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The Canucks can’t afford to believe their own hype

It’s easy to get hyped up for the future of the Canucks, who can only get better from here. Right?
Tyler Motte celebrates, Jason Franson, CP
Tyler Motte celebrates a goal during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. photo: Jason Franson, CP

Every time the Canucks were counted out in the postseason, they counted themselves right back in again. 

Doubts flickered into existence as soon as they were shut out 3-0 in the first game against the Minnesota Wild, but were quenched by the Canucks following that up with three straight wins to take the five game series. The doubts resurfaced again when the St. Louis Blues asserted themselves in Games 3 and 4 to tie the series 2-2, but the Canucks wouldn’t lose to the Blues again.

Then the Vegas Golden Knights pushed the Canucks to the brink of elimination, dominating them with disconcerting ease. To top it off, the goaltender that had carried the Canucks this far was hurt and they needed to turn to their young backup. The doubts could not have loomed any larger.

And yet, the Canucks did push the series to seven games and, with a more potent power play in that final game, could have pulled off the upset.

It was a thrilling playoff run for Canucks fans that hadn’t seen their team in the playoffs for four-straight seasons. It was particularly exciting to see players like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes in the playoffs for the first time. It’s easy to get hyped up for the future of the Canucks, who can only get better from here.

Right?

The truth is, getting better is never guaranteed. Expecting linear progression in a sport as chaotic as hockey is just asking for trouble, even when your team has exciting young talent.

For proof, Canucks fans can just look one province over at the Calgary Flames. Five years ago, the Flames beat the Canucks in the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs before losing in the second round to a strong Anaheim Ducks team. 

That was the Flames’ first trip to the playoffs in six years and they were loaded with young talent like rookie Johnny Gaudreau, two-way star Sean Monahan, top-pairing defenceman T.J. Brodie, and 18-year-old Sam Bennett. Surely the Flames were on the upswing and, with the infusion of another young talent like Dougie Hamilton, would be a true Cup contender in short order, right?

It didn’t work out that way. Instead, the Flames missed the playoffs in two of the next three seasons and haven’t been out of the first round of the playoffs since they beat the Canucks. Now there are legitimate calls for the Flames to trade Gaudreau, as the Flames' dreams of building a Cup contender around their current core are creeping out of reach.

The Flames are a cautionary tale for the Canucks, one worth exploring in greater detail in the future. For now, the most important thing for the Canucks is to avoid believing in their own hype.

In other words, the Canucks have to be careful that they don’t overvalue a surprise playoff run in evaluating how good their current team is and where they still need to improve. What they need is brutal honesty.

Head coach Travis Green has frequently talked about how much he appreciates his team’s coachability and how he can be honest with each player about their performance, knowing they will take it constructively. Now, the Canucks need that same honesty from their management as they look to get better and construct a roster that can take the lessons learned in this past season and improve for the future.

For example, the Canucks were quick to talk up their ability to defend the middle of the ice against the Golden Knights, brushing away concerns about giving up a lot of shots by suggesting they were limiting truly dangerous shots. It’s a common refrain from teams that have outperformed their underlying shot attempt numbers.

In his media availability on Tuesday, Canucks GM Jim Benning felt that this was an area where the Canucks had improved significantly and it was a good sign for the future.

“I thought we were way better defensively when we showed up in Edmonton,” said Benning. “We may have allowed a lot of shots against, but they were from the outside. We took away second and third opportunities from the high-danger scoring areas of the ice.”

“You look at the final four teams that are playing now,” he added, “they’re all good defensive teams. So that was a step that we took as a group and as a team.”

If this is something Benning is saying after careful evaluation of the team’s performance and not just something he’s saying to the media, then it’s a cause for concern. Why? Because it’s just not true.

At 5-on-5, the Canucks allowed the second-highest rate of shot attempts and shots on goal of any team in the playoffs. That much is true. But they also allowed the third-highest rate of scoring chances against and high-danger chances against. 

If we allow our statistics to get a little fancier, the Canucks had the second-highest rate of expected goals against in the playoffs, second only to the Chicago Blackhawks, who honestly had no business even being in the playoffs. 

Here’s the real difference: the Canucks’ goaltenders together had an .893 save percentage on high-danger chances at 5-on-5, second best in the playoffs. That’s why they didn’t give up a lot of goals on high-danger chances, not because they didn’t allow those chances.

Taking an honest, unflinching look at where the Canucks need the most improvement, most would point to the defence. Not only did they give up a lot of dangerous chances, but they also struggled to move the puck up ice, particularly against the relentless forecheck of the Golden Knights. Those two issues are interrelated: the more you give away the puck in the defensive zone, the more opportunities you give the opposition to create chances.

If, on the other hand, the Canucks allow themselves to believe their own hype about limiting dangerous chances, they risk not taking the appropriate steps to address those issues. 

Let’s look at another example: Tyler Motte

In many ways, the playoffs were Motte’s coming out party, capturing the hearts of fans with his fearlessness on the penalty kill. He still leads all forwards in blocked shots in the NHL playoffs with 24, including 7 in just one game against the Minnesota Wild. He also led the Canucks in hits, with 61, good for 7th in the NHL at this current date.

On top of that blue-collar grit, which appeals to a wide swathe of hockey fans, Motte showed some surprising skill, scoring 4 goals in a two-game streak against the St. Louis Blues. That included a gorgeous shorthanded goal where he undressed Alex Pietrangelo, turning heads that didn’t expect that type of move from a fourth-line forward.

It was the type of goal that had people pointing to his final year in college, when he scored 32 goals in 38 games and was a top-ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey. Even a fourth liner can have goal-scoring touch when given the opportunity.

Here’s the question: is Motte an essential player for the Canucks? Or is he a replaceable player? What is his value to the team? 

These aren’t idle questions. Motte is a restricted free agent in need of a new contract. Valuing him correctly is essential, especially at a time when the Canucks could be facing a cap crunch with big-name players like Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, and Chris Tanev to re-sign.

In order to value Motte correctly, the Canucks can’t believe the hype. 

While Motte’s goals were exciting and his consistent and constant effort is commendable, they  have to be taken within context. That context is that Motte is a legitimately great penalty killer, but struggles mightily at 5-on-5. Any time he’s been bumped up the lineup, his lack of vision and creativity in the offensive zone is immediately apparent. At 5-on-5, he just isn’t anything more than a fourth-line forward.

This is nothing against Motte himself. He is who he is and has legitimate utility as a penalty killer. What matters is being honest about who Motte is and the value he brings to the team.

How the Canucks assess Motte will determine what kind of contract they offer him. If they believe the hype and see him as an essential piece for the future, they risk offering him a contract that makes him another in a litany of overpaid bottom-six forwards on the Canucks roster. If they make a more brutally honest appraisal, he’ll likely end up with a short term deal worth around $1 million per year, keeping his cap hit low enough that it won’t impact some of their big ticket deals. 

That’s two key ways the Canucks need to be honest and not believe the hype as they enter the shortened 2020 offseason, but this touches on every decision they make. 

The Canucks are an exciting, young team with a promising future, but it’s a future that can be derailed if they fail to identify the right ways to improve.