The ideal rebuilding process follows a fairly set pattern in the cap-era NHL. Teams plummet in the standings. Teams pile up first-round picks. Teams begin harvesting exciting young talent crops. And, at least in the case of the successful rebuilds, teams eventually reach critical masses of top-end talent, and then the winning starts. It doesn't always work, but that's the goal. The best examples of the teams that built that way over the past decade and a half are the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings. The Colorado Avalanche probably qualify as the most recent “critical mass” group, building around first-rounders Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar.
Which is the next team to break through as a new, critical-mass contender? If you remember my off-season column, in which I forecast which non-playoff teams from last year could rise up toward contender status this season, one team on that list was the Vancouver Canucks. The blueprint was there: years of losing, many first-round picks, the Calder Trophy runner-up and winner in consecutive years and a sudden influx of veteran support pieces.
Look at the standings now, and it’s easy to see why Canucks fans are getting so excited. Vancouver sits 9-4-3, good for third in the Pacific Division. At 21 points through 16 games, they’re off to their best start since 2014-15, which happens to be the last time they made the playoffs. It’s tempting to declare Vancouver “arriving.” But we’ve seen flashes before from some long-time basement-dwelling teams who appear to be ready only to regress, such as the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres, who sat first overall in the NHL on Dec. 1. I even wrote a column on why they were for real! Facepalm.
So are the Canucks legit or are they outperforming their peripherals and due for a regression? There’s no way to guarantee what happens from now to April, but most of the signs suggest it’s time to get excited about the Canucks. Very excited. Consider these five reasons why we should trust the good start.
THE CRITICAL MASS OF HIGH-CEILING TALENT
May as well start with the critical-mass argument. The majority of Vancouver’s key cogs were mined early in various drafts since 2013. Bo Horvat (ninth overall, 2013) has become precisely what the Canucks hoped he would dating back to his time as a London Knight: a leader worthy of the captaincy, a high-motor, two-way forward who battles other teams' best forwards but can chip in offense, and a dominant faceoff man. Elite shooter Brock Boeser (23rd, 2015) is tracking for his first 30-goal season. Reigning rookie of the year Elias Pettersson (fifth, 2017) continues to look like someone who will challenge for scoring titles, perhaps as early as this season. Quinn Hughes (seventh, 2018) has invigorated the D-corps with scintillating offense, just as the scouting reports said he would.
The Canucks haven’t hit on every first rounder, as Jake Virtanen has obviously failed to live up to his draft slot and we’re still waiting on Olli Juolevi, but they’ve hit on enough of the high picks to have a talented foundation. They’re winning games because they have some really good young players, and really good young players tend to yield sustainable success.
Jacob Markstrom continues to perform as an admirable 1A who may or may not be a glorified stopgap. Per naturalstattrick.com, among 56 goalies who played 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5 last year, he was a respectable 26th in goals saved above average per 60 minutes – exactly where he should be, a.k.a. slightly above average. This year, among 62 goalies with 100 or more minutes at 5-on-5, he’s 23rd. Markstrom, 29, is doing his job. But he’s also not signed beyond this season and has been long perceived as a crease warmer for the future No. 1: Thatcher Demko.
Extremely exciting news for the Canucks: the big, confident Demko has been lights out backing up Markstrom thus far. The dream scenario was for him to gradually outplay and overtake Markstrom, as that would set up Demko as the starter next season and beyond. And Demko has been truly phenomenal so far, winning four of five starts and posting a .938 save percentage. He ranks 12th in the aforementioned sample in 5-on-5 GSAA per 60. The Canucks as a team rank seventh in save percentage. Regardless of which guy tends goal, they’ve been in good hands.
DOMINANCE IN POSSESSION
It’s not like the Canucks are getting bailed out by their goaltending, however. Demko, for instance, has outstanding numbers but faces the second fewest shots per 60 of all 62 goalies in the 100-minute sample. The Canucks allow the 10th-fewest shots and ninth-fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. They generate the fourth-most shots and fifth-most shot attempts. The ratio is the about same when factoring in high-danger attempts, too. The Canucks also sit second in the NHL in faceoff percentage.
So Vancouver’s under-the-hood stats scream “LEGIT!” They have controlled the play at the level of a top-end team in their first 16 games. Better yet, they’ve done it consistently, out-attempting their opponent in 11 of 16 games. They haven’t been out-attempted in their past 12 games, going 11-0-1 in 5-on-5 Corsi. This is a hard team to get the puck from.
EXCELLENT SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY
What’s that old adage about adding the special teams ranks together? Any elite team wants to sit in the top 10 in power play and penalty killing. The Canucks boast the league’s No. 8 power play at 22.1 percent and No. 6 penalty kill at 86. 4 percent. The latter is where Jay Beagle does his most important work. No forward in the NHL averages more shorthanded minutes per game. The P.K. will be tested more in weeks to come with blueliner Chris Tanev sidelined for a to-be-determined amount of time with an upper-body injury. He’s fourth among NHL D-men in shorthanded minutes per contest.
So the Canucks don’t exactly have a nightmare schedule. Of their 16 opponents, 11 missed the playoffs last season, and only two of their nine wins have come against 2018-19 playoff teams. On the other hand, Vancouver has played 10 of 16 games on the road. Only two teams in the NHL have played more road games so far, and the Canucks have escaped with a respectable 5-4-1 record. At their home barn, Rogers Arena? They’ve yet to lose in regulation at 4-0-2. So it’s an exciting proposition that Vancouver gets 35 more games there versus 31 on the road.
The more lenses through which we try to perceive the 2019-20 Canucks, the more reasons we have to trust them. The franchise has put in the time and been bad enough long enough to earn its way back to something real. Does that mean we get playoff hockey in Vancouver this season? Quite possibly. Whatever happens, we can confidently say this is a vastly improved team – and one of the league’s most interesting.
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