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Losing the 2019-20 season opener might have been the best thing to happen to the Canucks

In a sense, opening night in the NHL is just another game. It’s worth two points in the standings, just like the other 81 games in the season.
The Vancouver Canucks' J.T. Miller looks on as Mike Smith of the Edmonton Oilers makes a save
The Vancouver Canucks' J.T. Miller looks on as Mike Smith of the Edmonton Oilers makes a save

In a sense, opening night in the NHL is just another game. It’s worth two points in the standings, just like the other 81 games in the season. After all the foofaraw before puck drop — the pre-gameintroduction of the players, coaches, training staff, ushers, concession workers, and parking attendants — the game is seemingly the same as any other.

At the same time, opening night is special: it’s what the players have been working towards for the days of practice, weeks of preseason, and months of offseason beforehand. It’s the first true test of your team’s lineup and systems. It arguably sets a tone for the rest of the season, as teams try to quickly establish their identity. But does it bear any more importance than that?

The Canucks lost on opening night, which isn’t ideal — two points were lost against a Pacific Division rival — but it’s also not the end of the world. After all, it’s just one game out of 82 and all that matters at the end of the season is that you win enough games to get into the playoffs, where the stakes for each individual game are a lot higher.

But what if the opening-night loss is actually a positive sign? It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Psychologically, you could argue that a loss on opening night can act as a wakeup call, preventing the players from slipping into a sense of complacency and binding them together as a team to bounce back and have a stronger season. But there are other, historical reasons to believe that an opening night loss might actually be a good thing for the Canucks in particular.

The two best regular seasons in Canucks franchise history were the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy wins in 2010-11 and 2011-12. How did those two seasons begin? With losses to the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Meanwhile, the worst Canucks season in the modern era of the NHL came in 1998-99, when the Canucks won just 23 games, finishing with 58 points, while getting outscored 258 to 192. But the Canucks kicked off that dreadful season with a 4-2 win over the Kings. Maybe winning on opening night is a bad idea.

That may all seem very anecdotal and not very convincing, but the 1998-99 season brings up an odd bit of serendipity that might be more compelling.

The last time the Canucks missed the playoffs in four-straight seasons was in the late 90’s, during the dreaded Mark Messier era. It was a dark time, featuring the departure of several fan-favourite players from the team’s last run to the Stanley Cup Final, but it also laid the groundwork for a more-successful future.

It’s a stretch of seasons that might seem eerily familiar.

The last four seasons have also featured the departure of fan favourites, namely the Sedin twins, who were part of that more-successful future spawned from the late 90’s Canucks. They at least retired on their own terms instead of being unceremoniously traded. The last four seasons have also featured the rise of the future of the Canucks, with the additions of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes via the draft.

One oddity of the Canucks’ playoff drought during the Messier era is that each of those four seasons started out on such a positive note.

The Canucks kicked off the 1996-97 season with a 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames, but it wasn’t a sign of things to come: they were 34-40-7 over the rest of the season.

In 1997-98, the Canucks won 3-2 over the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim on opening night, but won just 24 more games after that.

We covered 1998-99 above, but the 1999-2000 season similarly started off with a win, 2-1 over the New York Rangers on home ice. They even won their next two games as well before things started going sideways, finishing the season in 10th place in the Western Conference.

That’s four-straight seasons where the Canucks started the season with a win and four-straight seasons where they crashed and burned, finishing outside the playoffs.

When the Canucks were finally ready to get back to the playoffs in 2000-01, led by new captain Markus Naslund, the season started very differently from the previous four: they lost. The Philadelphia Flyers thrilled their home crowd by handing the Canucks a 6-3 drubbing, with then-rookie Justin Williams scoring the opening goal.

The past and present are not perfect reflections of each other, but sometimes, as George Lucas once said, they rhyme.

Despite missing the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, the Canucks have won on opening night every time.

To start the 2015-16 season, the Canucks dominated the Calgary Flames, out-shooting them 44-30 en route to a 5-1 win. Unfortunately, that offensive outburst was not a sign of things to come, as they set a new franchise low for goals in a season.

In 2016-17, the Canucks kicked things off with another win over the Flames, 2-1 in the shootout. In fact, they started the season with a four-game win streak. That was quickly followed by a nine-game losing streak. By the end of the season, they had set an all-new franchise low for goals.

The 2017-18 Canucks beat the Oilers 3-2 on opening night, but never found a winning rhythm: their longest win-streak of the season was just four games long.

Finally, there was last season, 2018-19, which started with a convincing 5-2 win over the Calgary Flames, led by the Canucks’ rookie sensation, Elias Pettersson, who scored on the first shot of his career. Regrettably, Pettersson’s Calder-winning season wasn’t enough to get the team back to the playoffs.

That's four-straight seasons where the team won on opening night, then went on to miss the playoffs, just like the four-season streak in the Messier era. Then, in the fifth season, the Canucks lost on opening night in each era; will this season’s Canucks echo the 2000-01 Canucks and make the playoffs? 

There’s even another parallel: just like in 2000-01, the team is about to name a new captain. Will that signal the beginning of a new era, like the Naslund captaincy did in the early 2000's?

Ultimately, this is just a fun coincidence. The truth is that how a team performs on opening night has very little to do with how they perform over the rest of the season.

The Canucks have lost on opening night 19 times in their history; they made the playoffs in ten of those seasons. That’s basically a coin flip.

Similarly, the Canucks have won on opening night 26 times and made the playoffs in 14 of those seasons. Again, that’s awfully close to a coin flip.

The only way to guarantee the Canucks make the playoffs on opening night is to tie the game: the Canucks tied on opening night three times in their history and made the playoffs every time. Unfortunately, the NHL doesn’t allow ties anymore, which is yet another way the league is biased against the Canucks.

Ultimately, there’s very little we can conclude based on one game, but if the Canucks make the playoffs this season, I reserve the right to say that I called it.