Because there is a small break in the Vancouver Canucks’ schedule, it seems like a good time to visit some of the current news that surrounds the team. Today’s news and notes review the tight playoff race in the West, the signing of all-time AHL shutout leader Michael Leighton to a PTO with the Utica Comets, Elias Pettersson’s expected return date and NBC’s recent power rankings.
Item One: A Tight Playoff Race
On Wednesday, Jan. 16, the Canucks and Edmonton Oilers played in what stacks up to be a big game for both teams. Currently, the teams are tied for the last wild card spot in the Western Conference with the Minnesota Wild and the Anaheim Ducks — all four teams have 47 points. The Wild have two games in-hand on the Canucks and one game in-hand on the Oilers and Ducks.
It might be one of those seasons where the team with the best goaltending over the last half of the season makes the playoffs. Each of these four teams can point to examples of good goalie play, with Devan Dubnyk for the Wild, Jacob Markstrom for the Canucks, John Gibson for the Ducks, and the tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Cam Talbot for the Oilers all having carried their teams at various points in the season.
Although it’s early, each game a team plays when it’s on the cusp of a playoff spot feels like a key game. As the Canucks’ young center Bo Horvat suggests, “This has a big game feel to it. We’re tied in points, so tomorrow is a four-point game. We need those points.”
Item Two: Utica Comets Sign Michael Leighton to a PTO
Since Thatcher Demko was called up to the Canucks early last week and Mike McKenna was lost on waivers, the Canucks’ farm team has been seeking an experienced goalie. The team took care of that need by signing 37-year-0ld Michael Leighton. Leighton has been around for quite a while, and although he has not played in the NHL for two seasons, he has 111 games of NHL experience with the Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. His last NHL games were with the Hurricanes during the 2016-17 season.
Leighton has had a long career in the AHL (341 games). His record is 242-177-49 with a 2.37 goals-against average (GAA) and a .917 save percentage. His 50 shutouts rank first in AHL history and his 242 wins are fifth all-time.
It’s unlikely that he is a candidate for an NHL contract even if he plays well, but Michael Hutchinson was in the same position just over two weeks ago and he surprisingly played five consecutive games for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His strong showing (a 2-3 record with a .914 GAA) gives him hope for more NHL playing time. It’s certain the Maple Leafs and a number of other teams took note. I don’t doubt Leighton hopes for a similar chance. Who knows what might happen in NHL hockey?
For his part, Canucks general manager Jim Benning was non-committal, saying, “We’ll see how it goes.” (from “Canucks find an NHL Goalie for Utica, for now?” – The Province – 1/15/19). That the Canucks have only two goalies under contract might spur Leighton’s hopes. Both the Canucks and Leighton are in a situation where they need each other, if only for a short time. With Utica, the Canucks needed an experienced goalie when Richard Bachman went down with a season-ending Achilles injury in December and Demko was called up to the big team.
Item Three: Elias Pettersson’s Day-To-Day: Oilers, Maybe
Elias Pettersson might be ready for Wednesday’s game against the Oilers, but that seems unlikely. Coach Travis Green has been clear that if Pettersson isn’t 100 percent, he won’t play. Green noted, “We’re not going to rush him back and have him play where he’s at risk because he’s not moving around well enough. We’re going to do right by him.”
Pettersson’s team surely misses him. The fifth-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft leads both the Canucks and all NHL rookies in scoring with 42 points (22 goals, 20 assists) in 38 games. If he’s able to play in Wednesday’s game, or whenever he does play, he will give the Canucks a needed infusion of energy.
The team is 1-2-1 without their young star in their last four games, and they’ve been shut out twice. But they were on a roll, compiling a record of 9-3-1 in the 13 games they’d played prior to Pettersson’s injury. The Canucks’ young centre hasn’t played in nearly two weeks, but that will change soon.
Item Four: Canucks Ranked 18th in Power Rankings
NBC’s power rankings, issued on Jan. 14, noted that Pettersson is only expected to miss a few weeks with a knee injury. That’s good, because “he makes Vancouver a legitimate contender to reach the playoffs.” Actually, he isn’t an offensive island. The Canucks have a number of offensive threats, but they have to do better at preventing opponents’ shot attempts and goals. For a team that’s on an 82-point pace, they’re still exciting to watch. Even if their playoff hopes fade, they have the kind of maturing young talent that will keep fans tuned in.
The Oilers are next on the Canucks’ schedule. Both teams are coming off high-scoring, impressive wins. The Oilers ousted the Buffalo Sabres 7-2 on Monday and the Canucks crunched former goalie Roberto Luongo and his Florida Panthers on Sunday 5-1. Still, I’m not sure the scoring will continue at this pace. This game might become a battle of the goalies. However it goes, one team will push ahead towards the playoffs and one won’t.