On Wednesday, for the first time all season, the Canucks lost their fourth game in a row in regulation. It’s to their credit that they’ve been able to halt similar streaks all season long, but this is a particularly bad time to falter.
With 74 points, the Canucks are now tied with the Winnipeg Jets and Arizona Coyotes as they battle for the two wild-card spots in the Western Conference. Just behind them are the Minnesota Wild with 73 points and the Nashville Predators with 72.
While the Canucks have two games in hand on the Jets and Coyotes, they don’t on the Wild and Predators, and the race is too close for comfort.
Wednesday’s loss to the Coyotes was particularly tough. That was a winnable game, with the Canucks taking a 2-1 lead into the final ten minutes before it all fell apart, much like the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier in the week. The regulation win for the Coyotes is what allowed them to pull even with the Canucks in points.
The Canucks need to return to their winning ways, and fast. Complicating matters is the players they currently have out of the lineup with injuries.
Brock Boeser has been out for a month with a rib cartilage fracture and is expected to miss a few more weeks. Jacob Markstrom is out with a knee injury for an undisclosed period of time. Jay Beagle and Tyler Myers are both day-to-day with undisclosed injuries.
Then there’s Micheal Ferland, whose season was a complete write-off with recurring concussion symptoms and Josh Leivo, who has been out since December with a fractured kneecap. The Canucks have been without both players for an extended period of time, but their absence particularly hurts when other players get injured.
On top of that, the Canucks have players that are likely playing through an injury. For example, Quinn Hughes missed a practice this week and was considered day-to-day. Still, he played on Wednesday, picking up his 52nd point of the season to give himself a five-point lead in the rookie scoring race.
The Canucks injuries are certainly a part of the picture and a difficult challenge in this crucial month of the season. They’re not, however, an excuse. And, for the first time, it seems like Jim Benning agrees.
It’s been an annual refrain over the last few years: as it became clear the Canucks would miss the playoffs, Benning would point to their injury troubles and the lack of depth to cover for those injuries. Then, heading into the following season, Benning would assure fans that this time they would have enough depth and injuries wouldn’t be a problem, only for the injury excuse to rear its ugly head a few months later.
This season, Benning has so far refused to use injuries as an excuse.
At the trade deadline, when it came out that Markstrom was injured, Benning acknowledged the importance of Markstrom, but also that the Canucks aren’t alone in dealing with similar situations.
“Every team goes through injuries,” said Benning. “We've tried to have the depth to overcome injuries and this is going to be a good chance for Thatcher to get in games and show us what he can do.”
Likewise, injuries came up in an interview with Pierre LeBrun for The Athletic, but Benning didn’t rise to the bait to use them as an excuse. He discussed the proactive steps they’ve taken to prevent injuries, but also pointed out that injuries are inevitable and even the loss of a crucial player like Markstrom can’t be used to dismiss poor results.
“[Markstrom’s] one of our better players and he’s hurt, but you look at other teams,” said Benning. “Edmonton was without [Connor] McDavid for three weeks, Arizona was without [Darcy] Kuemper, every team has injuries to guys. You just have to figure out a way to get through it and try to keep staying competitive.”
Perhaps it’s because he’s been hammered for using injuries as an excuse in the past or perhaps it’s because he’s more confident in his team’s depth this season, but this is a better and more reasonable approach to the question of injuries. Sure, McDavid only missed six games — he was out for two rather than three weeks — but the Kuemper point is a great example.
Kuemper leads the NHL in save percentage and is crucial for the success of the low-scoring Coyotes, but he’s been limited to just 27 games this season. He missed over two months with a lower-body injury, with the Coyotes also having to deal with short-term injuries to his backup, Antti Raanta, during that stretch.
And yet, the Coyotes are right there with the Canucks, competing for the playoffs.
In some ways, the Canucks have still been lucky this season with injuries. Prior to February, they didn’t have significant injuries to their best players; they still haven’t had to dig into their defensive depth beyond the seven defencemen that were on the roster to start the season; and the lone AHL call-up in the lineup is Zack MacEwen.
The bigger issue is that the Canucks have missed the playoffs in four-straight seasons. If the excuse for missing the playoffs is the same every year, at some point it wears thin. If injuries are the problem, then it's incumbent on the people in charge to either eliminate the problem or mitigate its effects.
Benning believes he's dealt with the injury problem by acquiring more and better depth and by working with his team on injury prevention. The Canucks have had fewer soft-tissue injuries this season, which suggests that the steps they've taken towards preventing injuries are working. Now the question is whether the depth surrounding the Canucks' star players is enough to handle the injuries they've accumulated.
Whatever happens next is up to the players still healthy enough to hit the ice.