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5 reasons why the Canucks will win the 2020 Stanley Cup (and 3 reasons they won’t)

The Canucks are underdogs heading into the playoffs, but that doesn't mean they can't go on a run.
Elias Pettersson holds off a check from Ryan Dzingel of the Carolina Hurricanes. photo: Dan Toulgoet

For some Canucks fans, good is never good enough. Canucks fans so badly want to win a Stanley Cup, which might sound like a truism. Of course, every hockey market wants to win the Cup.

But for Canucks fans, it’s beyond that. It’s not just desire; it’s desperation.

It’s not just that Canucks fans have followed the team for 50 years without once seeing them hoist Lord Stanley’s prize, while living next to his other famous namesake, Stanley Park. It’s that the Canucks have come so agonizingly close that the sheer release of tension from those near misses led to literal riots in the streets.

In 1994, the Canucks were a goalpost away from tying Game 7 against the New York Rangers and forcing an overtime where anything could have happened. In 2011, the Canucks were the most dominant team in the NHL, winning the Presidents’ Trophy while leading the NHL in goals for, goals against, and power play percentage. In the Stanley Cup Final, they went up 2-0, then 3-2, but couldn’t close out the series.

Is it any wonder that being “good enough” isn’t enough for Canucks fans?

Canucks fans have seen one of the most dominant teams in recent NHL history come up just short of winning the Cup; with that in mind, the cynicism from some fans about a team that isn’t even close to that level of dominance is understandable.

While some fans might look at Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Brock Boeser and see bright hope for the future, the more jaded fans have seen teams led by superstar talent like Pavel Bure and the Sedins come within a hair’s breadth of the Cup and fail to drink from it. They’ve seen the best line in hockey for a couple seasons — the West Coast Express — fail to get anywhere in the playoffs.

These fans know that a superstar or two isn’t enough. A few quality supporting players isn’t enough. In the words of the late Jason Botchford, “you need an army.”

On the other hand, the NHL has seen Cinderella runs from dozens of teams in the past, with underdogs coming seemingly from nowhere to win the Stanley Cup. A lot has to go right for a team to win the Cup and, contrary to the (again, completely understandable) cynicism from the Canucks fanbase, it’s possible for those things to go right for the Canucks. 

That’s particularly true for this year, where the Canucks may be underdogs, but the entire structure of the postseason has been turned topsy-turvy. They required three wins over the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round to officially make it to the playoffs, but that same qualifying round has already knocked out teams ahead of them in the NHL standings, like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers, and Nashville Predators.

Let’s take a look at some reasons why the Canucks could win the Stanley Cup this year.

1 | They don’t know any better

While the Canucks have veteran experience in their lineup, the core of their team is very young. Their number one defenceman is a 20-year-old rookie, the dominant Quinn Hughes. Their franchise forward is just 21, first-line centre Elias Pettersson. First-line winger Brock Boeser is 23 and their captain, Bo Horvat, is just 25. 

The only one with playoff experience in the NHL is Horvat, who was there as a rookie when the Canucks last made the playoffs.

Playoff experience is held in high regard in the NHL, to the point that a Stanley Cup ring is frequently the golden ticket to a big contract in free agency, no matter what role said free agent might have played on a Stanley Cup winning team. An extra asset is added to their resumé: they know what it takes to win in the playoffs.

Weirdly, experience might be an impediment in this oddball pandemic-bubbled playoffs. The current situation, with all the teams cloistered in hotels together, with tightly scheduled games on just two rinks, doesn’t bear much similarity to the usual playoff experience. 

You know what it is similar to? Bantam tournaments, where teams would travel to another town or city, clustered together, and play a bunch of games in short succession. The younger players would be closer to that experience.

Perhaps more importantly, the younger players have a little bit less of the weight of the world on their shoulders. Horvat has a newborn at home, certainly, but guys like Hughes and Pettersson have little to focus on right now other than hockey. Is it fair to say that some of the veteran players might have their attention pulled in other directions during these playoffs?

2 | Elias Pettersson is a winner

While Pettersson might not have NHL playoff experience, he certainly knows what it takes to win in the postseason.

The year after the Canucks drafted him fifth overall, Pettersson had one of the greatest playoff runs in SHL history. That’s no exaggeration: his 10 goals and 19 playoff points are tied for 6th all time in the SHL, made even more remarkable in that he put up those points in just 13 games.

In terms of points per game, it’s the second best playoff performance in the history of the SHL. It must be emphasized, Pettersson was a 19-year-old rookie. It’s easily the best ever performance by a junior-aged player in the SHL playoffs.

Pettersson led his team to the SHL championship and was named the playoff MVP, on top of all the other accolades he earned that season. If you want a proven playoff performer, Pettersson has that track record.

In the series against the Minnesota Wild, Pettersson proved he won’t be pushed around in the playoffs and, more importantly, controlled the pace of play whenever he stepped on the ice. Of the Canucks that played all four games of the series, Pettersson led the way in corsi percentage (CF%), a ratio of shot attempts for and against at 5-on-5. That means the Canucks consistently out-shot the Wild whenever Pettersson was on the ice.

Pettersson was effective in all areas of the ice, backchecking furiously in the defensive zone, transitioning the puck up ice through the neutral zone, and winning battles down low in the offensive zone. He finished with a point per game, a goal and three assists.

What should be encouraging for Canucks fans is that we still haven’t seen Pettersson at his absolute, dominant best. Despite a fantastic series against the Wild, Pettersson still has more to give. If his SHL playoff performance is any indication, Pettersson will give everything he’s got.

3 | The best is yet to come for Jacob Markstrom

Markstrom may be a veteran when it comes to this Canucks roster, but he’s a rookie when it comes to the playoffs. Against the Wild, it showed, as he had a rollercoaster series, with mediocre performance in Game 1, a solid showing in Game 2, a perfect shutout in Game 3, and an ugly Game 4, where he gave up a couple brutal goals from bad angles.

The Canucks and their fans, however, know exactly how good Markstrom can be. 

“Marky doesn’t give himself enough credit,” said Horvat after his rough Game 4. “He’s been a brick wall all season, and we wouldn’t be where we are right now without him.”

It’s absolutely true: the Canucks wouldn’t even be in the qualifying round without Markstrom stealing more than his fair share of games during the regular season. There’s a reason why fans voted him the Canucks MVP this year, even if it arguably should have gone to Pettersson instead: Markstrom was magnificent all season.

Perhaps the qualifying round can be a blessing in disguise. With those opening series jitters out of the way, Markstrom is free to play up to his potential in the actual first round of the playoffs. If Markstrom can bring back his regular season form, the Canucks could go on a run.

4 | Their veterans are healthy and rested

While the most important players on the Canucks are their youth, their depth is largely composed of veterans. That has consequences for the Canucks’ cap situation — an argument for another day — but it also means the wear and tear of a long season can get to them.

Look at players like Brandon Sutter, Alex Edler, and Chris Tanev, who have struggled with injuries over the past several seasons. This was actually the first time in his career that Tanev has played every game in a season and that’s only because the rest of the season was cancelled by a global pandemic — he was injured in the Canucks’ final game of the regular season.

The four-and-a-half month long break between the end of the regular season and this postseason has significantly helped in that regard. Suddenly those injury-prone veterans are all healthy (with exceptions for Tyler Toffoli and Micheal Ferland, who were injured during the qualifying round).

Sutter, in particular, looks revitalized, playing some of his best hockey as a Canuck over the last four games. Crucial veteran defencemen Edler and Tanev are averaging 22+ minutes per game, playing on fresh legs instead of being worn out after an 82-game regular season.

While all the other teams in the postseason had the same break, not all teams have been affected by injuries the same was as the Canucks over the past several seasons. Healthy veterans can only help the Canucks’ chances in the playoffs.

5 | The field is wide open

The oddity of this postseason means almost anything can happen. The defending Cup champion St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche dominated the Western Conference during the regular season, but how did the four-and-a-half month long layoff affect their momentum?

We’ve already seen teams like the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, and Pittsburgh Penguins experience setbacks and falter in the qualifying round, failing to make the playoffs. Who's to say the same won’t occur to teams like the Blues, Avalanche, or Golden Knights?

If ever there was a time for an underdog team to go on a run, this is it.

If you just want to live in a land of pure positivity and optimism (or you’re just not ready for any realistic cynicism) stop reading here. 

Like in Newtonian physics, there must be an equal and opposite reaction, so here are three reasons why the Canucks won’t be winning the Stanley Cup this year.

1 | They’re porous defensively

There’s a reason why so many people voted for Jacob Markstrom as the Canucks’ MVP this season. The Canucks gave up the second-highest rate of scoring chances against in the entire NHL at 5-on-5. Markstrom had to be magnificent to prevent that rate of scoring chances from turning into the second-highest rate of goals against as well.

While the Canucks’ defensive issues this season didn’t hurt them too badly against the Minnesota Wild, that’s partly because the Wild have strong depth at forward, but limited high-end offence. That’s not the case when you look at teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, who will be more readily able to take advantage of the Canucks’ defensive lapses.

2 | They can’t compare to the depth of the true contenders

The Canucks’ top-six is comparable with the best teams in the NHL, particularly their fantastic first line of J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Brock Boeser. Their second line anchored by Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat is solid as well, capable of playing in a matchup role and still chipping in some offence.

Things get dicier when you look at the bottom-six. Jay Beagle’s fourth line had some major struggles against the Wild, frequently getting hemmed into the defensive zone. Tyler Motte was great on the penalty kill, where his hustle and willingness to block shots rightfully earned him praise, but he didn’t look as good at 5-on-5.

Meanwhile, the third line barely even played. Adam Gaudette was awful in Game 1 and sat for the rest of the series, with the Canucks coy over whether he was “unfit to play” due to an injury or a healthy scratch. Antoine Roussel got a big goal, but averaged just 6:42 per game, unable to have the type of impact fans had hoped for when he was signed.

That’s the trouble: the forward depth of top teams like the Avalanche, Blues, and Golden Knights will eat the Canucks’ bottom-six forwards alive.

Even more concerning, injuries to Toffoli and Ferland have caused the Canucks to dip into their reserves, adding Jake Virtanen and Zack MacEwen to the lineup. Those have been positive additions, but the Canucks don’t have much other depth available if they have more injuries. Who’s next on the depth chart at forward? Justin Bailey? Kole Lind? That has to be a concern.

As fans are well aware from past playoff runs, injuries can be devastating to a team’s Cup hopes.

3 | There are too many great teams to beat

I’ve already mentioned the likes of the Avalanche, Blues, and Golden Knights, but the Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames likewise should not be overlooked. 

The Canucks will be facing the Blues or the Stars in the first round. Oddly enough, they’d probably prefer the defending champion Blues, who the Canucks went 2-0-1 against during the regular season. They lost both of their games to the Stars by a combined score of 10-to-3.

While the Canucks showed they could compete with the top teams in the West, with strong performances against all of them, it’s awfully hard to bet on them in a 7-game series, let alone multiple 7-game series. 

Looking at analytics, the Canucks are not highly favoured. The Golden Knights had the best expected goals percentage in the NHL at 5-on-5: 56.07%. The Canucks were 23rd at 48.35%. 

Even if they got out of the West, does this team have what it takes to take on a team like the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, or Washington Capitals? I would love to fully believe in the Canucks in these playoffs, but they’re just not at the same level yet as the true Cup contenders.

At the same time, isn’t that what makes a truly great Cinderella run? You’re not a true underdog until everyone doubts you and questions you: in other words, I’m providing an essential service to the Canucks by doubting they can win the Stanley Cup this year.

Prove me wrong, kids, prove me wrong.

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