Two weeks ago, the Canucks were at the top of the world, crushing the best team in the NHL, the Boston Bruins, 9-3. The win put the Canucks within two points of the Pacific Division lead, with two games in hand.
Two days later, fans got the news that Jacob Markstrom was out with a knee injury and the Canucks have just two wins since. With five losses in their last six games, the team has slid down to the final wild card spot in the Western Conference and their hold on the playoffs is tenuous at best: they’re tied in points with the two teams below them in the standings, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets.
They’re in a tight spot and things are looking grim. They’re 6-9-2 since the beginning of February — the only team with fewer points in that time is the Detroit Red Wings, and the Red Wings are having a legendarily bad season, with a chance at the worst record in franchise history.
Suffice it to say, you don’t want to be compared to the Red Wings this season.
Of course, the season isn’t over yet and the Canucks still have an opportunity to reverse their fortunes and claim their first playoff spot in five years. They’re not even sitting outside the playoffs right now! Their fate is in their hands!
According to the playoff odds at HockeyViz, the Canucks have a 54 per cent chance of making the playoffs. That’s slightly better odds than flipping a coin, but that’s not particularly comforting: the Canucks have never had much luck with coin flips.
Keep in mind, however, the Canucks have outperformed expectations and are likely to exceed the experts’ point projections from the preseason. This season still feels like a step forward from last season, even if they fall short of the playoffs. So, would it really be so bad to miss the playoffs?
Yes. Yes, it would.
Missing the playoffs this season would be a disaster: here are six reasons why.
1 | They spent on a rental at the trade deadline
The Canucks were in a position to be buyers at the trade deadline, so they bought, adding Tyler Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings. They made the move a little earlier than deadline day, with Brock Boeser’s injury adding urgency to their need for another top-six winger.
Toffoli quickly fit in on the top line and has eight points in nine games with the Canucks. He’s been fine — good, even! — but he’s also in the final year of his contract. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the Canucks won’t be able to re-sign Toffoli, as they’ll have other contracts to negotiate taking up cap space, and Toffoli could potentially get a big payday on the open market, where he’ll be one of the top forwards available in free agency.
Sending a second-round pick and prospect Tyler Madden to the Kings for Toffoli is a reasonable price to pay for a contending team that needs one more piece. It’s a little more questionable for a team with no certainty of making the playoffs. If Toffoli doesn’t re-sign and the Canucks miss the playoffs, that price is going to look very high for 23 games from Toffoli.
2 | They might not get elite goaltending from Jacob Markstrom again
Jacob Markstrom has been a beast for the Canucks this season, wedging himself into not just the Vezina conversation, but also the Hart conversation. He’s stolen games for the Canucks all year long and repeatedly bailed out his teammates when they’ve given up golden scoring chances.
Simply put, the Canucks are not in playoff position right now without his outstanding play. Here’s the problem: they might not get goaltending that good next season.
There are two reasons for that. One is that Markstrom is a pending unrestricted free agent. The Canucks would love to re-sign the goaltender, but he will command a high price for his services, whether it’s the Canucks coughing up the coin or another team opening their coffers. There’s a real possibility that he signs somewhere else.
Even if he doesn’t, however, there’s no guarantee that Markstrom will be able to repeat his performance from this season, which has been truly remarkable. Keep in mind, Markstrom is 30 years old. While some goaltenders continue to perform at a high level into their 30s, some don’t — you just have to look at 31-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky, who has crashed and burned in his first season of a seven-year, $10 million-per-year contract with the Florida Panthers.
Hopefully Markstrom returns to the Canucks next season and excels, but in case he doesn’t, it would seem a shame to waste such a fantastic season by missing the playoffs, particularly since he had no control over his fate given his injury.
3 | It would mean squandering healthy seasons from key players
Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat have stayed healthy all season long. Quinn Hughes has missed just one game. The Canucks’ defence hasn’t had to dig any deeper than their seventh defenceman, as, against all likelihood, Chris Tanev has played every game this season. Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko have started all but one game for the Canucks this season. By Canucks standards, they’ve been incredibly healthy.
Sure, by normal teams’ standards, they haven’t been healthy at all — they have the fifth-most man games lost this season — but their key players have mostly been in the lineup all season. That’s not something you can count on happening every season.
4 | Missing the playoffs means next year’s first-round draft pick isn’t lottery protected
Here’s a big one: the first-round pick that the Canucks sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning for J.T. Miller — which they then traded to the New Jersey Devils — is a conditional pick. If the Canucks make the playoffs, the Devils get the 2020 pick; if they miss the playoffs, the Devils get the 2021 pick.
On the one hand, getting a first-round pick in what is expected to be a deep 2020 draft isn’t the worst consolation prize for missing the playoffs. On the other hand, the 2021 pick has no lottery protections, which means it could wind up being the first-overall pick — the first in Canucks history — and it will go to the Devils.
That’s a worst-case scenario, but it’s also one that’s terrifyingly realistic. It’s easy to imagine the Canucks having worse injury luck next season and sliding down the standings but with no first-round pick to console them, much like what is currently occurring with the San Jose Sharks, whose first-round pick belongs to the Ottawa Senators.
5 | It would be a waste of J.T. Miller's career year
When Jim Benning traded a first-round pick for J.T. Miller, he was taking a risk. Miller had never scored more than 23 goals in a season and had a career high of 58 points. Whilie he was playing in a more limited role on a deep Tampa Bay Lightning team, there was no guarantee that he would thrive in a first-line role with the Canucks.
Miller has blown everyone's expectations out of the water. He's blown his previous career highs out of the water: his 27 goals is tied for the team lead with Pettersson and his 71 points leads the Canucks outright. Miller has meshed wonderfully with Pettersson on the first line and been a big boon to the first power play unit.
While it would be nice if a point-per-game was the new normal for Miller, there's a distinct possibility that he regresses next season. His on-ice shooting percentage at five on five — the percentage of shots that go in for the Canucks while he's on the ice — is 10.25 per cent, the highest of his career. His individual shooting percentage at five on five is 15.79 per cent, again the highest of his career.
While it's possible that those numbers are sustainable as long as he plays with a great playmaker and finisher like Pettersson, it's not likely. It's more probable that those percentages regress closer to his career average, which means a likely dip in production next year.
There's something to be said for striking while the iron is hot. Missing the playoffs while Miller is playing the best hockey of his career would seem like a missed opportunity.
6 | Playoff hockey is the best hockey and it sucks to be on the outside looking in
This is the reason that, in many ways, matters most. There are few things better in the world of sports than playoff hockey. It’s a thrilling, sickening, devastating and enthralling spectacle that can take you to emotional extremes in an instant.
Canucks fans haven’t known those thrills for four long years. Sure, that’s nothing compared to the playoff droughts of some other NHL franchises, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to repeatedly be looking forward to the draft lottery instead of the playoffs.
This year would be particularly painful because fans got their hopes so high. The Canucks weren’t just on the playoff bubble, battling for a wild card spot; they were at the top of the Pacific Division, with visions of home-ice advantage in the playoffs. For the Canucks to miss the playoffs now would be devastating.
If it would be devastating for the fans, it would be doubly so for the players.
“That’s where everyone in the room wants to be, that’s what we’re pushing for,” said Elias Pettersson after Sunday’s loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Every game, every point matters. Every shift matters, like today we lost the game with one puck. I want to do everything I can to make the playoffs.”
If the Canucks do miss the playoffs, perhaps one of the few positives is that it will likely light a fire in the belly of Pettersson and the other hyper-competitive young Canucks to come out next season with more speed, more power and more skill.
An even bigger positive, of course, would be the Canucks making the playoffs right now, then still getting that belly-fire lit for next season by whatever occurs in the playoffs. The reeling Canucks need to reel off some wins in a hurry.