It’s a little over a week until Christmas and Santa Claus is on his way. The Vancouver Canucks have been a much better team this season and are probably on the nice list, so what do they want to see under the Christmas tree? Here is a peek at the wishlist that they sent up to the North Pole this year.
1. More Quinn Hughes
Quinn Hughes has been one of, if not the best defencemen the Canucks have had on the team in years. If he continues the pace he has been on, he will have over 60 points at the end of the season. Those point totals haven’t been seen since a man by the name of Doug Lidster did it in the 1986-87 season, nearly 33 years ago. He is even rubbing shoulders with NHL greats like Brian Leetch and Nick Lidstrom when it comes to assists in his first 39 games in the NHL.
As we all know by now, Hughes is looking right at home in the NHL. He is even outplaying established superstar defencemen like Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Morgan Reilly, and even 2018-19 Calder Trophy finalist Rasmus Dahlin. He exits the defensive zone with ease, skates like the wind and commands the power play like no other defenceman has done for the Canucks in decades. The insane thing is that he is only 20 years old.
There is no doubt in my mind that Hughes will be a perennial 50-60 point defenceman in this league. If he is able to score a bit more, the sky’s the limit for him. But as we have seen in the past with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, once the games played passes the 40 or so mark, fatigue starts to set in. The most games he has seen in a season is 37 set in 2018-19 with the University of Michigan. He will hit that mark in five games. Hopefully, Santa brings him the gift of energy, so that we can get more elite performances from the man they call Huggy Bear.
2. More Even Strength Goals
The Canucks have had a very good power play this season currently ranked fourth in the league with a 25.4 percent success rate. They are also second in the league in power play goals with 32. The man advantage is definitely one of the reasons for the team’s early success this season. Without it though, they would be a bottom feeder.
When you look at the Canucks’ success at even-strength, they are in the bottom half of the league. Of the 107 goals they have scored, only 63 of them are of the even-strength variety. If they hope to make any noise in 2020, playoffs or otherwise, they have to start manufacturing some offence outside of the man-advantage.
3. Trade Partners for Eriksson and Baertschi
This wish may be a longshot for Santa and his elves, even with magic involved. General manager Jim Benning no doubt has tried feverishly to find a team willing to take on the contracts of Loui Eriksson and Sven Baertschi. But barring a Christmas miracle, he will probably have to settle for a low draft pick or middling prospect to get a deal done if a deal is done at all.
The Canucks have already resorted to placing Baertschi on waivers again, hoping that some team would take him off their hands for free. This signals to me that he has had no luck with finding a team to trade with. As for Eriksson, his six million dollar contract and sub-par performance this season has not made Benning’s job any easier. Even if he was having an average season, his contract would still be a bitter pill for any team to swallow.
4. Top-Six Winger for Horvat
The second line experiment continues as we inch closer to 2020. Captain Bo Horvat has seen at least five different players line up with him this season with varying degrees of success. Benning said recently that he wants to still find another top-six winger to join the fold. But with the full roster and cap hell he is currently navigating, that won’t be an easy task.
I try to keep in contact with all the other general managers in the league, and if there’s something that fits and makes sense, we’ll look at it.GM Jim Benning
The old adage, you have to give up something to get something rings true here, as no team will be willing to give up a top-six winger for nothing. Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin seem to have little to no value right now and the Canucks cannot afford to dip into their prospect pool for a short term fix.
The ideal scenario would be to find a hockey trade, but those don’t come around very often, especially for the Canucks. Benning has to be careful in the coming months to not mortgage his future just to make the playoffs. If Santa can help bring him a top-six winger for Christmas at a palatable price, that will go a long way to getting the ultimate gift of the playoffs.
5. Scoring First & The Protection of Leads
The Canucks have played 33 games this season, and have only scored first in 12 of them. That’s 22 times where they were playing from behind at the beginning of a game, which is not a recipe for long term success. To put it in perspective, their record is 10-2 when they score first, as opposed to 6-12-4 when they don’t.
The inability to score first has been something that has plagued the team for many seasons. Is it coaching, or just a lack of urgency to start games? Hopefully, Santa can make this wish come true because it could be the difference between playoffs and another early date on the links.
The second half of this wish is the protection of leads. There have been too many times this season where the Canucks have had leads going into the third period, only to have them slip away. Again, is this the result of a poor defensive system employed by head coach Travis Green or assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner? I’m sure all of us have noticed the lack of pressure or aggressive play by the team after gaining a lead, especially in the third period.
The Canucks seem to fall into a style of prevent defence with the lead. This allows the opposing team to have space to operate and throw a multitude of shots at the net. Far too often this has resulted in goals against and a dominating performance by the opposing team. Goaltenders Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko have been able to weather the storm at times, but it is not the best system to just hope that your goaltender can always bail you out.
6. Continuation of the Markstrom Show
If you thought Markstrom had a breakout season in 2018-19, think again. The beginning of 2019-20 has shown Canucks fans and the rest of the NHL that he is the real deal and an elite goaltender in this league. If you weren’t convinced already, the game against the Carolina Hurricanes this past week should have erased any lingering doubts.
Markstrom’s 43 save shutout was a clinic in goaltending. He was calm, cool and in control every step of the way, even when he made the decision to rush out of the net to beat a Hurricane’s forward to the puck in the third period. If not for him, the Canucks probably don’t win that game, which is something we have been saying quite a bit this season. The last time we had a goaltender this clutch was Roberto Luongo, who ironically was the player who got us Markstrom in the first place.
If the Canucks make the playoffs, Markstrom will probably be a big reason for it. He has been as stable as they come this season, firmly establishing himself as the number one man in the crease. His performance has made the decision to keep him even more difficult. Demko is in the midst of his first full season in the NHL and may not be ready to shoulder the load of a starting assignment as soon as 2020-21.
If it was any other season, the decision would be easy, re-sign Markstrom for two years as the starter and keep Demko as his protege until he was ready. But the addition of the new Seattle franchise and looming expansion draft has thrown a wrench into everything.
If the Canucks hope to keep the Markstrom Show going, the only option is to sign him to a deal that has the potential to scare Seattle away from selecting him. But if he keeps on playing the way he has, no amount of money will keep Seattle from picking him as their potential number one goaltender.
1. Home Cooking & Even Strength Goals for Horvat
Bo Horvat has nine goals on the season, all on the road and all but two scored on the power play. For the Canucks to be a team with multiple waves of attack, he has to be a threat five on five, period. Power play goals are always welcome, but that can only get you so far. Maybe the recent return of Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle will allow him to have more favorable matchups that could lead to more even-strength goals.
Secondly, Horvat could use some more luck in the goal department in Vancouver. Scoring on the road is great, but that is only half the season. For the Canucks to have continued success, he needs to start scoring more in the friendly confines of Rogers Arena. Hopefully some even-strength and home goals are in his stocking on Christmas Day.
2. Eradication of the Injury Bug
A great stocking stuffer for the Canucks this Christmas would be the eradication of the injury bug. The infestation has gone on long enough, as I can’t remember a time when the team did not have a laundry list of injuries. Granted, the list is only three names long now with Demko, Alex Edler, and Micheal Ferland on a shift in the infirmary. But going into game 35 of the season the team has already lost 117 man-games to various injuries. In fact, over the last two seasons, the team has lost 688 man-games to injuries.
The reason for the lack of playoff hockey in Vancouver isn’t only because the Canucks are in the midst of a rebuild. Injuries have played a major part as well, as we all know. This season they are better equipped to handle it, especially on the backend. But the injuries have not occurred there as much this season, with only Edler missing any significant time so far. The bottom-six forward depth, specifically at the center ice position, has been the one tested.
For the Canucks to make any headway in the Western Conference, they need to have scoring depth. If there were to be any injuries to the top three of Pettersson, Boeser or J.T. Miller, the drop off is a big one. Horvat is the next best option and he only has nine goals. The bottom line is, the injury bug cannot get to the big three if they hope to finish in the top 16 at the end of the season.
3. Healthy Micheal Ferland
When the Canucks signed Ferland to a four-year deal in July, everyone hoped that his concussions were a thing of the past. We are now into December and he has already missed 19 games to apparent concussions. The scary thing is that he was never physically knocked out in any of the games. One was the result of a fight and the other was after a few hits on opposing forwards. If his brain was not susceptible to being concussed, those events shouldn’t have caused another one to occur.
Now, the Canucks have not ruled his recent absence as concussion-related, but the report of him seeing a specialist is definitely concerning. For his sake, I hope it’s nothing serious and he can go back to playing the game that he loves. But multiple injuries to the head are not something to play around with. If the best thing for his health is to stay out of the lineup, then doctors should keep him out until he’s 100 percent healthy.
The Canucks could use his presence on the roster, but some things are bigger than hockey, and matters of the brain definitely are. Hockey isn’t a lifetime sport, after all.
The Canucks have a lot of things on their Christmas Wishlist this year, the biggest one being the playoffs. But that won’t happen unless some of the other wishes on the list are fulfilled. The Christmas season is a season of giving, maybe one of the teams in the Pacific Division will give them a break and start losing.
That could be a longshot though, as only five points separate the Canucks and the last-place team in the division, so teams are not losing a lot these days. On the positive side, they are only six points back of the first-place team with one game in hand. So the wish of the playoffs is still alive. Hopefully, it comes true and we finally get to see some hockey played at the end of April at Rogers Arena.
Santa Claus is coming to town, let’s all hope he got the Canucks’ list and he’s on his way with some great gifts. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, editor, part-time journalist, 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.