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Playoff-bereft Canucks know they need to improve in every area

End-of-year perspective leaves the Canucks hopeful, but realistic.
Jay Beagle of the Vancouver Canucks battles Derek Stepan of the Arizona Coyotes for the puck.

The Paper Feature is a weekly column and sidebars that appears in the print edition of the Vancouver Courier newspaper. Track it down!

At the Canucks’ year-end press conference, the team as a whole was overall very positive about the 2018-19 season, but the simple truth is that this isn’t where any of them wanted to be. None of them wanted to be packing their things and heading home while their rivals were preparing for the playoffs. All of the excitement for the future is no replacement for the feeling when your team is heading into the postseason.

Still, this season was expected to be a rebuilding year. The fact that they were in the playoff hunt a little longer than last season is a positive and something they can build on for the future. The emergence of Elias Pettersson as a bonafide star gives the Canucks a chance to take a step forward as early as next season and potentially make the playoffs.

The first step, however, is acknowledging where you are as a team and how far you still need to go. Jay Beagle, who spent years with the Washington Capitals before they won the Stanley Cup last season, knows that better than anyone.

“Throughout the years in Washington, we were one of the top teams in the league the whole year and would lose in the second round and still didn’t feel even close to winning a Stanley Cup,” said Beagle. “Obviously in the playoffs, anything can happen. The start is getting to the playoffs, that’s obviously the goal. I think we’re close to that.”

“Are we a playoff team, are we ready to be in the playoffs and be a playoff contender team?” he added. “We’re not there yet. You guys saw it, we saw it. We have a lot that we need to build on and a lot of places and areas to grow. But we’re not too far, that’s the encouraging thing.”

Just as Beagle said the Canucks need to grow in multiple areas, head coach Travis Green sees the same thing. When asked for specific areas where the team needs to improve, Green made it clear that there’s room for improvement everywhere.

“When you’re a team that doesn’t make the playoffs, you’re going to look to make improvements throughout your lineup,” said Green, then later added, “When you finish the way, the season that we had, how do you get better? It comes from internally or it comes through acquiring new players.”

The Canucks will look for improvement from their young players, both the stars like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat, but also contributors that slowed in the second half of the season, like Jake Virtanen and Josh Leivo. That’s unlikely to be enough, however, to get the Canucks to the playoffs.

The Canucks were 26th in the NHL this season in goals scored and 18th in goals allowed, so there’s room for improvement on both offence and defence. A late season run kept their power play percentage out of the basement, but they were still 22nd in the league, though their penalty kill was respectable at 11th.

What’s even more concerning is the Canucks’ underlying numbers. They had the NHL’s worst scoring chance differential at even strength according to analytics site Natural Stat Trick, which suggests the Canucks might be a little further from being a playoff contender than they might think.

That makes the upcoming draft and free agency crucial for the Canucks.

“In free agency, we’re going to look at all of our options,” said Benning. “If there’s moves that we can make to address weaknesses that we think we have, we’re going to try to be aggressive to address those weaknesses. That’s a priority.”

According to Benning, those weaknesses include a need for another top-six forward and an upgrade on defence. There are big names available in free agency that fill those needs, like Artemi Panarin and Erik Karlsson. The risk is overspending on the second tier of free agents if the big names sign elsewhere.

If the Canucks can’t make improvements in free agency, they’ll have to depend on the majority of their young players taking a big step forward. Otherwise, the Canucks could find themselves back where they don’t want to be next year.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

A tap of the stick to Jay Beagle, who got the biggest laugh at the end-of-year press conference after Chris Tanev and Jacob Markstrom talked about the possibility of going to the World Championships. “Me and [Luke] Schenn are also available,” he deadpanned, before breaking into a wide grin.

A tap of the stick to Nikolay Goldobin, who managed to stay in good spirits despite the rough season and gave honest answers to some tough questions about his future in Vancouver.

Big Numbers

.913 - One of the big improvements the Canucks need to make for next season might have already happened. Thatcher Demko should fill the need for a stronger backup behind Jacob Markstrom. Demko finished the season with a solid .913 save percentage after some initial struggles.

3 - In a five-game stint at the end of the season, Quinn Hughes put up three points, including two power play assists. That gave him as many power play points on the season as Jake Virtanen, Troy Stecher, and Adam Gaudette. He should provide a big boost to the power play next season.