Early in Sunday’s disappointing game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Vancouver Canucks did something stunning: they killed a penalty.
Then, miraculously, they killed two more. It was the first time they had killed every penalty in a game since October 26. Prior to Friday’s game when they didn’t take a penalty, they’d given up at least one — usually two — power play goals in ten straight games.
It was a cause for celebration. And that’s really sad.
It speaks to how low the bar has become for the Canucks. Killing off three penalties in a single game is something the average NHL team does on a regular basis but for Canucks fans desperately grasping at any straw that might represent the team turning a corner, it’s an accomplishment.
It’s not just the penalty kill either. At this point, Canucks fans are celebrating when the team has one good shift.
"It’s not great when you come off without a goal."
On Sunday, Conor Garland, Elias Petterson, and Vasily Podkolzin had a fantastic shift together in the offensive zone. It was a makeshift line shortly after a power play but they seemed to instantly find some chemistry. They won puck battles, cycled the puck, and found open ice to create the team’s best scoring chances of the game, even if they couldn’t find the back of the net.
It was a brief ray of light in the darkness. It was also just one shift. Canucks fans, so starved for something positive, were irate that line didn’t play together for the rest of the game.
Garland, on the other hand, had a more measured take on the shift.
“It’s not great when you come off without a goal,” he said. “We had a lot of chances, moved it pretty well, the D were really active — [Tyler Myers] did a great job driving through a couple times.
“You want to play like that most shifts and when you get a chance to bury it, we’ve just got to bury it.”
That’s the key: that’s how you want to play in most shifts. One shift — a shift where you didn’t score a goal — is not enough. The bar is set way, way too low.
"You could see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel."
It was also a good game for Pettersson, but “good” is relative when the bar has been lowered so far. Two years ago, a good game for Elias Pettersson meant he had a three-point night and dominated puck possession. Now, it means he maybe made a few decent passes, took a couple of shots, and tried to deke, even if he didn’t succeed.
“I thought Petey was a little better tonight,” said head coach Travis Green. “I thought you could see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel with his game. I thought he took a step tonight for sure.”
When Pettersson entered the league, he raised the bar for the Canucks. His fiery start to his rookie season had people drawing comparisons to Teemu Selanne, Pavel Datsyuk, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Alexander Ovechkin. Wayne Gretzky even compared him, strangely enough, to Michael Jordan.
Pettersson broke Pavel Bure’s franchise record for rookie scoring, so there’s yet another comparison. The bar was set high for the young Swede as he was compared with so many current and future Hall of Famers and he followed up his rookie year with a strong sophomore campaign after which a legitimate argument could be made that he was one of the best players in the NHL.
You can argue that the bar for Pettersson was too high to begin with but there’s no way it should be lowered so far that 10 points in 19 games and “light at the end of the tunnel” is enough.
"We should set our expectations at making the playoffs."
But here’s the thing: even if the Canucks were playing up to expectations, those expectations were remarkably low as well.
The extent of the Canucks’ dreams for this season was to make the playoffs. That was the goal. The one player who even mentioned the Stanley Cup at training camp was Garland.
“In the years prior, we really didn't have a legitimate shot to really get in and make a run at it,” said Garland, referring to his time with Oliver Ekman-Larsson in Arizona. “So the excitement going into training this summer and the thought of the reality of being able to play for a Stanley Cup this year is something that gets you excited.”
Evidently, he hadn’t been in Vancouver long enough to lower his expectations. Bo Horvat had that lowered bar ready to go, however.
“I think we should set our expectations at making the playoffs,” said Horvat at training camp. “That's what we want to do and that's how we have to play right off the bat.”
To quote Eames from the movie Inception, “You musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
The bar was set so much higher for past GMs
A few years ago, the goal was just to be playing meaningful games in March. Those are expectations fit for a rebuilding team that understands they’re unlikely to be competitive in a given year, but they can’t be the expectations for a team eight years into a general manager’s tenure that has traded first-round picks in back-to-back years.
That’s the problem. GM Jim Benning went all-in this season not to have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup but just to get into the playoffs.
Prior to Benning’s hiring as GM, the Canucks missed the playoffs in just three of the previous 13 seasons. Even then, just making the playoffs wasn’t considered good enough.
Brian Burke was let go as GM after making the playoffs in four straight years but getting out of the first round just once. It didn’t seem to matter that the team had gone to Game 7 in their last two playoff series — the bar was set higher than that.
Dave Nonis got just three seasons. He missed the playoffs twice and was gone.
Mike Gillis took the team to back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and one game from the Stanley Cup. His team missed the playoffs once after five straight seasons in the playoffs and he was fired.
The bar was set high for those three GMs. Why has it sunk so low over the past eight seasons?
The high-water mark for Benning was the 2020 playoffs in the bubble. That team squeaked into the playoffs in an unprecedented qualifying round necessitated by a global pandemic, defeated a St. Louis Blues team that had been hit hard by said pandemic, then rode incredible goaltending against the Vegas Golden Knights.
That was an entertaining but not great team. Calling them a great team is an example of lowering the bar. But it’s also the best team that Canucks fans have seen in the past eight years.
It can’t be enough for the bar to be set at making the playoffs, maybe, if everything goes right. The expectation has to be to build a truly great team where making the playoffs is the base level of success, not the end goal — a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup, not by happenstance or by getting lucky, but because they’re legitimately one of the best teams in the NHL.
That’s where the bar should be set.