The Vancouver Canucks are on a roll to kick off the 2023-24 season.
Instead of just a potential bubble team, the Canucks are playing like a legitimate contender. They’re third in the NHL with an 8-2-1 record and a league-leading plus-26 goal differential — a far cry from the team that missed the playoffs in three straight seasons.
Elias Pettersson leads the NHL in scoring with 20 points in 11 games. Quinn Hughes leads all defencemen in scoring with 16 points in 11 games. Thatcher Demko is tied for the league lead in wins and shutouts and is near the top of the NHL with a sparkling .947 save percentage.
That’s not to mention J.T. Miller’s 16 points, Brock Boeser’s 8 goals and 13 points, and Filip Hronek’s 11 assists.
Things are going very well for the Canucks.
But they can’t let their foot off the gas.
Looking back at the last 8-2-1 Canucks team
For evidence of that, you just have to look at the last Canucks team to kick off the season with an 8-2-1 record: the 2005-06 Canucks. They stormed out to a start just as good as this season’s Canucks and were third in the NHL after 11 games. But, by the end of the season, the 2005-06 Canucks had missed the playoffs.
Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the Canucks were supposed to be Stanley Cup contenders. They were coming off winning the highly contentious Northwest Division in 2004 and looked like they ought to be even better in the 2005-06 season.
Their first line was the West Coast Express: Markus Näslund, Brendan Morrison, and Todd Bertuzzi. The second-line Sedins were about to have a breakout season alongside their new linemate, Anson Carter.
Second-year centre Ryan Kesler anchored the third line. The bottom-six had shift-disturbers Matt Cooke, Alex Burrows, and Jarkko Ruutu, along with veteran leadership from Trevor Linden.
When the Canucks jumped out to their 8-2-1 start, it seemed like exactly what was supposed to happen. This was a team with serious firepower, who had a chance to make a run to the Stanley Cup.
So, what went wrong? And are there any lessons in it for this season’s Canucks?
Key injuries took their toll
While the 2005-06 Canucks were stacked at forward, the defence was a problem, primarily because of injuries. Ed Jovanovski and Sami Salo each missed nearly half the season, which forced AHL journeyman Nolan Baumgartner into a major role, demanded heavy minutes from Mattias Öhlund and Bryan Allen, and had AHL call-ups like a rookie Kevin Bieksa pushed into roles they couldn’t yet handle.
Öhlund and Allen stayed mostly healthy, but losing Jovanovski and Salo for long stretches hurt the team significantly.
“The way we were winning early and being healthy, our team had a swagger that I didn’t know this team had before I came here,” said Anson Carter to Ben Kuzma of The Province at the end of the season. “There was a feeling we could win every single game. Then the injuries.
“Guys called up were playing minutes they couldn’t handle and guys were playing roles they weren’t ready for.”
Then there was the goaltending, which always seemed to be the Achilles heel for the West Coast Express-era Canucks.
Before the 2004-05 lockout, Dan Cloutier had the best season of his career, posting a .914 save percentage in 60 games for the 2003-04 Canucks and played well in the 2004 playoffs before suffering an injury. After a strong season in Austria during the lockout, it’s somewhat understandable that general manager Dave Nonis followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Brian Burke, and put his faith in Cloutier.
Maybe Cloutier could have lived up to that trust. We’ll never know because he suffered a concussion in a collision with Baumgartner, then tore his ACL. Cloutier played just 13 games that season.
In his stead, backup Alex Auld, who had played all of 14 NHL games before the 2005-06 season, had to carry the starter’s load. His backup, Maxime Ouellet, struggled, so Auld ended up appearing in 67 games for the Canucks.
To his credit, Auld’s .902 save percentage was above the league average of .901 — save percentages around the NHL plummeted as the league cracked down on hooking and holding coming out of the lockout and also enforced new limits on the size of goalie gear.
But Auld faltered down the stretch, giving up 4+ goals against in four of his final six starts, as the Canucks lost six of their last eight games to miss the playoffs by three points. It seems likely that the starter’s workload got the best of him at the end of the season.
A disastrous trade deadline
Despite the injury troubles, the Canucks were firmly in the playoff race at the 2006 trade deadline and Nonis looked to augment the roster with a few trades for the final push to the postseason. It’s just that the players he added were awful.
Nonis traded away two second-round picks, a third-round pick, and a fourth-round pick to add veteran defencemen Eric Weinrich, Sean Brown, and Keith Carney, as well as backup goaltender Mika Noronen.
Weinrich, in particular, was a disaster. He failed to tally a single point in his 16 games with the Canucks and was a minus-13. Carney and Brown weren’t much better.
Noronen was somehow even worse as a backup than Ouellet, making just two starts after the trade deadline and posting an .870 save percentage.
Weinrich, Carney, and Noronen were all out of the NHL after the 2005-06 season.
2023-24 Canucks can avoid the same fate
So, what can the current Canucks learn?
The most important lesson the Canucks can learn is to not take this start for granted. The 2005-06 Canucks were flying high early in the season before things fell apart. That's why Tocchet warned against getting "fat and happy" — they have to stay focused for the entire 82-game season
Staying healthy will be key. That’s easier said than done, as injuries are largely out of a player’s control. But if the Canucks’ core group stays healthy, the team should be in good shape to avoid what happened to the 2005-06 Canucks.
What’s more important is having the depth to deal with injuries if and when they happen.
The 2005-06 Canucks didn’t have the depth on defence to deal with Jovanovski and Salo spending half the season on injured reserve. It wasn’t just that Nolan Baumgartner was quarterbacking the first power play unit but that guys like Steve McCarthy and Wade Brookbank had to step into the lineup and could barely be trusted to play a regular shift.
The current Canucks might have the depth to deal with some injuries. They have forwards in bottom-six roles that could play higher up in the lineup in a pinch like Conor Garland, Anthony Beauvillier, and Nils Höglander, as well as options in the AHL like Arshdeep Bains, Nils Åman, Aatu Räty, and, when he’s healthy again, Vasily Podkolzin.
Their defensive depth is a little more suspect, but Akito Hirose, Cole McWard, Matt Irwin, Christian Wolanin, and maybe even Jett Woo could be called up if needed.
Don’t get me wrong: if the Canucks have to deal with injuries to their star players, they could be in serious trouble, but that’s true for most teams.
But the biggest difference in depth might be in net.
Obviously, setting health aside, the current Canucks having Thatcher Demko sets them miles apart from the 2005-06 Canucks with Cloutier.
But even if Demko gets injured, the Canucks have a reliable backup in Casey DeSmith and Arturs Silovs is a depth option they believe in. Nikita Tolopilo also has intriguing potential. They won't have to turn to the equivalent of Maxime Ouellet or Mika Noronen if things go sideways.
Most importantly, the Tocchet-coached Canucks are far more defensively sound than the Marc Crawford-coached 2005-06 Canucks. Since 2000, just three Canucks teams have given up more goals against than the 2005-06 Canucks.
The current Canucks can also learn not to trade draft picks for mediocre veteran players who are about to be out of the league. The Canucks are setting themselves up well in these early games to be in the playoff race for the rest of the year — they’ll need to be careful about how and if they add to the roster via trades.
The consequences of missing the playoffs
Failing to meet expectations and missing the playoffs led to big changes in 2006.
Marc Crawford was gone as head coach, replaced by Alain Vigneault. Ed Jovanovski left the team in free agency. Anson Carter surprisingly chose not to re-up with the Canucks after thriving alongside the Sedins, leaving in free agency as well, along with Nolan Baumgartner and Jarkko Ruutu.
Nonis brought in Jan Bulis, Taylor Pyatt, Marc Chouinard, and Willie Mitchell to replace the departing players.
But the biggest change came to the goaltending, as Dave Nonis made his signature move as a general manager, trading Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld, and Bryan Allen to the Florida Panthers for Roberto Luongo, Lukas Krajicek, and a sixth-round pick.
The addition of Luongo changed everything for the Canucks, propelling them back into first place in the Northwest Division the following season.
Could big changes come to the current Canucks if they fail to make the playoffs?