With the Vancouver Canucks just two points out of a playoff spot, all eyes are currently on the health status of rookie sensation Elias Pettersson after he suffered a knee injury against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 3. Although he will not play Wednesday against the Ottawa Senators, Pettersson said he is hoping to return to the lineup Friday against the Buffalo Sabres.
The sooner he can return to the lineup, the more likely it is the Canucks will qualify for the postseason — that’s a no-brainer. But while he does help their case, I just don’t see “playoffs” in the Canucks’ future at all.
It may have been the most obvious choice, but the Canucks making the playoffs is not on my list of bold predictions for the second half of the 2018-19 season. I just don’t see it happening. Instead, I went with individual storylines that could play out, and who better to start with than the ‘Alien’ himself.
Pettersson Scores 40; Named Hart Finalist
Right now, even with nine games missed due to injury, Pettersson has an 11-goal and 16-point lead in the rookie scoring race. But this prediction isn’t for Pettersson to win the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the league. That much has been clear since pretty much the beginning of the season. No, this prediction says he will be voted as one of the top-three most valuable players in the NHL by season’s end.
His current .58 goals-per-game rate (22 goals in 38 games) is tied for 10th in the NHL with Filip Forsberg. If Pettersson maintains that pace, he needs to play in 69 games this season to reach 40 goals. To reach 69 games played, the 20-year-old needs to dress in 31 of the Canucks’ remaining 35 contests.
Of course, even if he does, it’ll be tough to maintain that 0.58 goals-per-game pace, but I’m going to bet on the guy who has managed to record a ridiculous 27.8 shooting percentage on 79 shots and can make plays like this.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 30, 2018
If Pettersson does reach 40 goals despite missing 10 or more games, I can’t see him not being a Hart Trophy finalist. He already has seven game-winning-goals, tied for the most in the NHL. As Jason Botchford of The Athletic recently pointed out, the Canucks have scored 70 percent of the goals when he’s on the ice, which only Brayden Point, Matthew Tkachuk and Lucas Radil can also say for their respective teams (minimum of 20 games played). (from ‘How Elias Pettersson changed everything in Vancouver’ – The Athletic – 1/14/19).
Another stat may speak to Pettersson’s value better than all the rest: WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. WAR tries to capture the value of a player in one number (it’s well-known in baseball), and it measures a player’s contribution against a replacement-level player (players earning a league-minimum salary). There is more than one WAR statistic because hockey is so fluid and there are many ways to measure a player’s worth, but using Evolving Hockey’s calculation, Pettersson is tied for fourth in the NHL in WAR, worth 2.5 wins over a replacement-level player.
It’s quite possible one of the top scoring leaders this season like Nikita Kucherov or Nathan MacKinnon will win the Hart Trophy, but it’s not that outlandish to think that Pettersson will get some recognition, partly because of how hopeless the Canucks are without him. If he nets 40 goals, he’ll get plenty of votes.
Demko Steals the Crease From Markstrom
After more than 100 games in the American Hockey League, Thatcher Demko is finally with the Canucks for good. Unfortunately for him, it comes at a time when Jacob Markstrom is playing really well. Since Dec. 9, Markstrom is 9-3-1 with a 2.07 goals-against average (GAA) and .927 save percentage (SV%).
Even with the Canucks’ tame January schedule, Demko will get his chance, and when he does, I think he runs with it. The 23-year-old posted a 55-35-12 record with a 2.56 GAA and .915 SV% in his time with the Utica Comets in the AHL.
Markstrom has played his best hockey when there was almost no competition — Anders Nilsson was just that horrific. While some believe having internal competition for the starting role can motivate both guys to be better, I don’t think that is the case for Markstrom, which TSN analyst Ray Ferraro alluded to on TSN 1040 on Tuesday.
“I think in almost every instance, it’s better for that goalie to know that he’s going to be able to make a mistake and get back out there — that he’s going to be able to have the opportunity to bounce back from a bad start,” Ferraro said to co-hosts Blake Price and Matt Sekeres. “I don’t think it’s healthy for the most demanding mental position to worry about, ‘Okay, I burped up two bad ones tonight, am I even going to get a chance again?’ because the other guy is going to play.”
I do think competition works in some cases, but not with Markstrom. Now he is looking over his shoulder, knowing full well that Demko has been labelled the Canucks’ “goalie of the future” and that won’t help Markstrom’s mental game.
Hutton Leads Canucks’ Defence in Scoring
It was well documented last season that Ben Hutton was in the dog house of first-year coach Travis Green. He was a healthy scratch several times and saw his average ice time slip from over 20 minutes per game the previous season to 18:25 while only recording six assists in 61 games.
But that’s all in the past. The 25-year-old is now averaging a career-high 21:05 and plays nearly two minutes per night on the power play. He currently has five goals and 11 assists for 16 points in 45 games.
So how is that enough to lead Vancouver’s defense in scoring, especially when Alex Edler has 19 points in 31 games? The answer is another Edler injury or an Edler trade. Edler hasn’t played a full season since 2011-12, missing a total of 101 games since then.
With the heavy minutes he logs and his physical style of play, it’s likely the 32-year-old won’t stay healthy for the remainder of the season. While he does hold a no-trade clause, he could also be moved at the deadline if the team can convince him that going to a contender is worth it (he wants to stay, but could always re-sign in the summer).
Whether it’s an injury or a trade, I just don’t see Edler posting more than 30 points for the Canucks. When Edler was hurt, Hutton took his spot on the top power play and he should get another opportunity to do that in the second half. That’s how his point totals will rise. While Hutton is not even on-pace for 30 points, I think he hits 35 by season’s end, which will prove the “tough love” approach (or “honest love” approach, as Green likes to say) from last season was a success.
With 35 games remaining, it’s quite possible none of these predictions come true. It’s a tall task for Pettersson to score 40 goals in his rookie season when he has already been hurt twice, or for Demko to steal the starting job from a 28-year-old who has finally found his game. What’s more likely is for the Canucks to crash and burn in the second half. Of all the scenarios, that might actually be best for the team’s future.
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.