There is a lot of pressure on the Vancouver Canucks to make the playoffs this season.
There's the external pressure from the fans because the Canucks have missed the playoffs in seven of their last eight seasons, but there's also a lot of internal pressure to get to the postseason. Elias Pettersson is in the final year of his contract and in no rush to sign an extension. If the Canucks don't prove to their franchise forward that they're on the right path towards Stanley Cup contention, there's the distinct possibility that he could follow in the footsteps of Matthew Tkachuk — another franchise forward who forced a trade from the team that drafted him at the end of a three-year bridge contract.
The Canucks made some significant expenditures in the offseason to try to turn the Canucks into a playoff team. They executed one of the biggest buyouts in NHL history to cut ties with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, then immediately spent all of those cap savings to fill significant holes in the team's roster, bolstering the defence corps and centre depth, to the point that they had to trade away another draft pick to clear more cap space before the start of the season.
Did general manager Patrik Allvin do enough to tune the Canucks' roster to a playoff pitch?
If you ask Jim Rutherford, maybe.
"I think, to be very to the point, with the changes that have been made, we have a playoff team if everything goes right," said the Canucks' president of hockey operations at Wednesday's press conference ahead of the Canucks' training camp. "Your goalie has to be good, your specialty teams have to be good, you can't get into a lot of injuries."
That's perhaps not the biggest vote of confidence from Rutherford but it's a typically blunt assessment from the longtime hockey man, in the same vein as his criticism of Bruce Boudreau last season.
But it's also a fair statement. As he was quick to point out, the Canucks still have a lot of work ahead of them, saying, "I mean, we haven't even qualified for the playoffs yet."
He also added that the Canucks could still make the playoffs if one thing goes wrong: "We have some impact players that can win games by themselves." Between Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko, the Canucks have the elite pieces who can put the team on their back when the team falters.
What the Canucks should be aiming for, however, is not needing their top-tier players to carry the team when something goes wrong. The elite teams in the NHL — the true Stanley Cup contending teams — are able to overcome all sorts of adversity in a season. They can deal with injuries, even to top players, because they have quality depth throughout their organization. They can handle the penalty kill or power play struggling because they dominate possession at 5-on-5.
That's where Rutherford wants the Canucks to be.
"We want to get to a point that we have enough in our lineup that you can have a few things go wrong...and overcome that," he said.
The Canucks aren't there yet. They still lack centre depth that could reliably step into the top-six in case Pettersson or J.T. Miller gets hurt. Their defence is completely untested together as a unit. The power play lost one of its primary weapons and will have an entirely new coach-by-committee approach. And if the penalty kill struggles the way it has the past couple of seasons, then it will hardly matter how good the power play is.
Yes, everything has to go right for the Canucks to make the playoffs but they do deserve some credit: with the improved defence and bottom-six, the Canucks have made it a little bit more likely that everything will go right.