The 20-game mark is often used as a benchmark for NHL teams and for good reason. Early in the season a single good or bad stretch of games can skew the perception of a team making one think that the team is better or worse than they really are.
By 20 games, however, a team has played essentially a quarter of the season. It should be fairly clear how good or bad a team is after 20 games.
The Vancouver Canucks just played their 20th game and the verdict is in: they’re appallingly bad.
The Pittsburgh Penguins handed the Canucks their 14th loss of the season, giving the Canucks a 6-12-2 record. That lands them 7th in the Pacific Division, ahead of only the Seattle Kraken, who have only played 18 games. Their minus-19 goal differential is 29th in the NHL, ahead of only three other teams.
The Canucks’ power play is 23rd in the NHL and their penalty kill is dead last, killing off just 63.1% of their penalties. But their underlying analytics suggest they’re not much better at 5-on-5 — their score-adjusted expected goals percentage is 28th in the NHL.
It’s not like you need the numbers in the case of the Canucks; they’re not revealing anything that isn’t immediately evident from just watching them, if you’re able to subject yourself to the experience.
On Wednesday, the Canucks were slow in every facet of the game. They were a step slow to every puck and when they did get the puck, they were too slow to move it. Their skating was sluggish, as they stopped moving their feet, and got overwhelmed by a Penguins team that is barely over .500 themselves.
“I thought we struggled with the speed of the game, quite honestly, at times,” said head coach Travis Green, adding, “When our team’s playing well, we’re moving the puck, we’re executing — I don’t think we’ve seen it quite throughout our lineup yet this year.”
It’s not just that the Canucks are bad, it’s that they appear to have no real answers for why they’re so bad. When things go wrong, like they did on Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they go really wrong and the Canucks are completely unable to recover.
“It’s getting exhausting coming in here and talking about the same things every time,” said captain Bo Horvat and after trying to answer why the team keeps struggling, he finally said, “I wish I had answers for you guys.”
Maybe the most accurate thing general manager Jim Benning said in his press conference last week is that the Canucks are “a fragile team right now.”
When J.T. Miller was asked by The Athletic’s Thomas Drance if the team is competing hard enough for each other, Miller took a deep breath, started to answer, then sighed and said, “Oh man.”
“I don’t know,” he continued. “I think sometimes we could probably do it a little more consistently, speaking honestly. When things aren’t going well for this stretch of time, it’s really, really hard mentally to stay the course and use our process to win games.”
Then he said: “I think when we get everybody to buy in, we’re a really hard team to play against.”
Drance followed up that statement with, “Is everyone buying in right now?”
There was a long pause after the question. To call it a pregnant pause would be an understatement: the pause gave birth to twins after a prolonged labour, raised those twins as a single mother, saw them graduate high school, go to college, get married, and have children of their own — the pause then saw her grandchildren grow up, live life, and find love as well, making the pause a great-grandmother, the proud matriarch of a grand lineage of pauses.
Only after the pause lived a long life and died of natural causes did Miller mutter an answer: “I don’t know.”
The answer seems obvious.
Like Miller looking pointedly at Drance during that pause, I watched this game.
- The Penguins utterly dominated the opening period and only didn’t score because Thatcher Demko. At one point on the Penguins’ first power play of the game, all four Canucks penalty killers ended up in the corner, leaving Sidney Crosby all alone in front. Call for the coaches’ heads as much as you want, I guarantee leaving Crosby wide open in the slot wasn’t part of any game plan or system they drew up. Fortunately, Demko came up with a sharp right pad save.
- I’m going to place the bulk of the blame on Tyler Myers and J.T. Miller on that one. Myers was the defenceman in front of the net who suddenly decided to join the battle in the corner, while Miller drifted from the middle of the ice to the sideboards, seemingly anticipating that Tucker Poolman would win the puck battle. Only Tyler Motte — the guy who originally was on the puck in the corner and arguably the only person who belonged in that puck battle — realized the danger and jumped out of the battle and tried to get to Crosby.
- The Penguins got chance after chance and Demko came up with save after save: Jake Guentzel on a 2-on-1, Dominik Simon on a 3-on-2, Jeff Carter on a 2-on-1, Bryan Dumoulin alone through the middle after a bad change. Demko had 16 saves in the first period alone.
- It seemed at times that Miller was the only player who gave a damn. He’s still not a good penalty killer, but at 5-on-5 he drove play for the Canucks. Shots on goal were 12-to-4 for the Canucks when he was on the ice at 5-on-5 and he was asserting himself physically as well, like when he tossed Mike Matheson to the ice in a battle down low.
- Miller even had the best chance of the first period for the Canucks, a shorthanded breakaway that backed Tristan Jarry right into his net. It didn’t result in a goal, unfortunately, primarily because Myers, trying to follow up the rush, accidentally cleared the puck off the goal line. It was an incredible defensive play, just on the wrong net.
- As you’ll see, this really wasn’t Myers’ night.
- Of course, even Miller seemed checked out by the end of the game. On one late shift, he drifted back to the point as his linemates, Brock Boeser and Nils Höglander, battled down low, seemingly knowing that they would lose said battle and the Penguins would break the puck out. He then coasted back to “defend” the rush, completely upright, feet stationary, safe in the knowledge that the Penguins were just riding the game out too. Can you blame him?
- Demko kept the Canucks in it in the first period but there wasn’t much he could do about the second. The Canucks lousy penalty kill struck again for the first goal as the NHL’s worst power play — yes, the Penguins have the league’s worst power play — looked unstoppable, whipping the puck around the offensive zone to set up a wide open one-timer for Bryan Rust, with Myers nowhere near the shooting lane. Rust must have been dipped in CLR in the first intermission because he looked shiny and new on that goal.
- The 2-0 goal came on a dreadful giveaway in the defensive zone by Quinn Hughes, but Myers once again played a role. Instead of skating to the opposite side of the ice to provide a passing outlet to his partner, Myers just stood behind the net. Hughes sent the puck to where he expected Myers to be and instead went to Evan Rodrigues. Myers stood still, watching Rodrigues load up his shot and the Penguins’ second-leading scorer made the most of that time and space to pick the top corner on the far side, ostensibly the side that Myers was meant to be blocking.
- Myers’ nightmare game continued on another penalty kill. He had plenty of time to clear a puck after a Miller faceoff win and, instead, he ripped the puck right into Miller’s arm. Fortunately, Miller was okay and Demko stopped the subsequent scoring chance.
- At least the third Penguins goal didn’t involve Myers. Instead, Tucker Poolman was at fault. At the end of a shift, Poolman inexplicably decided to lead the rush up the ice and made a terrible drop pass to Höglander. That created a 3-on-1 for the Penguins, making it all too easy for Brian Dumoulin to score.
- Four years. Poolman is signed for four years.
- Demko did his best to keep the Canucks in the game, making a ridiculous save in the splits on Jake Guentzel after Myers and Oliver Ekman-Larsson were both too casual going back for a puck. It’s almost incredible how long it takes Myers to recognize the danger and stop going behind the net: the puck is already on its way to Crosby before Myers even starts to change direction.
- I swear, I don’t mean to pile on Myers but it’s almost impossible not to after watching this game.
- It took a fantastic individual effort by Bo Horvat to finally break the shutout. Horvat went flying down the left wing, charged past Kris Letang on the outside, then drove to the net before sending a backhand just inside the post before colliding with Conor Garland and sending them both crashing to the ice because the Canucks couldn’t even score without making it a metaphor.
- That’s as close as the Canucks would get. Brock McGinn add an empty net goal to make it 4-1 and, just for good measure, the shot went past Myers as the last man back. Sorry, Myers, this game just had it out for you.