VANCOUVER — It’s been a season of growth for the Vancouver Canucks, but after finishing outside of the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, players and coaches feel there’s still work to be done.
Standout performances from young players like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat highlighted a season that saw the Canucks (35-36-11) finish fifth in the Pacific Division — up eight points from the end of last year, but still nine points out of a wild-card spot.
Despite a rash of injuries to the blue line, the team felt the playoffs were in reach for most of the season, coach Travis Green said at an end-of-season press conference on Monday.
But there’s no “magic formula” for closing the points gap and making the post-season.
“When you look at it, the simplest version is score more, allow less,” Green said. “We’re going to be better next year. I have no doubt about it. I thought we took a good step this year and we’ll take another one next year.”
A number of young players stepped up this season, posting career highs and taking on new roles. Those players are key to the team’s future, Green said.
“We’ve got young players that I believe you can win with,” he said. “We need to make sure that our young guys continue to become those guys that you win with. And I believe that they can.”
In his second full-year in the NHL, Boeser tallied 56 points (26 goals and 30 assists) over 69 games. Still, the 22-year-old winger feels like he’ll have more to give next season.
“I feel I’ve learned a lot throughout this whole year,” Boeser said. “I’ve taken steps as a player. And I still personally think that I can take a huge step (next year).”
Pettersson dazzled from the very beginning, scoring on his first shot in his first NHL game.
His production slowed as the season continued, but the 20-year-old Swede still led the Canucks in scoring with 66 points (28 goals and 38 assists) in 71 games, breaking the franchise’s record for points by a rookie. He’ll be a top contender for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie when the awards are handed out in March.
Pettersson said he didn’t know exactly what to expect coming into the NHL. He knew the play would be tougher, the schedule more gruelling, and grew to learn the importance of taking care of his body between games.
“I started really good,” he said. “I wasn’t really happy with my (entire) season, but I started really good. I think as the season went on, teams started scouting me more and tried to put more focus on me. So I kind of had both the up of the season and the down of the season.”
Following the retirement of veterans Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Horvat grew into a pivotal leadership role with the Canucks. He was the only player to suit up for all 82 games and notched new career highs in goals (27), assists (34) and points (61).
While the 24-year-old centre sees a bright future for the team, he said the players also know what they need to work on come next fall.
“We want to find consistency in our game and not have those lulls,” Horvat said. “Let’s go on a 10-game winning streak instead of 1-13. So I think to change that for next season, we can’t accept losing, can’t accept win some, lose some. Having consistency in our game is going to be huge.”
Vancouver remained within the playoff race until after the all-star break, but struggled to string together wins down the stretch and went 5-4-1 over its final 10 games.
The last 20 or so games of the season showed where the group needs to develop, said Jay Beagle.
“When it started to get to that playoff feel, when teams started to step it up, we didn’t. And you could see that. We kind of just flat lined. And that comes with maturity, that comes with playing in the league longer,” said Beagle, a veteran centre who signed with the Canucks as a free agent in July after spending his entire career with the Washington Capitals.
“But we’re not too far and that’s the encouraging thing, that’s the exciting thing.”
There’s a lot more optimism in the Canucks locker room as this season comes to a close than there’s been in previous years, said Brandon Sutter.
“I think there’s just a bit of a different energy with the youth on our team and the young players that have come in and kind of given us a bit of a new life,” said the veteran centre, who missed 56 games with injuries this season. “I think guys are just looking forward to what’s ahead.”
Fans, too, seem excited, especially after getting a glimpse in recent weeks of defensive prospect Quinn Hughes.
Drafted seventh overall by the Canucks last summer, the 19-year-old joined the club for the final five games of the year. His skill and speed were instantly apparent, and the teen said his teammates made him feel confident right away.
“I really enjoyed my time. I wish I had 30 more games to go but that’s just not the case. I’m just looking forward to next year,” Hughes said.
This summer, the young defenceman plans to spend a lot of time getting stronger in the weight room and faster on the ice. He’ll also suit up for Team USA at the world championship in Slovakia next month.
But first Hughes will head back to the University of Michigan to finish up his classes. He admits the change of pace will be odd after spending a month in the NHL.
“I’m sure it’ll be weird going back, walking around on campus,” he said with a grin.