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IWTG: Canucks can't keep up with fast-paced Maple Leafs in 7-3 loss

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, we weren’t good tonight.”
Jason Spezza recorded his eighth career hat trick in the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks. graphic: Dan Toulgoet and Freepik

Corey Perry is on a one-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens worth $750,000. He started the season on the taxi squad, but got called up to play the Vancouver Canucks after injuries struck. He immediately scored a goal in a 5-2 win and, a week later, added an assist in another game against the Canucks, giving him 2 points in 3 games.

I bring up Perry because another former star forward on a cheap contract scored on the Canucks on Thursday night, though he did a little more damage than Perry.

Jason Spezza plays on the Leafs’ fourth line and, despite playing on both the power play and penalty kill, has averaged under 10 minutes per game in ice time this season. He’s on a one-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs worth a league-minimum $700,000.

On Thursday night, in just 17 shifts and 12:17 in ice time, Spezza scored a hat trick on Thatcher Demko.

Incredibly, it’s possible to acquire experienced veterans to provide bottom-six depth without breaking the bank (or your salary cap). And it turns out that veterans who used to be able to score goals can occasionally still score goals. 

Corey Perry once scored 50 goals and won the Rocket Richard and the Hart. Spezza was a consistent 30-goal scorer in his twenties. Now they’re both savvy veterans in their thirties that can still provide solid two-way play, while also knowing what to do with the puck when they get a scoring chance.

And their current contracts pay them $750,000 and $700,000, respectively. Imagine that.

I’m about the same age as Perry and Spezza, but, regrettably, no one paid me $700,000 to watch this game.

  • “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, we weren’t good tonight,” said Bo Horvat after the game, and boy howdy, was he right on with that assessment. Whoever invented the phrase “stink on ice” must have been a time traveler that watched the Canucks play this game.
  • The Canucks were out-shot 37-to-19. Scoring chances were 37-to-15, so it wasn’t a bunch of shots from distance either. Like the bourgeoisie in a Marxist revolution, the Canucks were out-classed. 
  • “It’s not our goaltender’s fault,” said Horvat. “We give up way too many Grade-A opportunities. That’s just committing to playing defence, playing hard in our own end, and spending more time in the offensive zone. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but the more time we spend in the offensive zone, the better. That comes with playing great defensively and we’re not playing good defensively right now.”
  • On the plus side, the Canucks didn’t commit as many turnovers as they did against the Canadiens. Instead, this game was all about defensive breakdowns and missed assignments. It’s nice to shake things up now and then so the season doesn’t get stale and repetitive.
  • There have been debates among fans whether their system is to blame for the Canucks’ defensive issues, but it doesn’t seem to be a concern shared by the players. Horvat talked about needing to stick to the systems and J.T. Miller mentioned trusting the system and said, “Our structure seems to be fine.” Head coach Travis Green, however, said they are looking to make some changes, but gave a rueful laugh when I asked him if the team even had enough practice time to make changes.
  • “We’ve subtly been changing a couple things here and there from game-to-game, a couple things in our neutral zone play,” said Green. “We’ve talked about making a few bigger changes, I’d call them, but you’re right, you need some practice time for some of those.”
  • Miller’s diagnosis: a lack of tenacity in puck battles: “We’re losing puck battles way too often and with that comes more time in your own end and you’re more tired, you have more breakdowns, and it’s hard to score and be on offence. It’s not even really about turnovers for us right now — sometimes it is, a couple games ago it was — but for the most part it’s about tenacity. They broke out cleaner than us, we didn’t get enough stalls, and didn’t play enough time in the O-zone.”
  • Miller definitely didn’t get a stall on the opening goal. Covering for a pinching Quinn Hughes at the point, Miller got caught flat-footed and Auston Matthews burned past him in the neutral zone and fired a quick shot that surprised Demko and beat him five-hole.
  • After the game, Miller took responsibility for the goal: “I thought I was playing left defence and when he went to the right, I just froze, thinking Benn would be on my right… It was my fault.” Honestly, Benn should have come across to deal with the onrushing Matthews, leaving Miller to take the other Leafs forward, who was skating backwards with less speed. Even after Matthews beat Miller, Benn could have come across and forced a tougher shot, but he stayed in the middle and never even reached out his stick.
  • The Canucks’ best line on the night was Tanner Pearson, Elias Petterson, and Nils Höglander, with Pearson tallying a team-high five shots on goal. They responded with a goal greasier than Roberto Luongo’s hair. Pettersson gained the zone between four Leafs skaters, then got the puck to Höglander, who tapped the puck up between his own skates, won a battle on the boards, then got it to the front of the net, where Pearson repeatedly banged away until the puck popped over Frederik Andersen’s shoulder.
  • The Leafs regained the lead a few minutes later on the power play thanks to a bomb of a slap shot from Spezza, who once shot a puck 103.8 mph at a skills competition. That was nine years ago, but the old man’s still got it, beating Demko cleanly past the blocker.
  • It’s easy to blame Hughes for Matthews’ 3-1 goal, but it looked more like another breakdown caused by a forward playing defence. Pettersson was tracking Mitch Marner back and made a great pokecheck to knock the puck away, but then Marner took the puck behind the net, Pettersson cut across the crease to chase him, and Marner slipped a pass back against the grain that Matthews chipped in with Demko looking the other way. If Pettersson had stopped up at the post, he and Hughes could have switched off and Pettersson would have been in position to pick off the pass to Matthews. But Pettersson isn’t a defenceman and doesn’t think like one.
  • Like a terrible snake trainer, the Canucks stayed within striking distance, scoring 22 seconds later to make it 3-2. Marner tried to clear a puck up the boards, but Nate Schmidt kept it in. His shot took a deflection, but Brock Boeser was able to kick the puck out to Miller, who lined up for a shot, then sent a perfect pass to Horvat for an open net. 
  • Unfortunately, the Leafs made it 4-2 a few minutes later. Adam Gaudette didn’t stay above his man on the Leafs’ breakout, resulting in a 3-on-2. Nic Petan sent a lovely saucer pass to Spezza, who ripped the puck top shelf without hesitation. Demko didn’t stand a chance.
  • The 5-2 goal was particularly frustrating because it came after a strong fourth-line shift for the Canucks. When the Leafs mounted a counterattack, however, Tyler Motte made like Kate McCallister and lost track of his boy, John Tavares, who was wide open at the top of the crease for a tap-in goal.
  • Jalen Chatfield probably should've gotten a penalty for this hit. Okay, definitely. Not sure how he didn't, to be honest.
  • Spezza completed the hat trick by ruthlessly embarrassing Alex Edler. It was, frankly, unkind. I’d make a joke about respecting your elders, but Spezza is three years older than Edler.
  • Miller tried to spark a Canucks comeback midway through the third period with a sick snipe on the power play. Hughes made a nice play to pick the puck off the boards and swing it around to Miller, and he loaded up the shot in the left faceoff circle and ripped a wrist shot just inside the near post.
  • Miller’s spirits were not exactly buoyed by the two-point night: “Honestly, that might have been the only two times in the O-zone I had the puck today, so I was lucky.”
  • That’s all the offence the Canucks had in them. The Leafs didn’t let up, hemming the fourth line in the defensive zone for a long, exhausting shift before Marner stepped off the bench and mercifully ended it with a wicked wrist shot from the top of the right faceoff circle.
  • “To be honest, I thought we looked like a very tired team tonight playing against a fast, skilled team,” said Green. “We were a day late, a second behind everywhere on the ice. Simple passes when you’re tired and you’re a step behind, even passing, they’re on top of you...We looked like a team that was getting beat to every loose puck.”
  • Miller summed things up after the game: “We’ve done a lot of talking. It’s time to just play, and play better.”