The Vancouver Canucks are currently in the playoffs. With 52 games played, they have a record of 24-22-6 for 54 points. If their most recent road beat down of the Colorado Avalanche is any indication of how they will play going forward, they should make the playoffs easily.
Here are five reasons I believe they will gain a playoff berth this season.
Reason #1: Travis Green Is a Really Good Coach
The Canucks were not a very good team last season. Things have changed this season, and a large part of that change is Travis Green’s coaching. He makes tough decisions, shows tough love when needed and has a vision for how he wants his team to play. And, from what I am seeing, his players are buying in. The Canucks are a much tougher team to play against than they were just a season ago.
Green has made an obvious difference. It started last season when he set a new tone for his team. For example, the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) were both a blessing and a curse; fortunately, they were also a class act who balanced the needs of the team with their own. Green handled them well last season. He saw they needed to play fewer minutes, and he made it happen. Their retirement, when it came, was handled with dignity.
Green also managed his youngsters well, creating opportunities for Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser to gain confidence playing against weaker competition. He built a shutdown line that played with an edge and sapped energy from other teams’ top units. All these choices are paying dividends this season because, now that the Canucks have more talent, the team retains the edge it built last season.
Green has other skills. Although fans can never be certain what happens when Green talks to his players behind closed doors, he sticks up for his players when speaking with the media. This season’s team has stronger talent, special teams, attitude, penalty killing and goaltending. These changes, including changes in team morale and identity are evident. Part of that’s on Green’s strong coaching.
2) Jacob Markstrom Has Become a Starting Goalie
In the Canucks’ recent 5-1 road victory against the Avalanche, Jacob Markstrom allowed only one goal on 35 shots. But that’s just one game: he’s been growing steadier all season and now has 20 wins (20-13-5 with a 2.79 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 38 starts). He’s sure to beat his career-high 23 victories set last season. As the Hockey Night in Canada panel noted, Markstrom has found his form as a goaltender and has proven he’s starting material.
Markstrom is the Canucks’ second-biggest surprise after Elias Pettersson. With Markstrom standing tall – literally – in the crease, the Canucks can play an in-your-face style with more confidence that a mistake won’t necessarily result in a goal against. Markstrom is calm and poised both in shorthanded and five-on-five situations. His positioning is strong.
As Green noted, against the Avalanche “Markstrom was good. He’s a leader on our team and playing like it.” Markstrom doesn’t panic and notes himself that he’s keeping his emotions out of it and is just playing relaxed.
Reason #3: Elias Pettersson Is Amazing
Pettersson should be on every hockey reviewers list of why the Canucks are an improved team. The soon-enough Calder Trophy winner is nothing short of amazing. Although Green only played Pettersson for 13:46 minutes during the Avalanche game, Pettersson still pulled off a play that had the Avalanche broadcasters beside themselves.
Pettersson twisted Avalanche defenceman Ian Cole in knots by faking a forehand, putting the puck between his own skates and spinning to feed Nikolay Goldobin for a good scoring chance. Avalanche broadcasters Marc Moser and Peter McNab’s game call went like this:
“Why is the rookie so good?!” Moser exclaimed. “How does he do that?”
“How do you think of that?” added McNab.
Much has already been written about the Canucks’ skilled rookie, but perhaps fellow Swede and Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said it best when appearing on Hockey Night in Canada’s After Hours show with Scott Oake and Louie DeBrusk: “He seems like a really nice kid … he’s got a really good head on his shoulders and works hard, but still has swagger, which I love about him.” Landeskog added, “He’s talented, he’s got some grit, and he plays hard. A lot of fun to watch. I would be surprised to see anyone else win the Calder.”
Reason #4: Antoine Roussel Is a First-Class Agitator
Antoine Roussel had two points in the Avalanche win, but he really doesn’t need to score much to be effective. He’s a disruptive presence, an agitator and is tough to play against. He was that way when he played for the Dallas Stars, and he continues to be now. Similar to the Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand, that’s Roussel’s role with the Canucks, and he does it well.
Still, he’s been scoring recently, and that isn’t a bad thing. He has two goals and three points in the last three games. He’s already passed his goals and points marks from last season, and he’s on-pace to set new career highs (he has six goals and 21 points in 47 games).
Roussel’s bounceback season bodes well for the Canucks. He provides grit with 38 blocks, 60 hits and 98 penalty minutes. He makes a difference for the Canucks, who did well to pick him up before this season. The 29-year-old had a strong month of December, and this play has carried into the new year.
Reason #5: Canucks’ Forward Lines Are Playing Strong From Top to Bottom
Certainly, some Canucks forwards are more skilled than others, but there isn’t a huge drop in play from one line to another. I haven’t mentioned Josh Leivo, but he’s contributing in a top-six role. Brandon Sutter can impact games and he’s back from a 30-game injury layoff. He’s a well-conditioned athlete who can log big minutes. Sutter can also slot into most forward spots, from the second line to the fourth.
Related: Canucks Shouldn’t Trade for Ferland
What I saw during the Avalanche game was that all the Canucks lines consistently played with tempo. And, there’s no reason they can’t play with energy game in and game out. Skill cannot be replaced, but playing tough is coming more regularly with this team from top to bottom and that play can carry the team.
The Canucks have a really difficult eight-game schedule coming up over the next 10 days. Six of these eight games are on the road. If the team can survive this stretch with better than a 4-4 record, it has a good chance of being in the thick of the playoff race. Games include:
Feb 4, 2019 @ Philadelphia Flyers
Feb 5, 2019 @ Capitals
Feb 7, 2019 @ Chicago Blackhawks
Feb 9, 2019 vs Calgary Flames
Feb 11, 2019 vs San Jose Sharks
Feb 13, 2019 @ Anaheim Ducks
Feb 14, 2019 @ Los Angeles Kings
Feb 16, 2019 @ Sharks
The team’s back-to-back games on Monday and Tuesday will go a long way towards showing where they stand as a team. I’m calling it now: the Canucks will make the playoffs.