The start of the 2022-23 season hasn’t exactly gone to plan for the Vancouver Canucks.
Mired in a seven-game losing streak, the Canucks desperately need to find a way to win a game. There are a lot of reasons why the team is struggling to find a win. There have been defensive breakdowns, struggles to break the puck out cleanly, and Thatcher Demko hasn’t stolen games the way he’s shown he’s capable of doing in the past.
Not that it’s Demko’s fault, per se. He’s repeatedly faced shots that seemed impossible to stop. It’s just that Canucks fans have also seen him make seemingly impossible saves. Without Demko making those saves, the Canucks have been exposed.
There’s another factor that has made it tough for the Canucks to buy a win and break out of their early-season slump: injuries.
A multitude of injuries on defence
Injuries aren’t an excuse — every NHL team deals with them — but they certainly don’t make things any easier for a team that was already in a tough spot. The Canucks have the forward depth to deal with injuries fairly well but their defensive depth is lacking.
At the start of the season, the Canucks were missing two defencemen — Tyler Myers with a lower-body injury and Travis Dermott with a concussion — as well as newly-acquired top-nine winger Ilya Mikheyev with a lower-body injury. Even as Myers and Mikheyev returned to the lineup after three games, other players hit the injured list.
Tucker Poolman has played just three games this season and is now on long-term injured reserve with no timeline for a return. His 2021-22 season was ended by migraines, though there is no word on what is currently keeping him out of the lineup.
Riley Stillman hasn’t played since he took a hit to the head against the Minnesota Wild and is considered day-to-day.
That's not to say there are no forwards injured. Brock Boeser, after recovering from hand surgery in time for the season opener, missed Monday’s game with an undisclosed injury and is day-to-day. Curtis Lazar was added to the injured reserve on Wednesday and is expected to miss three to four weeks after trying to play through an undisclosed injury.
The injury that has hurt the most the last couple of games is to Quinn Hughes, a lower-body injury that head coach Bruce Boudreau called week-to-week, but general manager Patrik Allvin called day-to-day on Wednesday, saying he expects he’ll return next week.
Hughes is the only Canucks defenceman that can consistently evade the forecheck and break the puck out of the defensive zone. Without Hughes, the defence struggled in that area against the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes.
With Hughes, Dermott, Poolman, and Stillman all out of the lineup, the Canucks’ defensive depth is being sorely tested. The Canucks have already dressed ten defencemen this season — they’ve had seasons where they’ve never dressed that many, such as the 2019-20 season when they used just eight defencemen all year and one of them, Ashton Sautner, was for just one game.
"It's our veterans."
In place of the injured players, Kyle Burroughs has had to play a larger role and has mostly been up to the task. AHL call-ups Guillaume Brisebois and Noah Juulsen have stepped into third-pairing roles with varying degrees of success — Juulsen looks overwhelmed at the NHL level, but Brisebois played a simple game against the Hurricanes, avoiding mistakes and preventing dangerous chances.
The defencemen the Canucks really need more from, however, are veterans Oliver Ekman-Larrson and Tyler Myers, and rookie Jack Rathbone.
Ekman-Larsson and Myers were at least league average as a shutdown pairing last season — they regularly faced tough competition and, with the help of Demko behind them, kept the puck out of the net.
This season, they’re not doing as well. Myers’ injury to start the year doesn’t help, but it seems like Ekman-Larsson is playing even more conservatively than usual, keeping a wide gap to prevent being beaten wide with his diminished skating ability but, as a result, allowing opposing forwards to enter the Canucks’ zone far too easily.
Along with being too permissive, Ekman-Larsson’s puck management hasn’t been good enough. He had two bad giveaways in the home opener that led to goals against in the first period. Breakout passes have never really been the strength of Ekman-Larsson’s game — he was always better at skating the puck out but his declining mobility has limited his ability to do so.
Boudreau put the onus on the veterans after Saturday’s game.
“A lot of the defencemen that were in there were working their [butts off], the young guys anyway, doing what they could to help stem the tide,” said Boudreau. “But it’s our veterans, they’re the ones — the leaders have got to take this and say, ‘Okay, enough is enough.’ And if they don’t do it, then it’s a long year.”
Rathbone looks good but results haven't been
That said, what the Canucks really need is Jack Rathbone to step up his game.
Rathbone couldn’t crack the lineup through the first five games of the season, even as the Canucks rattled off repeated losses. It took injuries for Rathbone to finally get into the lineup for the home opener.
Now that he’s in the lineup, Rathbone looks the part of an NHL-caliber offensive defenceman. He has the puckhandling and skating ability to evade the forecheck, he can pass the puck crisply, and he seems to be the only Canucks defenceman apart from Hughes who actually acts as a catalyst in the offensive zone, attacking aggressively from the point with quick give-and-goes to open up passing lanes down low.
The trouble is that the results have not followed yet for Rathbone. When he’s been on the ice at 5-on-5, shot attempts have been 36-to-22 for the opposition and the Canucks have been outscored 3-to-0. His expected goals percentage from Natural Stat Trick is an appalling 17.74%, the lowest among Canucks defencemen, and high-danger chances have been 12-to-0 against.
That’s not entirely on Rathbone. He’s been hung out to try on occasion by his teammates — one of the Ekman-Larsson giveaways on Saturday led to one of those goals against with Rathbone on the ice — but he’s had some turnovers on his own.
But with Hughes out for the time being, Rathbone might be the Canucks’ only hope for getting some offensive punch from the back end. At some point, he has to start tilting the ice in the other direction. So far, as good as he’s looked, the Canucks are drowning when Rathbone has been on the ice.
New medical and training staff
The Canucks have an almost entirely new medical staff this season dealing with these early injuries. After the 2021-22 season, the Canucks let go of head athletic therapist Jon Sanderson and head strength-and-conditioning coach Roger Takahashi, both long-time employees. Two assistant athletic therapists, Dave Zarn and Nick Addey-Jibb were also dismissed, along with assistant strength-and-conditioning coach Ken Hetzel.
Josh Termeer, formerly with the Calgary Stampeders, is the Canucks' new head athletic therapist this season. Mark Cesari, a former strength-and-conditioning coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs, replaced Takahashi.
The Canucks also hired two chiropractors. Dr. Harry Sese, a chiropractor and massage therapist, was primarily known for his work with golfers before joining the Canucks as a health and performance consultant — he leads the strength-and-conditioning department.
Dr. Erik Yuill was the team chiropractor for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Vancouver Warriors before joining the Canucks.