The Vancouver Canucks have now played 30 of 56 games in the 2021 NHL season and the results have been disappointing, to say the least. The team was expected to build on a deep playoff run and contend for the North Division title. Instead, almost everything that could go wrong has, and they sit five points out of a playoff spot despite the fourth place Canadiens having five games in hand.
The Canucks’ struggles have been well documented as fans and media alike demand answers as to what has gone wrong. The current salary cap situation isn’t helping anyone believe that Jim Benning can find his way out of this one, especially when the early returns on this season’s free-agent class have been less than stellar.
While not completely out of the playoff picture just yet, as performances like Wednesday’s 5-1 loss against the Montreal Canadiens continue to pile up, it’s only a matter of time. When asked to assess his team’s performance after the game, head coach Travis Green kept his comments short and sweet. “Very poor” he responded curtly before moving on to the next question.
Despite the catastrophic start to the season, there have been a few bright spots that are worth discussing. These players have had to watch strong individual performances squandered as the team around them collapsed. Still, these three takeaways should inspire hope for the Canucks moving forward as they look to regroup after this season and enter their window of contention.
Thatcher Demko is a number one goalie.....and a really good one
It’s no secret that the Canucks — as currently constructed — rely on their goaltending to an extraordinary degree. Last year, Jacob Markstrom had one of the finest seasons by a Canucks goaltender in recent memory and covered up many of the team’s defensive issues.
In the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Las Vegas Golden Knights, Demko was the only reason the series went to seven games, and was good enough that he was blamed for the Golden Knights’ loss to Dallas in the subsequent round. Still, the small sample size and some regular-season struggles meant that the Canucks weren’t able to enter this season trusting Demko to carry the full load.
Thus, enter the signing of former Stanley Cup champion Braden Holtby for $4.3 million dollars, which to this point has looked like a disaster. Holtby has not been able to find his old form and his play has changed the dynamic of the goalie situation. Instead of it being 1A and 1B, Demko is now clearly the starter while Holtby plays the backup role.
The silver lining from this situation is the fact that Demko has looked very comfortable in the starter role and has given the Canucks the elite level of goaltending they need to be competitive.
Goals Saved Above Expected Leaders (All Situations) - March 8 pic.twitter.com/NHrfoaKtqH— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) March 8, 2021
Demko’s emergence as a legitimate starter somewhat lessens the blow of the Holtby contract. Moving forward, Demko has now established himself as another piece of the young core that should be a part of the organization for a long time to come.
With Michael DiPietro waiting in the wings, the Canucks look to have their goalie situation set for the foreseeable future.
Nils Höglander has been one of the Canucks’ best forwards
Nils Höglander’s excellent play has been a storyline from the moment he touched the ice at training camp. Still, there were concerns over how he might transition to a full-time NHL role. He’s quelled all those worries and surpassed all expectations, solidifying himself in the top-six role that many were hoping Jake Virtanen would fill.
He’s managed to provide some secondary scoring — he has the 5th most 5-on-5 goals behind Bo Horvat and the Lotto Line — and consistently impresses with his high-motor and work ethic.
Beauty individual effort and diving pass from Nils Hoglander to setup Tanner Pearson's goal for the #Canucks pic.twitter.com/72CMT44nNt— Harman Dayal (@harmandayal2) January 26, 2021
He is leading the team in individual expected goals at 5-on-5, as well as Corsi % for any player with over five games played. These underlying stats point to Höglander’s play being sustainable over the long term, and his 6.9% shooting percentage at 5v5 points to a player who has room to grow.
Brock Boeser has re-established himself as one of the league’s most dangerous forwards
After scoring 29 in just over 62 during his rookie season, Brock Boeser saw his goal totals steadily dip. This culminated last season when Boeser scored only 16 times in 57 games, though he did manage to add 29 assists.
This season Boeser has refound his scoring touch and in a big way. He’s currently tied for fourth in the NHL in goals, only trailing Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, and former teammate Tyler Toffoli.
Brock Boeser (@BBoeser16) keeps on climbing up the League leaders in goals. pic.twitter.com/MUFcbNaeHA— NHL (@NHL) February 18, 2021
His shot keeps goalies up at night and he is currently spotting a shooting percentage of 19.70%, a number that is high but not wildly off his career average of 13.6%, especially when you consider that he seems to have more accuracy this season. He is also fully healthy, something that has eluded him in recent years.
Boeser’s career year has come even with the lines being shuffled almost every game and him having to play with a rotating cast of players. This is a welcome event for the Vancouver Canucks, though if he continues on this torrid pace it does raise the question of what his next contract might look like. His current deal expires after next season.