I remember when the Vancouver Canucks traded for Nikolay Goldobin. I watched his first game on March 4, 2017, and was immediately impressed with his speed and puck-handling skills. Furthermore, I remember him scoring the game-winning goal in a 4–3 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. A lot has happened in Goldobin’s Canuck career, and not all of it is good.
So here we are as the season is at its halfway point, and the Canucks’ fourth-leading scorer is a healthy scratch. Why? Because, although Goldobin is great with the puck, he is a defensive liability without it.
Learning to Play Without the Puck
In talking to the press at the end of last season, coach Travis Green said about Goldobin: “He’s good with the puck when he has it. He’s gotta find ways to be good away from it. I met with Goldy today for 15-20 minutes. ‘How long do you have the puck?’ I asked him. He said 2 minutes. Called our analytics guys, he had it for 29 seconds last game.”
Clearly, the biggest lesson the 23-year-old Goldobin must learn is how to play without the puck. In the game Green was discussing, Goldobin played 9:31. Doing the math, if he only had the puck for 29 seconds, that means he played 95 percent of his time on the ice without the puck. In itself, that’s an interesting statistic and one, I admit, I wouldn’t have guessed. It also makes any player’s time without the puck hugely important. As noted, that’s Goldobin’s biggest issue.
Goldobin’s Two-Year Canucks’ History
In 2018-19, Goldobin’s first full season with the Canucks, he split his time between the Canucks (38 games) and their AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets (30 games). In his 38 NHL games, he had eight goals, six assists and 14 points. That’s hardly enough for a player whose main role on the team is on offense. Still, he teased fans by ending the season, scoring seven points in 11 games playing with Bo Horvat on the Canucks’ top line.
This season, he’s had some strong offensive games. He had two assists in a 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers and, in mid-December, had assists in three straight games. Goldobin, with the season now halfway through, has 18 assists and 23 points and is on-pace to finish with 46 points.
He’s especially strong on the power play and has averaged close to three minutes of power play time each game. As a result, he’s had a plethora of scoring opportunities. If he continues to play on the power play, he should keep scoring in the second half of the season.
The Big Question: Will Goldobin Play at All?
Although Goldobin struggled to score early in the season, his offense isn’t the issue for Canucks’ coaching. It’s his defense. And, whether the Canucks will wait for him to improve in that area is a question being discussed by those who cover the team, especially after the trade for Josh Leivo and Brandon Sutter’s imminent return. The ice is getting thinner.
On Jan. 3, David Quadrelli of Fansided asked the question directly: “Should the Canucks trade Nikolay Goldobin?” Although he believes the answer is “no,” others seem less certain. Sportsnet’s Rick Dhaliwal tweeted: “They have to make a roster move pretty quick here with Sutter coming back. I don’t see Goldobin in the plans moving forward, he just is not learning and getting it. This has been months of trying to teach him to play a 200-foot game and it has not happened.”
In the meantime, Green is giving Goldobin some tough love. He has been a healthy scratch for two games and has listened to Green lay out the problems he needed to work on: his play along the boards, his forchecking and his work away from the puck.
“We’ve shown him a lot of clips,” Green added. “I showed him in a clip in Calgary where he races in on the breakaway and his speed was great. Yet we showed him another clip of him on the forecheck and it wasn’t the same speed. And that’s part of it.” (from “Patrick Johnston: Goldobin’s Benching Adds Fuel to Trade Speculation” – The Vancouver Sun – 1/2/19)
Goldobin isn’t having a great season, but, as a fan, how can you not be attracted to the young Russian’s potential? He’s skilled with the puck, has great vision and is fun to watch. My experience suggests that, if a player can skate and think, playing good defense is simply hard work and strong willpower. Are the Canucks willing to bet that, at only 23 years of age, he can’t learn to play defense?
And, if defense is a learned skill, who’s to say Goldobin can’t become a cornerstone on this team? For me, the attraction of his offense is irresistible. I’ve been around a long time, and, in that time, I’ve learned that it’s hard to guess when or if a young player will or won’t have a breakout season somewhere in the future. First, however, some of the lessons he seems to be dropping must be caught. Simply said, he has to learn how to play without the puck.