With the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals firmly in the rearview, now is as good a time as ever to look at what the Canucks can learn from the post-season. As management continues to chart a yet to be seen off-season strategy, the successes and failures of the playoffs can offer important insights into successful team building. Some of these are obvious, others not as much, and in some ways, the Canucks have the right pieces in place. When looking at these five lessons, though, it becomes clear that big changes are needed for the Canucks to ascend to the upper echelons of the National Hockey League.
An elite core matters
Much has been written about the Canucks core, and for good reason. Elias Pettersson won the Calder, and Quinn Hughes and Brock Boeser were both finalists. Thatcher Demko is a stalwart in net, and Vasili Podkolzin is showing great potential. On the older side, JT Miller was a 99-point scorer, and Bo Horvat scored 30 goals. It’s a tantalizing group, to be certain. What this playoffs showed, though, is that a simply very good core might not be enough. They need to be elite.
Let’s look at some of the most successful playoff teams. For Tampa Bay, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Andrei Vasilevskiy are surefire Hall of Famers. These aren’t just high quality players — they all have impressive hardware that rank them among the best of their generation at their respective positions. Colorado, the eventual champions, have elite level talents in Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, as well as other top-flight players in Devon Toews, Mikko Rantanen, and Nazem Kadri. Their periphery building was exemplary too, of course; however, it’s the top of the lineup that predominantly drives their success.
This is all to say that it is crucial that the young core takes the next step. For Elias Pettersson, scoring 70 points is great, but he needs to be a 90-point guy. Hughes needs to ascend to the Norris tier. Boeser needs to prove himself a reliable 30 goal guy, at minimum. Every team has good players in their nucleus. The best team’s best players, though, are better than just good, and that’s a lesson people all across the Canucks organization need to heed.
One great defender is not enough
We all love Quinn Hughes. How can you not — his skating, offensive instincts, and productivity are unlike any other defenceman to wear a Canucks jersey. Looking at the 2022 playoffs, however, shows that relying on Hughes alone will not be enough. The Avalanche, besides Makar, had Devon Toews and Bowen Byram pulling major weight. Beyond Victor Hedman, the Lightning had Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Creak, and the since-departed Ryan McDonagh playing major roles. They didn’t have one stalwart and call it a day.
To be frank, the Canucks need to think bigger than Tyler Myers on their backend. They probably need to think bigger than Jack Rathbone, for that matter. A great prospect, to be sure, but it’s yet to be seen if he’ll be a definitive game breaker. Rebuilding the blue line through up-and-coming talent, as the Avalanche and Lightning have done with the likes of Toews and Cernak, needs to be priority #1. Luke Schenn, as cool as he is, will not cut it with the big boys.
Goaltending can be the difference — to a point
Ask anyone and they’ll say you want a great goalie. All things being equal, of course you do. The Canucks certainly have one in Thatcher Demko. Demko alone, though, is not enough. It wasn't enough for the Dallas Stars that Jake Oettinger played out of his mind — ultimately, a mediocre team couldn’t be saved, even by a stunning 0.954 save percentage. When Juuse Saros, Nashville’s Vezina-calibre netminder went down, an otherwise average club was toast. When Jacob Markstrom, another Vezina nominee, faltered, the Calgary Flames’ flaws were exposed. On the flip side, Colorado won a cup with pedestrian netminding from Darcy Kuemper. So is having Demko a good thing? Certainly, especially at an extremely affordable $5 million a season. But trying to ride him, and only him, to success is a fool’s errand, as this year’s post-season proved. A great team needs to be built around the crease as well.
Winning a Stanley Cup is not a one-time opportunity. The teams that win one do so after various attempts, with various degrees of success. The Lightning lost in the final in 2015, in the conference finals in 2011, 2016, and 2018, and after a historic regular season, were swept in 2019’s first round, before finally winning their first cup with their current core. The Avs had three straight second round losses before winning their cup. Even the St. Louis Blues, prior to their 2019 victory, were a regular season juggernaut with a host of first, second, and third round losses to show for it.
Any strategy for the Canucks need to be built around creating multiple opportunities to win a cup. Chasing the short-term dopamine hit of making the playoffs every once in a while simply will not cut it. Loading up on, and paying big money for the here and now is not useful in any meaningful way. As Rutherford et al. navigate the off-season, their thinking needs to model recent champions and chase consistent greatness.
Shore up your centremen
The Stanley Cup Final featured the likes of Stamkos, MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri, and Brayden Point. Both finalists, it can be argued, had multiple first line-caliber centres. Connor McDavid almost singlehandedly dragged the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final. Clearly, having top-of-the-lineup caliber centres makes a difference.
This observation is part of why the Canucks should operate with such caution in their dealings with Bo Horvat. Horvat, who scored 31 goals this past season, has proven himself to be an impact player and a legitimate second line centre. Pivots of Horvat’s caliber are not easy to come by, and if the Canucks have cup aspirations in the future, they will not a player of his ilk to anchor a top six line. Any talk of trading or otherwise not bringing Horvat back should be done very carefully, if at all. The 2022 cup finalists, and some of the other more successful clubs, proved that a key to success is a one-two punch up the middle. The Canucks would be wise to heed those lessons in their upcoming dealings with the captain.