They’re having fun in Vancouver right now, aren’t they? The Canucks are hot, the future looks even brighter than the present and the present itself looks pretty good. I’m not going to say I predicted this, because I didn’t. What I will say is that every year, at least one team that looks like a doormat on paper turns out to be a pretty scrappy outfit.
Colorado and New Jersey both pulled off the trick last year (oh, Vegas too…) and the Canucks appear to be “that” team this season. Vancouver is leading the Pacific Division right now and the team’s latest conquest was an 8-5 beatdown of the hated Boston Bruins. I would imagine it feels nice to wake up in Vancouver this morning.
So how did we get here?
The most obvious driver is rookie center Elias Pettersson, who has smashed the already-high expectations we all had for the skinny Swede by putting up 17 points through 11 games. At this point, Pettersson appears to be a lock for the Calder Trophy though of course, he must sustain this as the season progresses. But right now, I have a harder time figuring out who the other Calder finalists would be behind Pettersson – Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk and Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen come to mind – than whether or not Vancouver’s center is the choice.
Of course, Pettersson isn’t the only contributor. Right winger Jake Virtanen used to be a source of vitriol for many Canucks fans; now he has his own Internet meme thanks to a new-found scoring touch. I’m not saying that Virtanen is ever going to live up to his draft slot (sixth overall in 2014), but I also don’t believe it was fair for some pundits to write him off before he even got out of junior. Virtanen is a north-south player who can score, but hockey sense is a weak spot. Use him as a missile and you’ve got something – don’t overcomplicate it. So far, it has worked this season and kudos to coach Travis Green and his staff for unlocking Virtanen’s potential early on.
Amazingly enough, the Canucks have been successful so far, but not altogether healthy. Pettersson missed games after the controversial Michael Matheson hit, while Brock Boeser – off to a nice start himself – has also been on the shelf. Luckily, the team is getting great play from Bo Horvat, who seems like the captain-in-waiting, no?
What I like about Vancouver’s long-term outlook is that the 1-2 punch of Pettersson and Horvat down the middle will be downright daunting in a year or two. Horvat has enough of his own skill to keep teams honest, but his two-way play means he can be a match guy himself (though I realize the Canucks also have Brandon Sutter for defensive work down the middle).
Now, is this defense going to be good enough as the season goes on? Will the goaltending hold? These are legitimate questions, because the Canucks are not a good possession team and that sort of thing usually catches up in the end. I say “usually” because Colorado was also a bad possession team last season and that didn’t stop the Avalanche and Hart Trophy runner-up Nathan MacKinnon from squeaking into the playoffs on the last day of the season. You can beat the odds sometimes.
But what about the Canucks? Right now, they’ve given up more goals than they have scored, while their special teams are juusst good enough to be playoff-worthy. Luckily, they are playing in an unimpressive Pacific Division where Los Angeles is terrible, Vegas and Anaheim aren’t much better and Calgary doesn’t have goaltending. Is this just a fast start, or can the Canucks get back to the post-season? Whatever happens, it’ll be a fun ride with this group.