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I Watched This Game: Canucks' lack of 'little plays' leads to loss to Rangers

"We had four or five guys, who were just — they weren’t good,” said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet.
The Vancouver Canucks couldn't complete the comeback against the New York Rangers. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

“Nobody tanks because we have a weighted lottery,” said Gary Bettman last month in one of the most brazen lies in his 30 years as commissioner of the NHL.

As an answer to the “evils” of tanking, a weighted lottery does very little. While it means that the team in last place isn’t guaranteed the first-overall pick in the next NHL Entry Draft, they still get the best odds at the first-overall pick and are guaranteed to pick no later than third. 

That makes it particularly tempting to tank In a year like this one where even if you don’t get the consensus number one prospect in Connor Bedard, the second tier of the 2023 draft has three prospects in Leo Carlsson, Adam Fantilli, and Matvei Michkov that would go first-overall in any other year. Finishing in last place this season guarantees a first-overall talent. 

Every team at the bottom of the standings knows, the more you lose, the better the odds of picking first and, even if you don’t win the lottery, you can’t fall any further than two picks. 

In other words, the incentives to tank for a better position in the draft are still there and it’s obvious that several teams this season are blatantly tanking. Even teams that weren’t tanking to start the season but currently find themselves out of the battle for the playoffs are fully aware that, at this point in the season, losing is better than winning.

For a lot of fans, it feels perverse to prefer losing to winning. Some fans even valiantly declare that they’ll never do it but it has to be somewhere in the back of your mind that every win lessens the odds of drafting Bedard or another elite prospect.

For the Vancouver Canucks, every loss matters. They’re currently tied with the Montreal Canadiens for 26th overall with identical 20-27-4 records. They’re just one point up on the San Jose Sharks and four points clear of the Arizona Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks. With a losing streak and some help from those other teams, the Canucks could find themselves in 30th by the end of the season, guaranteeing themselves a top-five pick.

That’s not likely to happen, of course. The Canucks aren’t quite bad enough to sink that far, especially with a new head coach to impress and the expected return of their star goaltender. It’s far more likely that the Canucks will find their groove with a late-season winning streak, talk about how they need to play that way right from game one next season, and pick 12th overall in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.

There have been all sorts of proposals to eliminate tanking but there’s really only one way to remove the incentive to lose.

Get rid of the draft and introduce relegation.

With no draft to deliver the best players to the worst teams, there’s no reason to finish at the bottom of the NHL standings. Relegation — sending the bottom teams to a lower league and promoting the top teams from that lower league to the NHL — would incentivize winning every game that you can, right to the final game of the season.

Of course, that’s never going to happen for dozens of reasons, both logistical and philosophical. The current system may not be perfect but it at least gives every team in the NHL a chance at acquiring one of the top prospects in the NHL instead of that prospect going to the team with the most money. 

But if you’re going to have a draft, you have to accept the reality that some teams are going to tank. Denying it’s happening just makes you sound foolish, Gary.

I saw the Canucks come scarily close to making their draft position worse when I watched this game.

  • The nice thing about coming in as a new coach of a team that’s in the NHL’s basement is that the results don’t really matter. No one’s going to judge Tocchet for losing a lot of games down the stretch — in fact, for many fans, that’s preferable — and he’s himself said that he’s focused on process, not results. It’s a shame, then, that the Canucks’ process was so poor on Wednesday in New York against the Rangers.
  • “Some guys just weren’t ready to play tonight,” said Tocchet. “We’ve got to value little plays — wall plays when you have nothing, the puck has to go deep. There’s bad habits that filter in that we have to get rid of.”
  • At least the penalty kill was perfect, killing off all three Rangers power plays, though it was a close shave. On the first power play of the game, Mika Zibanejad drilled the underside of the crossbar with a one-timer off a cross-seam pass through a lane in the slot so wide that Joel and Ellie could have driven Bill’s Chevy Silverado through it.  
  • The Rangers opened the scoring shortly after. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, and J.T. Miller all seemed to assume that one of the other two was going to stay back to cover a potential counter, so none of them did and Victor Trocheck moved in 2-on-1 with Chris Kreider and slipped a pass by Luke Schenn for a tap-in goal. Ekman-Larsson carries the bulk of the blame, as he had no business cheating in off the blue line in that situation.
  • Just over a minute later, it was 2-0. Riley Stillman lost his stick while trying to check Kaapo Kakko, so couldn’t keep him from moving the puck to Filip Chytil. That might have been okay if Sheldon Dries knew that Chytil was there but he clearly had no idea. As far as Dries could tell, Chytil portaled onto the ice like Wong, and all he could do was go to one knee to block a shot that never came, as Chytil instead used all the open space Dries gave him to cut to the backhand for a pretty goal.
  • The Rangers’ penalty kill was fascinating. In the absence of Bo Horvat’s scoring threat in the middle, the Rangers had Chris Kreider playing tight man-on-man defence on Elias Pettersson, giving him no time and space. Kreider basically gave the Canucks a 4-on-3 power play behind him but the Canucks couldn’t take advantage, even when two Rangers penalty killers broke/lost their sticks. The Canucks only got one power play, so there wasn’t a chance to see if the Rangers repeated the strategy, but it was an interesting insight into who opposing teams see as the biggest power play threat on the Canucks.
  • If the process wasn’t working for the Canucks, they still had some star power. They got on the board thanks to an individual effort by Quinn Hughes. He picked up the puck in the defensive zone then made like Anne Heggtveit and slalomed his way through the neutral zone to gain the Rangers’ blue line, then held onto the puck while his teammates changed behind him, and drew all attention to himself before feeding a streaking Conor Garland for the snapshot finish. 
  • The second period saw Brock Boeser promoted up to the top line with Pettersson and Anthony Beauvillier. He was quietly effective against the Devils with his details — which the devil is in, incidentally — and seems to have made an impression on Tocchet, even if he didn’t make an impression on the scoresheet.
  • Andrei Kuzmenko wasn’t on the ice for any goals against but it was evident that Tocchet saw something he didn’t like in his game, as he was dropped down the lineup in favour of Boeser. Kuzmenko finished with just 12:00 in ice time and had just one shift in the final ten minutes as the Canucks pushed for the comeback. Kuzmenko got his new contract based on putting up points with Pettersson under Bruce Boudreau, so if Tocchet cuts his ice time because of defensive miscues, that could seriously limit his effectiveness.
  • “We had four or five guys, who were just — they weren’t good,” said Tocchet. “I’ve played the game, I’ve been bad myself, but if you’re bad — if you don’t have it — you’ve got to make sure that you get the puck in deep or that you’re in good position. You can’t be bad in every area and I thought we had five guys that were just not good…[Kuzmenko] wasn’t good tonight. He was spinning everywhere but it’s not just him.”
  • The Rangers got a bounce to extend their lead to 3-1 in the second period. Jacob Trouba’s point shot hit Beauvillier’s stick up high, then shimmied between the skates of Hughes and Alexis Lafrenière towards the net before Lafrenière made sure it got past the stick of the diving Spencer Martin. 
  • The bounces went both ways, though the Canucks had to work a bit harder for theirs. J.T. Miller hustled hard on the forecheck and picked off pass from Ryan Lindgren. Blind backhand passes have gotten Miller in trouble but this was the right time for one, as he sent a long pass to Vasily Podkolzin who was coming off the bench. Podkolzin loaded up a shot that didn’t rocket into the top corner like he planned, but instead deflected off Artemi Panarin and fluttered like a butterfly past Igor Shesterkin, off the post, and in. If you were only listening on the radio, however, it sounded like a bar down laserbeam of a shot, though. 
  • A couple of Canucks defencemen took some hard knocks but came back. Luke Schenn limped off the ice after he got an interference penalty on Panarin and, when he returned, wasn’t sitting at the bench, causing the broadcast to theorize he hurt his back. Meanwhile, Quinn Hughes took a puck to the nose and left for repairs, returning with a couple of black eyes and a full face shield that made him look a bit like a fish that was sad about being in a fishbowl that was too small for him.
  • The Rangers got another bounce in the third. I knew he was Trouba when he walked in from the point, then fired a shot that Zibanejad tipped down. The puck bounced off the ice, then off Tyler Myers’ shinpad and past Martin to make it 4-2. 
  • Here’s the thing: that bounce doesn’t happen if the Canucks took care of some of the “little plays” that Tocchet talked about. Before the goal, Curtis Lazar missed a puck along the boards, then Nils Åman lost a board battle, then Myers missed another puck along the boards, and then Stillman failed to tie up Zibanejad’s stick. All those little moments added up to a chance for a bad bounce.
  • Pettersson quickly responded just 11 seconds later. Beauvillier missed a pass from Hughes and the puck went the length of the ice for icing — at least, that’s what the Rangers thought, anticipating the whistle and foolishly going into cruise control like Sandra Bullock. Pettersson, however, never stopped chasing the puck, beating out the icing and chipping the puck through Shesterkin after it came off the boards to the front of the net. 
  • Here’s the thing about no-touch icing: everyone thinks it’s a race to the faceoff dots or hashmarks, but that’s not the case. The rule says that icing is determined based on “which player (attacking or defending) would first touch the puck” in the judgment of the linesmen. It was clear that Pettersson was going to be first to touch the puck, so the right call was made.
  • It ultimately didn’t matter. The Canucks couldn’t ride the momentum boost from the quick-response goal to a full-fledged comeback, picking up an important zero points in the draft lottery race.