The wild, wacky, and wonderful season that was 2019-20 has officially come to an end for these Vancouver Canucks.
After 338 days, 86 games, a four and a half month pandemic pause, and three playoff rounds later, one of the most memorable campaigns in team history has come to a close.
By the numbers, this was tied for the fourth-most successful playoff run in team history with the 2003 team, as Vancouver shockingly finished nine wins away from raising Lord Stanley’s Cup.
11 months ago that would’ve seemed almost unthinkable, as over the previous four years Vancouver had won the second least number of games out of any team in the NHL, ahead of only the disastrous Sabres.
But as we all know, 2020 has a weird way of shaking up the status quo, and it certainly did for the Canucks.
With all of that being said, here are five things that we’ve learned from this year:
The brunt of the rebuild is officially over
Rebuilds ending in the NHL are usually signified by a team qualifying for the top-16, which Vancouver did by getting by Minnesota in the qualifying round.
If the dramatic Game Four victory against the Wild wasn’t enough, the convincing series win against the Blues should’ve been. The toughest years for this team are almost certainly behind them, as they have a proven “core four” of forwards and a wonder-boy defenseman to continue to build upon.
Needless to say, this core proved that they can win meaningful games a little sooner than expected. I don’t think anyone is missing the days of Jayson Megna and Michael Chaput as exciting hockey is back in Vancouver.
The J.T. Miller trade goes from refuted to relished
At the time back in July, this trade was met with a great amount of skepticism by many analysts. Yeah the Canucks had added a top-six forward with size, but Miller was making $5.25 million a year, and he was coming off of only a 47-point season.
Another cost of the trade was that the still-rebuilding Canucks were giving up a conditional first-round pick to get Miller, the point that many fans and analysts couldn’t bring themselves to get over.
Miller proved all the naysayers wrong though, setting career highs in every offensive category with 27 goals and 45 assists for 72 points. He led a team that also featured Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser in points, justifying every dollar that the Canucks are paying him and then some.
He wasn’t done with that regular season performance. In the playoffs, he finished tied with Petey for the team lead in scoring with 18 points in 17 games. So in total, Miller picked up 90 points over the course of the season. If you’re wondering, that’s more than both Crosby or Ovechkin scored this year.
In the questionable trade history during Jim Benning’s tenure as general manager of this team, this was probably his best deal. Miller is a big body who should fit in with this core as they transition into being a true Cup contender.
This team still has glaring defensive holes that need to be addressed
It wasn’t all rosy for the Canucks this season. Despite the brilliance of Hughes on the blueline, this was still a definite bottom-half team defensively.
In terms of goals-against, the Canucks were 18th in the league and gave up an average of 3.14 goals per game, an even worse mark than 2018-19. That was not the fault of Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, though.
The real issue is that this team bleeds shots and scoring chances against. Vancouver gave up the sixth-most shots on goal and the fifth-most scoring chances against over the course of the regular season.
In the Vegas series and to a lesser extent, the St. Louis series, both of those teams seemed to get high-danger chances at will.
The Canucks and Golden Knights getting ready for Game 7. Vegas has dominated the last couple of games but Thatcher Demko hasn't flinched. Does he have another monster game in him? pic.twitter.com/OhaUQnRjRk— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) September 5, 2020
The reality is Hughes is the only true top-four defenseman this team deploys. Yes, it helps that he’s already one of the best defensemen in the league, but he needs more help than he’s been given.
Say what you may about Tyler Myers, Alex Edler, and Chris Tanev, but all three of those guys are fringe top-four defensemen on true contenders.
Troy Stecher fits right where he should as a bottom-pairing guy, but Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg are glorified seventh D-men.
Let’s hope the pipeline of defensive prospects can help alleviate this, as Olli Juolevi should be given more of a role on this team next year, along with Jett Woo and Jack Rathbone factoring in soon after.
It will be nearly impossible for Benning to sign another top-4 D-man this offseason, with the Myers contract looming large and Tanev making it known he wants to stay in Vancouver. So this will likely continue to be a question mark next season.
Thatcher Demko is the goalie of the future
This would’ve been a hot and questionable take just a week ago. Boy, how things can change quickly.
He only played 25 games in the regular season, putting up pedestrian numbers of a 3.06 GAA and a .905 save percentage.
When Markstrom went down with an injury before the pause and Demko had to take the reins for a few weeks, the fanbase almost unanimously agreed that he wasn’t ready to be the number one guy quite yet. So what changed?
Well, as we all know, Demko put on a one-man show and nearly brought the Canucks back from a 3-1 series deficit against Vegas all by himself. It was quite honestly the best display of playoff goaltending I’ve ever seen.
In those three games, the San Diego native put up obscene numbers of a 0.64 GAA, .985 save percentage, along with a Game Six shutout. In my mind if you can prove yourself when the chips are down, especially when you’re only 24 years old, you should be “the guy”.
That’s not taking anything away from Markstrom, who makes this decision so tough for Benning this offseason. After all, Markstrom was the player probably most responsible for the Canucks finishing the season in a playoff position at the pause.
We’ll see how it all plays out. I don’t think anyone envies Benning for having to make this particular decision in the next couple of months.
The Core has Championship Potential
Coming into this year, we knew the Canucks’ young core was good enough to challenge for a playoff spot soon, but not even the most optimistic prognosticators projected what played out this year.
Although he didn’t increase his point total, Pettersson quietly improved, turning into one of the league’s premier two-way players.
We all knew Hughes was going to be good, we just didn’t expect him to be almost a Norris-caliber defenseman as a rookie, and that’s exactly what he was.
In the bubble, we knew that Horvat would be a playoff monster. However, no one envisioned him leading the NHL in playoff goals through two rounds. Not only that, but he led his young team with an alpha-male performance to a massive upset against the defending champs in Round One.
Pettersson and Hughes put together arguably more impressive performances than Horvat, considering this was each their first taste of the second season.
Hughes only set the NHL record for playoff points by a rookie defenseman with 16 in 17 games. Pettersson proved that he could thrive and even dominate at times in a heavy, physical playoff environment.
The fact that the Canucks have one of the best leaders in the game in Horvat, one of the top centers in the game in Pettersson, and already one of the league’s best D-men as a rookie in Hughes, there is certainly championship potential here.
This team took out the defending champions in Round One and took one of the league’s top contenders to seven games in Round Two. Oh, and this was their first go at playoff hockey. They still have a lot to prove, but a remarkable foundation for success has been built.