday. They have lights out goalkeeping. What more does a Stanley Cup winner need?
They need to become melded into a team that cares about each other and will fight for each other. There have been numerous indications on social media that the Canucks have become such a team under Bo Horvat’s leadership. I suggest that true blue-and-green fans may not want to schedule their summer vacation to take place before July or they may miss a surprising ending to the Canucks’ 50th season.