The Vancouver Canucks are now just over one-third of the way through their regular season. They’ve played 28 of 82 regular-season games and the team is contending for a playoff spot.
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As we look back at the team’s progress through the season, what have been the biggest surprises?
On a positive note, a number of things come to mind. First, this team has resilience. They might be down, but they seldom seem to be out. They push hard and they don’t quit. Perhaps that’s the personality of their head coach Travis Green. Wherever it comes from, it’s a positive trait and makes them exceedingly fun to watch.
A second positive for me has been how well new captain Bo Horvat has taken to the job. He’s accepted the role with conviction and, at the same time, he’s not lost his on-ice scoring skills and strong play. He’s contributing in an array of specific ways to the success of this team. I think Horvat’s a great captain who’s accepted the role of leadership.
But there are also negatives. One surprise has been the lack of effectiveness of Micheal Ferland. I know he’s injured, and that’s been his Achilles Heel during his career. However, even when he’s been healthy he hasn’t been able to crack the top-six forward corps. When he’s ready, he’ll undoubtedly add scoring to the bottom six. However, I’m pretty sure the plan was for him to have a bigger role. He’s seldom played more than 10 minutes in recent games and has only skated for more than 15 minutes since the first game of the regular season.
A second negative has been the surprising lack of scoring for defenseman Tyler Myers. He averaged over 33 points during his last two seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, but he has only four assists (and no goals) in 28 games this season. He’s not playing poorly, but he’s not hit the score sheet often. If he were scoring more consistently that would certainly help.
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All this said, here are my five biggest surprises for the Canucks through the first third of the regular season.
Surprise #1: The Continuing Great Play of J.T. Miller
Last season, J.T. Miller had only 13 goals and 34 assists for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and when the Canucks traded a first- and third-round pick for him in June there was grumbling. However, Miller has proven that he’s willing to make the hard sacrifices to win.
As Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre wisely noted in a recent article, “The 26-year-old (Miller) seems to be at the epicenter of the team. Bo Horvat is the captain and workhorse, Elias Pettersson the best player and Quinn Hughes the most exciting story. But Miller seems omnipresent, always involved, always felt.”
When you hear Miller interviewed after games, you know he realizes he’s needed and appreciated in Vancouver. Coach Green agrees: “He’s played really well for us. He’s a vocal guy, he cares, he wants to win, he competes hard. He’s aggressive. As coaches, you like to have aggressive players because they usually want to win really bad. We talk about the will to win a lot. When you have those characteristics, it can be infectious and rub off on other players as well.”
Surprise #2: The Strength of the Top Line
Speaking of Miller’s addition to the team, the top line of Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Miller has been strong. For the first time in a long time, Canucks’ fans are not thinking of the Sedin twins as the last great line for the team. The new top line has taken its play to another level this year.
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Canucks fans are no longer skeptical of general manager Jim Benning’s offseason trade for Miller because he fits perfectly with Pettersson and Boeser. The Canucks’ top line is excellent at both ends of the ice. They give their opponents the fewest good looks of any line on the Canucks by a significant margin and they also lead the team in slot passes and inner slot shots, while dominating shot attempts.
Surprise #3: The Effectiveness of the Power Play
The play of the Canucks’ top line also transfers to the team’s success on the power play. Green has combined Pettersson with Boeser and has engaged third options. For example, Horvat leads the team with six power-play goals himself, with Miller, Pettersson, and Boeser each having five. Adam Gaudette also has scored three power-play goals himself.
In total, the Canucks’ power-play has already scored 29 times in 28 games, and that’s more than any other team in the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers are next with 26 power-play goals. For comparison, the Anaheim Ducks have only seven power-play goals all season.
The Canucks don’t change the power-play unit much, and why should they? They have had great success engaging Petterson, Boeser, Miller, and Horvat in that role. The other reason for the unit’s success is that rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes is amazing – even if his NHL experience is limited to one-third of a full season. These Canucks players generate so many chances, and I see no reason why the success of those players won’t continue.
Surprise #4: Elias Pettersson Is Even Better than Expected
Elias Pettersson won the Calder Trophy last season. Could things get better than that for him? The answer is yes. Pettersson leads his team in scoring with 11 goals, 20 assists, and 31 points in 28 games. He could hit 90 points easily. He was great as a rookie and he’s better in his second full season.
As coach Green notes about Pettersson, “He wants to be great, he doesn’t want to be just good. He takes the game seriously. You can be honest with him. If he’s had a couple of games where he’s not quite on top of his game you can have a good dialogue with him. He’s a smart player … and he’s committed to being a good player in all areas of the game.” (from ‘Elias Pettersson having another strong season for Vancouver Canucks,’ Edmonton Sun, 12/1/2019).
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Teammate Miller adds, “He just has that next-play ability; he already knows what to do with the puck before it gets to him.”
Surprise #5: Quinn Hughes Is a Special Player
Speaking of Quinn Hughes’ value on the power-play unit, he looks like a skilled veteran. Everyone expected him to be good, but really few people expected him to be as good as he’s been.
Hughes had his sixth multi-point game of the season in the loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. That game put him on pace to make history as a rookie defenseman. Should he continue this pace, he should easily exceed other rookie defensemen for the most multi-point games since the 2004-05 lockout. Zach Werenski has 12 multi-point games in 2016-17 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dion Phaneuf had 11 in 2005-06 with the Calgary Flames), Kevin Shattenkirk had 12 in 2010-11 with the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues, and Will Butcher had 12 games in 2017-18 with the New Jersey Devils.
Can the Surprises Continue?
There’s no reason why the Canucks cannot continue to surprise right into the playoffs. However, that will take good goalie play, which the team has had, and not losing players to injuries.
One-third of the way through the season and the team is looking strong. That might be surprise number six.