“We need to figure out how to get in first and then anything can happen in the playoffs.”
That was former Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning back in 2021 describing what seemed to be the team’s guiding principle during his tenure: get to the playoffs and hope for the best.
It’s a principle that was seldom tested as he and his management team couldn’t figure out the first half of it — getting into the playoffs. It’s hard to say whether anything can happen in the playoffs when you never get there.
The Canucks’ management team headed up by Patrik Allvin has to have loftier goals than “anything can happen” even if one of the teams in the Conference Finals in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs seems to affirm the principle: the Florida Panthers.
The Carolina Hurricanes finished first in the Metropolitan Division with 113 points and a plus-53 goal differential. The Vegas Golden Knights were first in the Pacific Division with 111 points and a plus-43 goal differential. The Dallas Stars were second in the Central Division, one point short of first, but had the best goal differential in the Western Conference at plus-67.
Then there’s the Panthers. They barely snuck into the playoffs in the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, edging out the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres by a single point. Their plus-17 goal differential was the worst of all the teams in the playoffs.
But despite being the eight-seed, the Panthers upset the dominant, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round, then cruised to a five-game win over the 111-point Toronto Maple Leafs in the second. They’re technically the underdog in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Hurricanes, but no one is counting the Panthers out at this point.
With that in mind, the Panthers seem like a pretty good example of “anything can happen” once you get into the playoffs, right? After all, the Bruins looked like an unstoppable juggernaut, setting a new NHL record for most wins (65) and points (135) in a season. And yet, the Panthers stopped them.
The Panthers seem like a beacon of hope for a team like the Canucks, who don’t have a hope of being a dominant regular season team like the Bruins next year but could conceivably sneak into the playoffs in a wild card spot. Then, who knows? Maybe they too could pull off a couple of upsets and find themselves with a legitimate shot at the Cup.
Fortunately, there are just a few easy directions for following in Florida’s footsteps. Let’s go through them one by one.
Step one: Win the Presidents’ Trophy in the previous season
Before you can be a Cinderella team like the Panthers, you have to be the best team in the NHL first. Look, I don’t make the rules.
That may seem like a pretty ludicrous first step, but it’s important to keep in mind that the Panthers are not your typical eight-seed. The Panthers won the 2022 Presidents’ Trophy with the best record in the regular season. Their 58 wins that season are tied for the sixth-most in NHL history.
“2022 Presidents’ Trophy winners eliminated 2023 Presidents’ Trophy winners from playoffs” starts to sound like a little bit less of a Cinderella story already.
So, first step for the Canucks is to build one of the best teams in the NHL. Easy, right?
Step two: Make an unexpected coaching change
Winning the Presidents’ Trophy seemingly ought to give an NHL head coach some job security but not in Florida.
Andrew Brunette was only supposed to be an interim head coach when he led the Panthers to a 58-18-6 record in the 2021-22 season, not only winning the Presidents’ Trophy but also finishing second in Jack Adams voting for coach of the year. That wasn’t enough to shed the “interim” tag from his job title.
Instead, the Panthers swapped him out for a coach who holds the NHL record for the most career losses and the most games coached without a Stanley Cup: Paul Maurice, who had voluntarily resigned from coaching the Winnipeg Jets the previous season when he recognized he had lost the room and they needed a new voice. Maurice wasn’t even sure he would coach again until he got the call from Panthers general manager Bill Zito.
It was a bold choice and looked like a terrible one when the Panthers stumbled in the first half of the season and found themselves below .500, well outside of playoff position.
In the playoffs, however, Maurice’s hard-forechecking system gave the Bruins and Leafs fits and he pulled the trigger on tough decisions like handing the reins to Sergei Bobrovsky after Alex Lyon struggled, despite the young goaltender playing a major role in getting the Panthers to the playoffs.
Maybe the Canucks have already done this one by hiring Rick Tocchet to replace Bruce Boudreau but it wasn't particularly unexpected considering Boudreau was left hanging for weeks.
Step three: Make a blockbuster trade to acquire a top-five player
It should be an obvious point, but Presidents’ Trophy-winning teams don’t typically blow up their roster in the off-season, even if they fall short in the playoffs.
Take the 2011-12 Canucks, for instance. They won their second-straight Presidents’ Trophy in 2012 and, despite losing in the first round to the Los Angeles Kings, came back with essentially the same roster for the 2012-13 season. That worked out great, right up until they got swept in the first round by the San Jose Sharks.
The Panthers weren’t satisfied with their regular-season success and second-round sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. When Matthew Tkachuk became available from the Calgary Flames, the Panthers went all-in on acquiring what they felt was the player to put them over the top.
It was an incredibly bold move by the Panthers, trading their leading scorer in Huberdeau and their best defensive defenceman in Weegar, along with a prospect and a 2025 first-round pick for a single star player.
It could have majorly backfired, as the Panthers had already traded their 2023 and 2024 first-round picks in the previous season to acquire Ben Chiarot and Claude Giroux, both rentals who left in the off-season. At least this time the trade gave them a player signed long-term.
The trade gave the Panthers a younger, better forward than Huberdeau and they had the defensive depth to absorb the loss of Weegar. Tkachuk immediately made good on the Panthers’ investment: his 109-point season led to a nomination as a Hart Trophy finalist and he’s a favourite for the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
Can the Canucks do something similar? Well, maybe. If the Leafs decide that they need to make major changes this off-season after yet another playoff disappointment, a big-name player might be made available via trade. But the Canucks don’t have a lot of cap flexibility and few significant assets to spare.
Step four: Be a dominant puck possession team
Despite numerous injuries to some of their top players, the Panthers were one of the top teams in the NHL this season. At least, they were by the analytics.
The Panthers were third in adjusted corsi percentage at 5-on-5 during the regular season, fourth in scoring chance percentage, and seventh in expected goals percentage. In other words, they significantly out-shot and out-chanced their opponents at 5-on-5.
“Our analytics are way better than our record,” said Maurice at one point during the season. “I think in Winnipeg, my analytics were way worse than the record, so I can’t use that as an argument here. I was always saying, ‘Analytics don’t matter.’ Now I’m saying, ‘Hey, look at the analytics!’”
The team’s outstanding underlying numbers at 5-on-5 didn’t turn into wins primarily because their penalty kill was dreadful, giving up 70 power play goals against — the fourth-most in the NHL. It didn’t help that they were the most penalized team in the league during the regular season, giving their opponents plenty of opportunities to score.
The Panthers’ penalty kill severely undercut their strong 5-on-5 play and it nearly cost them the series against the Bruins. They gave up 11 power play goals to the Bruins in the seven-game series with a 59.3% penalty kill, including seven power play goals in the final three must-win games as they came back from a 3-1 series deficit.
But the team’s puck-possession dominance showed that they were maybe not as much of an underdog as they seemed.
The Canucks, incidentally, were 24th in the NHL in adjusted corsi at 47.02%. They were slightly better if you look at just their games under Rick Tocchet: very slightly at 47.99%.
Step five: Have your struggling goaltender go HAM
Sergei Bobrovsky is the highest-paid goaltender in the NHL but he hasn’t played like it for some time. His .901 save percentage this season is miles from the .932 and .931 he posted during his two Vezina-winning seasons and it was AHL journeyman Alex Lyon who took over down the stretch to get the Panthers into the playoffs.
But after taking over from Lyon against the Bruins, Bobrovsky has been brilliant.
His .918 save percentage may not jump off the page, dragged down by two games where the high-powered Bruins scored five goals, but Bobrovsky’s had some outstanding performances: 44 saves in Game 5 against the Bruins and 50 saves in Game 5 against the Leafs definitely stand out.
The Canucks, at least, can hope that they have this step covered with Thatcher Demko. Well, not the struggling part, because if Demko struggles during the regular season, the Canucks won’t be getting anywhere near the playoffs, but as Canucks fans (and the Vegas Golden Knights) know, Demko can dominate in the playoffs.