As my THW bio suggests, I’m a retired academic who, as a professor, taught and conducted research at the University of Alberta for 41 years. One of my research interests was the characteristics of effective teams – how they were built and what made them powerful.
So, after the Vancouver Canucks’ 4-3 overtime victory on Saturday, when I read that Vancouver Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom had stated, “We are playing for each other right now, and it shows,” it reminded me of research I had published about the characteristics of strong teams and why people worked well together. (from ‘Hughes, Schaller lead Canucks past Islanders 4-3 in fifth consecutive win,’ Vancouver Courier, 02/01/2020) One metaphor that strong teams used over and over was “family.” When teams spoke of themselves being a “family,” it was a sign that a team was highly effective at getting its collective work done.
Markstrom Was Speaking More Deeply than Simply Cliché
And, that’s exactly the language Markstrom was speaking – family. It goes quite a bit deeper than the typical “hockey-speak” fans often hear from players during interviews. We all know the clichéd phrases: “They have a great team. This is a hard place to play, and we were just lucky to be able to grind out a win.”
My point is that, from my academic research, I believe Markstrom was really saying something more powerful. This particular team is emerging as a group in ways that my research suggests will help make it powerful. Furthermore, from a Canucks fans’ point of view, the collective emotion that lay behind his comment hints at something really good about this team. I think the team is coming together at the right time, which I know is a phrase that might be every bit as clichéd as any other.
Benning’s Built a Strong Group of Players
Who would have thought that much-maligned Canucks general manager Jim Benning would be able to put together such a strong team of players? It is now Feb. 2, and the Canucks are two points free of the other teams in a tight division race.
The team is led by young stars Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. They have strong leadership in newly acquired J.T. Miller and new-captain Bo Horvat. They have a solid defense with Alex Edler and tough-as-nails Chris Tanev. And they have two strong goalies in Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, a backup goalie who wins about twice as many games as he loses (his record is 10-5-1).
Their secondary scoring is strong. Tanner Pearson is having a strong comeback season with the Canucks after experiencing a funk that moved him from the Los Angeles Kings to the Pittsburgh Penguins before the Canucks brought him here last season. Jake Virtanen is finally playing close to expectations when he was drafted. Who knew Adam Gaudette, chosen 149th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, could become an energetic and effective third-line center? Tyler Myers is strong and Jordie Benn adds to the team’s depth, even if he’s not playing much.
Forgetting mistakes like overpaying for Loui Eriksson at $6 million per season for too many seasons or believing Erik Gudbranson had anything left in his tank, Benning’s pulled together a winning team that, as Markstrom notes, is “playing for each other.”
Although the team is much bigger than simply three players, these three players are examples of the strength of the team – Miller, Hughes, and Markstrom.
Player One: Miller Loves Playing in Vancouver
The Canucks record since Dec. 19 is 14-3-0. Part of the reason is that Miller’s game has emerged and he’s become an on-ice leader. You can detect it when he speaks, and his talk gives me the sense that he’s found himself with a Canucks team that he enjoys playing with. There are no longer surprises when Miller scores, as he did (a goal and an assist) on Saturday against the New York Islanders in the team’s 4-3 overtime victory.
Miller’s now been on the score sheet for five straight games; and, in these games, he’s had three straight multi-point performances. The 26-year-old winger has five goals and seven assists in his last eight games. Currently, he has 20 goals and 52 points in 52 games for the season. He’s never come close to a point-a-game pace before.
Does he like playing in Vancouver? Obviously, as he noted after the Islanders victory, “I’m getting a great opportunity here… When you play on a good team like this, surrounded by good players, obviously the stats will be there if you are doing the right things.”
Player Two: Hughes Is Improving Every Game
Is it possible that the Canucks could have two Calder Trophy winners in two consecutive seasons? Last season Pettersson won, this season Hughes looks like he has a chance – with those chances improving. During the Islanders game, he scored twice, including a tricky, well-planned shot that completely fooled Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss. It was Hughes’ eighth goal of the season – just 42 seconds into overtime.
About a month ago, it seemed the Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar would be a runaway Calder choice, but Hughes’ recent play has put him back into consideration. Hughes has scored 5 goals and 11 points in his last 13 games and now has 38 points (8 goals, 30 assists) in 51 games. If anything, he’s improving.
Hughes, too, echoes Markstrom’s and Miller’s team-centered focus. He noted, “It’s nice to contribute because you want to feel like you are a part of it and you want to have an impact on the group. It’s nice that we are winning because I remember a time not too long ago in early December when people were kind of losing it.”
Player Three: Markstrom Stands Tall in Net
I admit that I’m concerned that the Canucks give up so many shots on goal, which over time can wear down a goalie. However, as I noted, a team upside is that it has two strong goalies in starter Markstrom and backup Demko. Although the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft looms, for this season those two goalies can carry the team.
Against the Islanders, Markstrom stopped 34 shots. The 30-year-old was busy and played well. Markstrom’s record 11-2-0 over his last 13 starts with a goals-against average of 2.70 GAA and a .917 save percentage. He’s had a successful January and has been receiving strong offensive support. After the difficult personal season he’s experienced with his father’s passing, I’m not surprised his play is getting better.
Rumors are emerging that there’s talk of a contract extension, and Markstrom’s language suggests he’s found a home with this team and wants to stay. I’d be surprised if he didn’t re-sign quickly.
Good News for the 2019-20 Canucks
My reading of the language spoken by players on this team makes me believe that this team has a chance to both make the playoffs and make a considerable run towards the Stanley Cup. Obviously, anything can happen during a season. I also admit that I believe other teams have stronger rosters – especially the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals.
Still, something good is happening in Vancouver. How far this “family” of players can go remains to be seen. But, there’s a chance.