The first 17 games of the Vancouver Canucks’ 2021-22 season have not been fun to watch and that’s putting it mildly. They currently sit second-to-last in the Pacific Division with a 5-10-2 record, have the league’s worst penalty-killing unit and they’re on a season-high five-game losing streak where they have been outscored 26-10. Suffice it to say, the rain has not stopped pouring in Vancouver, both inside and outside Rogers Arena.
Fortunately, there’s always a silver lining to every dark cloud if you look hard enough. It may be difficult for fans to see any positives right now, but I will endeavour to find some as the Canucks continue the arduous task of finding their way out of the darkness that is the 2021-22 season so far.
Nils Höglander Growing Into an Elite Swiss Army Knife
Nils Höglander may not have started the season on fire, but he’s sure on a roll right now. With five goals in his past seven games, he is the hottest of any Canuck forward and probably the one with the most confidence apart from J.T. Miller. Currently tied with Bo Horvat for the second-most goals on the team and leading everyone in PDO (shooting percentage plus on-ice save percentage) with a 104.6 rating, he is definitely not experiencing the dreaded sophomore slump.
The spark plug who hails from BockträSk, Sweden made the Canucks out of training camp at the beginning of the 2020-21 season and has never looked back. In only 73 career NHL games, he has solidified himself as one of their most valuable utility players. Never one to take a night off, he displays a relentless work ethic each and every game combining speed, creativity, and puck pursuit into a package that every coach wishes could be instilled in all of their players.
Höglander has been described as a power forward in a small body because of the way he battles for pucks on the boards. Despite his slight 5-foot-9 frame, he rarely gets outmuscled and usually comes away as the winner in any puck battle he engages in. He has also recently shown a penchant for driving play offensively with his improved speed and puck possession. Currently leading all forwards in rush chances with three and high-danger chances with 23, he is what Elias Pettersson should be modelling himself after. If he was doing even half what Höglander is doing, the Canucks would be in a much better place in the standings.
Improved Two-Way Play From Quinn Hughes
Unlike Pettersson, Quinn Hughes has not struggled to live up to the lucrative contract he signed just before the 2021-22 season began. After a long, drawn-out contract battle in the offseason that caused him to miss all of training camp and most of the preseason, there were concerns that he would stumble out of the gate. Fortunately for the Canucks, only one of their superstars is trying to find his legs right now.
Ever since Hughes got onto the radar of scouts and prospect pundits, the knock on him was his lack of defensive awareness. His skating, edgework, first-pass, and offensive hockey IQ were all supposed to translate to the NHL at an elite level, but it was his defence that was going to hold him back from becoming a Norris Trophy-caliber defenceman. 129 games into his NHL career, he was putting up points at an insane rate, but all with the black mark of a minus-34 in the plus/minus column. All the pundits were patting themselves on the back for being right. Fast forward 16 games into his third full NHL season, and he’s starting to prove them all wrong. He can, in fact, play defence after all.
Despite the struggles of the team overall, Hughes is having a great season both offensively and defensively. He is on the right side of the plus/minus ledger with a plus-5 and he is still racking up the points with 14 in 16 games so far. According to Andy and Rono’s player cards, he is playing at an elite level in almost every category, including defence which factors in denials and play-driving. His transition game, which has always been impressive, is also in the stratosphere too.
Looking at the advanced stats, Hughes is leading the team with a 63.4 Corsi-for percentage (CF%), and his Corsi-for per 60 minutes (CF/60) is at a career-high 71.8. Basically, he controls the play whenever he is on the ice with his vision, passing, and smart zone exits. The eye test matches the underlying stats too, as he has cut down on the turnovers in his own zone and he is using good body position and smart stickwork a lot more while defending. In other words, he doesn’t look as overmatched when battling forwards one-on-one or on the boards as in previous seasons. Apart from the lack of discipline he showed during the Avalanche game on Wednesday, he has been hands-down the Canucks best two-way defenceman this season.
Conor Garland Becoming a Core Player in First Season With the Canucks
Of all the new players the Canucks acquired in the offseason, Conor Garland has been by far the most impressive. Even though he just scored his first goal in 10 games on Wednesday against the Colorado Avalanche, his play has not been indicative of his lack of production. Like Höglander, he comes to the rink ready to work each and every day and never seems to take a night off. His shifty edge work in tight spaces and constant pressure on the forecheck has been on display all season long and he’s even started to gain chemistry with a certain rookie named Vasily Podkolzin.
All in all, Garland has been everything and more for the Canucks since coming over from the Arizona Coyotes. Yes, he’s struggled to generate goals at times, but he’s been noticeable almost every game and that’s all you can really ask for from your top offensive threats. Hopefully, the goal he scored on Wednesday will be enough of a spark to get him producing at the same rate he was at the beginning of the season when he started with a six-game point streak.
J.T. Miller Continues To Produce
Since arriving from the Tampa Bay Lightning for a conditional first-round pick a couple of seasons ago, Miller has been one of the Canucks’ most productive players. With 49 goals and 136 points in 139 games with the Orca on his chest, no one can say that he’s not playing to his $5.25 million cap hit. Leading the team in almost every statistical category from goals (7) and points (18) to hits (45) and faceoff percentage (56 percent), he’s arguably the MVP of the team right now. If he could just win more faceoffs on the penalty kill and score on the power play, he would be the complete package.
Canucks Need Pettersson To Become a Positive Sooner Rather Than Later
Pettersson is supposed to be the Canucks best player. Except he has looked lightyears away from the player that lit up the NHL and captured the hearts and minds of fans everywhere during his rookie season back in 2018-19. He definitely has the talent to become that player again, he just has to trust his instincts and get out of his own head. His precise laser-like wrist shot can only score goals if he uses it, and he’s not using it nearly enough in the prime scoring areas. Surprisingly, he has the most shots of any forward on the team, but only has three goals to show for it.
The number of shots doesn’t tell the whole story though, as only 10 of those shots have been high-danger chances. That is just not good enough for a player that’s supposed to generate chances every time he’s on the ice. Compared to Höglander, who averages six minutes less than Pettersson, he is dreadfully behind the eight-ball. Of the 45 shots Höglander has taken, 23 of them have been of the high-danger variety. That’s 51.1 percent of his shots. Pettersson, on the other hand, only 21.7 percent of his shots have resulted in a high-danger chance.
In order for the Canucks to pull themselves out of this early rut, Pettersson has to bear down and start creating the chances we all know he can. He’s a great playmaker and wizard with the puck when he’s confident, but too many times this season has he passed up a scoring chance in favour of a low-percentage pass or attempted a deke only to turn the puck over. Until he gets his confidence back, he needs to simplify his game. Until that happens, no matter how many other bright spots there are on the team, darkness will continue to loom over Rogers Arena.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.