There’s a narrative surrounding the Canucks right now that they’re a young team that needs to learn how to win. Some Canucks fans are eager to see the team back in the playoffs not just because that’s where you want to see your favourite team, but also because of the experience it will give the team’s young stars to help them grow and develop.
Technically speaking, the Canucks aren’t all that young as a team. Heading into the season, their average age was 27.5, which is right around league average. But there’s no denying that their stars, at least among their skaters, are young.
Their franchise centre, Elias Pettersson, is 21. Their star sniper, Brock Boeser, is 23. Their number one defenceman, Quinn Hughes, is 20. Their captain, Bo Horvat, is the old fogey of the “core four” at 24.
Add in 23-year-olds Adam Gaudette and Jake Virtanen, and a good chunk of the core of the Canucks’ roster is under 25.
That means the team’s top players are largely inexperienced. Even the savvy veteran leading the team in scoring, J.T. Miller, is a spritely 26. Miller, of course, has plenty of playoff experience from his years with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning. To embrace the cliché, he knows what it takes to win at this time of year.
Given the youth at the top of the lineup, some might argue that the recent run of losses is to be expected. This is what happens to young, inexperienced teams when they face the crunch. After all, they know nothing of the crunch; they’ve never even been to the crunch.
Only, it’s not the Canucks’ youth that are struggling; it’s the team’s veterans.
The Canucks’ four-game losing streak started off against the Ottawa Senators. While the young Thatcher Demko didn’t have his best game, it was 30-year-old Tyler Myers who was on the ice for all four goals that the Senators scored on Demko. He and his defence partner, 28-year-old Oscar Fantenberg, were stuck in the defensive zone for most of the game, unable to move the puck out.
Against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canucks were tied 2-2 going into the third period, but a goal from Martin Marincin 18 seconds into the third was the killer. On that goal, it was 30-year-old Chris Tanev allowing a massive gap as Marincin gained the zone, which allowed a free shot that hit the post, and then Tanev failed to pick up Marincin going to the net for the rebound.
In their game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Canucks were up 3-1 with 10 minutes left and were seemingly in complete control, only allowing one shot on goal in the third period up to that point. Then it all fell apart.
The Blue Jackets second goal came with Tanev and 33-year-old Alex Edler paired together to try to close out the game with their veteran savvy. Instead, they oversaw a defensive breakdown that left Riley Nash alone in front of the net. Twenty-seven-year-old Tanner Pearson doesn’t escape blame on that one either: he had a chance to pick up Nash and didn’t.
Then 31-year-old Brandon Sutter took a careless penalty and the Blue Jackets scored on the power play. After that, 30-year-old Antoine Roussel took an undisciplined penalty of his own, leading to a game-winning power play goal for the Blue Jackets.
Finally, there was Wednesday night in Vancouver, where the Canucks faced the Arizona Coyotes. Once again, the Canucks had the lead with 10 minutes left. Once again, the lead was frittered away.
The tying goal was scored off an unlucky bounce off Troy Stecher’s skate, who was evidently cursed sometime in the last month given the number of bad bounces he’s experienced lately. There are no veterans at fault there, but the same can’t be said for the winning goal.
Brandon Sutter was engaged with Lawson Crouse in the right faceoff circle, but then got caught puck-watching. Instead of tying up Crouse’s stick as he went to the net, Sutter left him completely alone, and Crouse was free to tip in Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s point shot.
You can certainly point to the Canucks’ goaltending issues with Jacob Markstrom out, and Demko and Louis Domingue certainly haven’t been great, but some responsibility has to land on the Canucks’ experienced veteran players. These are the players that have been handsomely paid to insulate the young stars and provide defensive stability. They’re the players meant to be able to take on hard matchups and close out games. They haven’t been doing so.
The players getting out-chanced the most on the Canucks over the last month are not the young players, unless you count the 24-year-old Tyler Motte. The forwards with the worst expected goals percentage over the last month are Motte, Jay Beagle, Sutter and Loui Eriksson. That’s partly because those are the players being called upon to defend leads, but it’s also because they haven’t been defending those leads particularly well.
Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are not costing the Canucks games with their inexperience, and it seems odd to suggest they don’t know what it takes to win. Perhaps they haven’t been to the playoffs at the NHL level, but they’ve done plenty of winning prior to that.
Hughes has a gold medal from the 2017 World Under-18 Championship, silver and bronze from two World Junior tournaments and a bronze from the 2018 World Championships. In his freshman year at Michigan, he helped lead the Wolverines to the Frozen Four, and came within a goal of going to the final. He’s played in crunch time.
As for Pettersson, he did nothing but win in his post-draft season in the SHL. He led the Växjö Lakers to the SHL championship, while leading the SHL in scoring in both the regular season and the playoffs. He was named the playoff MVP after racking up 10 goals and 19 points in 13 games.
He won the gold medal at the 2018 World Championships too. The only thing he didn’t win was gold at the 2018 World Juniors; he won silver instead.
Brock Boeser won the NCAA championship with North Dakota in 2016. Bo Horvat has two OHL Championships. Thatcher Demko led Boston College to the best record in Hockey East and the Frozen Four as a freshman. Jake Virtanen won World Junior gold with Team Canada in 2015.
Generally speaking, players that get to the NHL have done some winning along the way. Is it the same as winning at the NHL level? Not exactly, but it’s not entirely dissimilar either. Some of the Canucks’ young stars are likely better equipped to handle the crunch than you might expect.
The experience of going through the push to the playoffs will surely help the Canucks’ young players, as would a playoff run, however brief. But their current inexperience in these situations hasn’t really hurt the Canucks. Instead, it’s been the more-experienced, highly-paid veterans that have faltered.
In order to make the playoffs, the Canucks will need to lean not on the experience of their veterans, but on the exuberance of their youth.