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Canucks tailspin goes beyond Markstrom's injury

February wasn't kind to the Canucks even before Jacob Markstrom got hurt.
markstrom
Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev stare down the puck. File photo Dan Toulgoet

The numbers, to put it simply, aren’t pretty.

The Vancouver Canucks entered February on a four-game winning streak then, on the road against the Islanders, picked up an overtime win on Feb. 1. The win moved the Canucks to sixth in the NHL by points, and eighth by win percentage. The next-closest Pacific team (Edmonton) was two points back, but crucially, had two fewer regulation wins.

Those numbers were pretty enough. Then the rest of the month happened. Brock Boeser’s injury was announced on Feb. 8, but by then the team had lost four straight, conceding 17 goals in the process. In the course of a week, they dropped from sixth in the league to 13th (15th by points percentage) and the division lead had narrowed to one point over Edmonton and Vegas, and the games-in-hand advantage had evaporated.

They won two games in a row, then lost two, then won two, and now have lost three. In the process, they also lost Jacob Markstrom, who despite a handful of bad starts in the month, still had a .920 save percentage in February. But to blame the team’s problems on Markstrom’s sudden absence — which only happened in the past week or so — would be shortsighted. This Canucks team has problems, and they’ve been lingering for a while.

We all remember at the start of the season when just about every underlying number said the Canucks were inexplicably, unexpectedly good. They got off to a fast start in the standings and scored a ton of goals in the process, all propped up by Markstrom. But since then, things have been a struggle, to say the least:

 

Month Points% CF% SF% xGF% GF% sh% sv%
October 6th 2nd 3rd 7th 2nd 10th 5th
November 27th 21st 22nd 21st 24th 13th 22nd
December 9th 28th 27th 31st 12th 9th 5th
January 6th 25th 25th 20th 8th 7th 9th
February 23rd 29th 29th 30th 21st 5th 19th
Full Season 15th 20th 21st 24th 12th 8th 13th

Now, we can certainly attribute some of those difficulties to injury, because the only guy missing much time at all early on was Antoine Roussel. But we can also say that the Canucks had a lot of success because that October schedule was soft, and that was broadly acknowledged at the time.

Since then, basically any success they’ve had has been propped up by shooting and/or save percentages. To some extent you can say that’s because the Canucks have talent at every position and talent leads to high percentages in a lot of cases. That’s absolutely true. But the question whether it’s a sustainable long-term plan to just get pushed around every night and “percentage” your way out of trouble has long since been settled: it isn’t.

The problem for the Canucks, in the long term, has been that they have a critical lack of depth. It’s great to have game-breaking talent and the Canucks have more of it than a lot of teams in the West. But the defence has some very real problems, and there are some clear black holes in the forward group as well, and even if you like Travis Green as a coach (you should), there’s only so much one man can do.

As you go down the time-on-ice leaders by position, you see a very clear degradation of basically every underlying number. Put another way, when the Canucks’ best players are on the ice, they look like they can compete with any team in the league, and when their worst players are on the ice, they look like they shouldn’t be in the NHL. 

Eight guys (two defencemen and six forwards) have played in at least 30 games and have expected-goal shares around or under 46 per cent. You can probably guess who they are: Oscar Fantenberg and Jordie Benn on D; Antoine Roussel, Adam Gaudette, Brandon Sutter, Tim Schaller, Jay Beagle and Tyler Motte up front.

That’s just too many guys who aren’t really pulling their own weight, and it would have been difficult to enter this season with anything other than a negative view of the team’s depth. That early winning — fueled almost entirely by goaltending, the top two lines and a patchwork of secondary scoring — likely painted over those worries in a lot of fans’ minds, but they never really went away.

Which leaves the Canucks where they are now: Occasionally capable of having a huge night, like last month’s 9-3 win over Boston, the best team in the league, but mostly struggling to keep their heads above water. There’s a reason they’ve dropped from the sixth-best record in the league to hanging on to a Wild Card spot in a soft Western Conference.

The good news is they banked plenty of wins early in the season and they are, therefore, in good shape to make the playoff cut and avoid losing a lottery pick from the J.T. Miller trade. The bad news is they’re now likely to play either Vegas, St. Louis or Colorado in the first round.

Rather than talking yourself into believing this team was ever going to legitimately compete to be among the class of the Western Conference, you have to keep the big picture stuff in mind. Would you have taken that deal at the beginning of the season? The Canucks make the playoffs, but just barely, and probably lose in the first round? 

If so, then you’re right where you wanted to be all along, regardless of the ups and downs of how you got there.

@twolinepass

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