The year of the worldwide pandemic was a pivotal turning point for the Vancouver Canucks’ Jim Benning Era. Not only did the club return to the playoffs but for only the fourth time in their half century or so of NHL existence, the Canucks won two rounds of playoffs in the same post season. Other than their previous three franchise runs to the Stanley Cup Finals, they had never before eliminated more than one team in one post season.
Cynics will claim the extra qualifier round in the 2020/21 playoffs does not really count because it was only a Best of Five series and it was a special add-on tussle in an unusual year. If that is true then your 1981/82 Vancouver Canucks’ first ever run to the Stanley Cup Finals needs to be wiped from the annals of hockey history since their first round victory that season was a three game sweep of the Calgary Flames in a Best of Five series. And really how can anyone credibly doubt this was not a real playoffs’ series victory?
After eliminating the Wild, the Canucks went on to erase the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues in six games and then extended the Vegas Knights to a full seven games before valiantly succumbing to the gamblers from Nevada on a goal late in the third period of the last game of the series.
The same ‘glass half-empty crowd’ that predicted the 2019/20 version of the blue-and-green had no chance of making the playoffs are now tiresomely back again repeating their prediction of no playoffs for Rain City this time in 2021. They will likely be proven wrong again in the end. Here is why.
#1 The young Core Four is now playoffs’ seasoned
Heading into the 2019/20 season, the spines of the franchise all had trouble growing facial hair. But during their ‘bubble’ experience, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes all sprouted thick and lengthy playoffs’ beards. But they not only gained experience by simply being there. They elevated their games.
Horvat, who has averaged 22 goals scored per year during his first six NHL regular seasons, notched 10 mesh benders in only 17 playoffs’ games. This production rate was more than double his usual regular season scoring output.
He proved that he was more than a worthy choice as Henrik Sedin’s successor to the captaincy. He scored highlight-reel goals.
He scored when the game was on the line.
In his first taste of the NHL post season, Brock Boeser did not explode but nor did he implode offensively. He produced a decent 4 goals and 7 assists for 11 points in 17 games.
His contribution included this key primary apple to extend the Vegas series to a Game Six.
He also was almost the hero of Game Seven against the Golden Knights. But for this fortunate but spectacular glove save by Robin Lehner midway in the second period of a still scoreless game, Boeser might have propelled the Canucks into the Western Conference Final against Dallas instead of Vegas had he buried this shot.
Robin Lehner ... still good. What. A. Save. pic.twitter.com/9LCiDJh8c7— IslesBlog (@IslesBlog) September 5, 2020
Through his first two NHL regular seasons, Elias Pettersson tallied 132 points in 139 games. Some players who light up the regular season offensively end up disappearing in the playoffs. Pettersson did the opposite and became more than a one point per game producer in the post season notching 7 goals and 11 assists for 18 points in 17 games.
His shot was still deadly accurate despite the increased attention and pressure of the post season.
It was hard to believe when watching Quinn Hughes in the 2020 bubble playoffs that he was a mere NHL rookie. He set the pace of most of the games he played in. He accumulated 16 points in 17 games. He was the stir stick in the Canucks’ cocktail. He was terrific during the regular season and he elevated his game and was even better during the Canucks’ playoffs’ run.
Setting and smashing records throughout the regular season and playoffs, Quinn Hughes had a rookie season that will not soon be forgotten. pic.twitter.com/fCz06cAd2l— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) September 21, 2020
At the beginning of the Covid-19 paused 2019/20 season, the Canucks’ core four had some faint hope that they might make the playoffs. In 2020/21, they all know now that they can and should make the playoffs and they can and should do some damage when they get there. All four key cogs are no longer neophytes. They are playoffs’ seasoned and they now have a real eye on the ultimate prize.
#2 The emergence of franchise goalie Thatcher Demko
Jacob Markstrom was always supposed to be a placeholder until the Canucks’ next franchise goalie was ready to be the number one netminder. No one thought he would become an elite goalie this late in the day with his early promise distant in the rearview mirror of crease development. But an outstanding Markstrom did seem to suddenly appear in his late twenties. Was it enough to alter Benning’s long term plan for the blue paint?
I am certain Benning wrestled long and hard with his decision. No doubt Sergei Bobrovsky sinking swiftly into a Florida swamp played into his assessment. But most of all, the anointed future franchise goalie got a chance to lay claim to the crease in an unexpected opportunity in the bubble while an injured Markstrom sat in the pressbox unable to play.
And lay claim he did like he never ever wanted to let go.
Whether or not Markstrom sinks into the cattle poop in Calgary for six long Loui Eriksson years is irrelevant now to Canucks’ fans.
What is relevant is that Vancouver’s young Core of Four now has a fifth member.
#3 Nate Schmidt solidifies the D-corps
The addition of Nate Schmidt to the Canucks’ defence crew this season will be transformative to the back end group similar to the positive effect J. T. Miller’s addition to the forward group had last season. If he is paired with Quinn Hughes, Vancouver will have the best first defence duo in the entire newly formed NHL North Division. They are both projected to play heavy minutes. Both of them are excellent skaters, pin point passers and think the game at a high level. They will be a special treat for fans to watch play together. Schmidt is a clear major upgrade on the likeable but departed Chris Tanev.
Schmidt’s acquisition will also allow Alex Edler and Tyler Myers to play together on the second pair where both of them currently are best suited.
With his top four defencemen all reliable and capable of producing offence from the back end, Coach Travis Green will be able to mix and match veteran 6/7 rearguard Jordie Benn with the best two or three rookie defencemen who seize the available opportunity to play in the NHL. The top four D will bear the bulk of the playing minutes allowing the rookies in particular to not get swamped with too many crucial minutes early on in the season.
#4 Crowd of young defencemen ready to emerge
The Canucks made the tough decision to let veteran lifetime (until now) Vancouver Canuck Chris Tanev walk and seek his likely final big contract in Cowtown instead of Yaletown. Tanev’s body and game are in decline and he was no longer a long term fit on the team as a first pairing defenceman playing with Quinn Hughes.
They also let lovable local boy Troy Stecher leave for the Motor City and Oskar Fantenberg depart for the KHL. The truth is both players are replacement level NHL defencemen.
It was no secret that the Canucks’ always intended to try and upgrade their defence group this off season. They took a major step in that regard by trading for Nate Schmidt. There is an outside chance that they may still add another veteran defenceman like Travis Hamonic or Sami Vatanen to their D group before training camp opens on Sunday. If not, they will have as many as five spots open on their roster and taxi squad for rookie D-men.
If they decide to carry eight defencemen on their NHL roster, it appears 2016 5th overall draft pick Olli Juolevi will start as their third pairing left defenceman behind Quinn Hughes and Alex Edler. Veteran NHLer Jordie Benn will probably get first crack at playing on his off side next to Juolevi on the third pairing.
Proven AHLers Ashton Sautner, Guillaume Brisebois, Jalen Chatfield and Brogan Rafferty will compete for the 7th and 8th D-spots on the NHL roster and the 9th and 10th spots on the taxi squad. They are all hungry players looking for their big chance.
Former amateur and now rookie professional defencemen Jack Rathbone and Jett Woo will likely be assigned to Utica to start their seasons.
Of course, training camp surprises do occur. In particular, I would not be surprised if one or both of Brogan Rafferty and/or Jack Rathbone somehow force their way into the Canucks top six D group. They both possess intriguing skill sets.
Brogan Rafferty with a short handed goal and 3 primary assists tonight.— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) January 16, 2020
That gives him 37 points in 40 AHL games - good to lead all blue liners, all rookies, and sit 7th most in the AHL. #Canucks
#5 Nils Hoglander arrives
Vancouver Canucks’ fans tend toward pessimism moreso than optimism probably due to the lack of even one Stanley Cup Championship in their cupboard after over a half century of trying to snare one...just one.
But good fortune is about to smile again on the Canucks’ fan base. They may very well have a potential fourth straight Calder Trophy finalist ready to earn a spot on the team.
Believe the hype. Nils Hoglander is the real deal and he may be capable of replacing Tyler Toffoli in the Vancouver Canucks’ top six group right away. He has been playing exclusively on right wing for Rogle of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) for many weeks now prior to his arrival in Vancouver to quarantine. He is in top game shape and he does not lack confidence in his special abilities.
Even if it turns out he is not yet ready for a top six role on the club, a bottom six role as the third line left winger is certainly not a stretch. If I was Jake Virtanen or Antoine Roussel, I would not recommend arriving in camp on Sunday thinking I have a guaranteed spot in the starting line-up.
Over 41% of Canucks’ fan already think the magic Swede will make the team-of-many-colours’ opening night NHL roster. I would guess that Nils Hoglander privately puts that number at 100%. If I were a betting man, I would wager on Hoglander starting in the NHL come January 13th. We will all know one way or the other in about two weeks from now.