The Vancouver Canucks, as I touched on in my previous article, were plagued with injuries to key players in November and early December. Almost immediately after my article had been published, yet another key player in Sven Baertschi was sidelined for an estimated four-to-six weeks with a fractured jaw. These injuries have left the Canucks with numerous important holes to fill and opportunities for players to step up and show their capabilities.
The Big Five
Five key players, Sven Baertschi, Bo Horvat, Brandon Sutter, Erik Gudbranson and Derek Dorsett, are out of commission at this point. These five have been instrumental in the Canucks’ success to this point in the campaign and they’ll surely be missed in numerous departments.
Horvat and Baertschi were the one-two punch of the Canucks in the 2016-17 season, and they carried over their offensive leadership into this season with a combined 38 points in 30 games — earning them second and third in team goals and points. Above them is their new linemate Brock Boeser. Both Horvat and Baertschi will be out for at least four weeks, and that will equate to an enormous loss with the team’s production, but hopefully won’t slow down the Calder-contending Boeser.
Brock Boeser scored the 20th goal of his career last night. He's the 9th player since 1987 to reach 20 goals by the 37th game of his career pic.twitter.com/CtzMs2g6dv
— Hockey Reference (@hockey_ref) December 12, 2017
Gudbranson and Dorsett are two huge losses in the physicality department — they are number one (Dorsett) and two (Gudbranson) in PIMs on the team, and also second (Gudbranson) and fourth (Dorsett) in hits. Keep in mind, each player’s absence has negatively impacted their statistics. Gudbranson is labeled as week-to-week so a close return-date is hoped for, while Dorsett has retired altogether due to injury, so a huge void in the Canucks’ physical presence needs to be filed.
Sutter is undoubtedly the Canucks’ most valuable shutdown center, and he was borderline smothering while working alongside Dorsett. Gudbranson is also a huge loss on the defensive front — being 6-foot-5, he’s a monster in the corners and in front of the net against opposing key players. Both players’ make small contributions that, although aren’t too important on the score sheet, impact the game in drastic ways. Sutter’s defensive-minded role at center is vacant for an undetermined amount of time as he, like Gudbranson, is tagged as week-to-week.
Horvat and Baertschi’s offensive contributions have extended onto the man-advantage this season, combining for 10 goals and a tie with five each for the team lead. The power play will surely struggle without two of their big guns, so players will need to step up.
On the penalty kill, Sutter and Dorsett were great together and Dorsett actually has two shorties on the year to lead the team. Their ability to smother and pressure the opposing teams’ zone entry made them successful and it will be hard for others to mimic that style in their absence.
Filling the Void
All of those aforementioned holes need to be filled in order to keep this ship afloat and I believe the Canucks have the personnel to do so. If the Canucks want to make the playoffs, they will need a huge contribution from so-far quiet players and to finish well above .500 in this upcoming six-week stretch.
Granlund & Eriksson
Markus Granlund and Loui Eriksson are two players that need to really kick it up a gear in the midst of these injuries. Eriksson has been hot as of late and currently holds 11 points in 19 games but Granlund is a different story, pitching in a dismal six points in 29 games so far. Granlund is coming off of a reasonably impressive 19-goal season last year that had him second on the team and he needs to get back to that level in Horvat and Baertschi’s absence.
This duo will be getting more ice and likely some more power-play time so they should be able to find the score sheet more often than they have been.
Chaput & Gaunce
Michael Chaput and Brendan Gaunce are two young players that have been battling for an NHL roster spot for their entire careers. 23-year-old, Gaunce has been trying to crack a spot with the Canucks since the 2015-16 season but hasn’t been able to find a permanent position thus far. Chaput, at 25, has been fighting a bit longer, starting out in Columbus in 2013 and not joining the Canucks’ organization until the 2016-17 season.
These two players are both 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, but are also skilled players. They play a strong game in the corners and have found a solid mix of physicality and skill. As a duo, Chaput and Gaunce need to play with a physical edge and work in the other team’s end — establishing zone-time and working a cycle game leads to exhausted defenders and more often than not, a goal or a power play.
Tanev & Edler
On the back end, the Canucks are spread a bit more thin in terms of players able to fill certain roles but it’s still very doable. In Gudbranson and Sutter’s absence, the Canucks’ defensive play has been soft and just plain lackluster — this is at least partly due to the heavy reliance on Alex Edler who has been nothing short of atrocious. He leads the team in average time on ice (ATOI) with 22:05 per-game and it’s hard to watch — from slow decision-making, to dumb pinches and awful passes, all the way to his soft play. He needs to step up now, or make way for someone who can.
you almost saved it eddie pic.twitter.com/Fs1lVDB1H6
— Jason Botchford (@botchford) December 12, 2017
Chris Tanev, on the other hand, has been his usual “captain reliable” self with a team-leading plus-11 rating. However, they need a bit more out of him in terms of offensive play. Tanev is a smooth skater with a proven ability to pick corners and he needs to play with some more confidence and help dictate the flow of the game.
Gagner & Stecher
Sam Gagner was a weapon on the man-advantage last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets where he amassed eight goals and 18 of his 50 points on the season. The Canucks have yet to utilize him in his office between the face-off dots but now is as good of a time as ever. Gagner with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Boeser and a skilled d-man at the point could be very lethal.
Speaking of skilled d-man, Troy Stecher is a name that shouldn’t be passed up on. The 23-year-old found eight of his 21 points in the 2016-17 season on the power play and could easily smash those numbers this time around. Travis Green just needs to give him a serious shot and now is a great time to do so. Get Edler out of the quarterback position and put Stecher in — the team’s breakout would be speed up, zone entry would be smoother, more shots would make it towards the net and less two-on-ones will be given up. I guarantee it.
Jacob Markstrom has been deemed the number-one goalie for the Canucks this season so far, starting in 21 contests, but with a losing record and average numbers, he needs to be better for his team during this upcoming stretch. Anders Nilsson is nipping at his heels with a winning record, better SV% of .921 and double the shutouts.
With all of the pieces missing that were touched on in this article, clutch goal-tending will be a must-have if the Canucks hope to reach the playoffs and Markstrom will need to be at his very best.
Matt is a longtime fan, player and student of the game of hockey. Broadcast and Online Journalism student at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.