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ten weekly random thoughts – playoffs week 1 – July 27-August 2

Here’s something I never thought I would be saying until October 2020: NHL hockey is back. Four and a half months after the NHL stopped play due to COVID-19, the puck dropped the qualifying round and exhibition games this week. As always, this random thoughts will primarily be focused on Canucks news hockey related that I want to comment on. Kudos to the the owners and players for coming up with a well thought-out return to play plan and extending their CBA for the next 6 years. The NHL did a very smart thing extending the CBA for six year, guaranteeing labor peace through the 2025-26 season. Meanwhile, the MLB is staring into the face of potentially two lost seasons in a row. The new CBA includes a return to the Olympics, provided they strike a  deal with the IOC and IIHF. Fans should expect to see some of the best hockey during playoff competition, as the players have had to recuperate from injuries. The one caveat is players have had difficulty finding ice time during the off time due to everything being closed. However, they went through a three week training camp to get back into game shape. Will the Canucks defeat the Wild? Here are ten random thoughts from week one of the playoffs.

1. Let’s kick things off this week by looking at the Canucks injury situation. When play stopped on March 10th, several players were out with injury or playing banged up. Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom was recovering from minor knee surgery. He was close to returning to play. When the Canucks flew to Arizona to take on the Coyotes, he was looking at playing on that road trip. At the end of March when he went back to Sweden, Markstrom was pretty much able to do his normal training. Chris Tanev was injured in the last game before play. He was expected to miss a few games. Tanev came into camp back to full health. Brock Boeser was playing through a rib injury that caused him to miss several games. The four months did wonders for him and he looked quite good the exhibition game against Winnipeg. The biggest surprise is seeing the return of Micheal Ferland, who was expected to be out for the rest of the season after suffering more post-concussion symptoms during a rehab game in Utica. Ferland had a terrible season dealing with symptoms the flared up every time he tried to return. The extended rest did wonders for Ferland and he is now ready to participate in the playoffs Ferland being able to complete the game on Tuesday was one of the few positives for the Canucks on the night. One Canuck who will not return to play for this Stanley Cup tournament is Josh Leivo, who fractured his knee cap in a hard collision into the boards on December 10. He was expected to miss 2 to 3 months, but, unfortunately, he has been slower than expected to heal. In the week prior to stopping, Leivo was spotted before the Canucks practice in workout gear standing at the bench, but her never stepped on the ice. The Canucks are pretty much completely healthy. Don’t be surprised if there are some injuries early on, with players literally going from the couch to a playoff game.

2. 3 Canucks to keep an eye on in the playoffs

  • Jacob Markstrom. The veteran Canucks goalie is seeing his first playoff action. Markstrom has played two stellar seasons in a row. Time to see how he does under the microscope of playoff  pressure. Markstrom spent the bulk of the 2019 season riding under the emotional tidal wave of his father having passed away. Knowing that four months has passed since he last played, that emotional boost has probably subsided., Markstrom is coming off minor knee surgery early March. He is fully healed from the injury. The Canucks playoff hopes ride on How well Markstrom performs in the playoffs. He has the potential to the team deep into the playoffs. Also, a strong playoffs will up the price it takes to re-sign Markstrom, who’s contract is set to expire after the playoffs. Should Markstrom falter in the playoffs, Thatcher Demko had a strong training camp and is a viable second option. Will Markstrom rise to the challenge will he be looking at a long off-season?
  • Micheal Ferland – Signed in the off season back in July 2019, Ferland was brought on to the team for just this situation. Unfortunately,  he missed the bulk of the 2019 – 2000 season with a horrible concussion. He attempted a couple of times to return, lasting just one shift in December and also in February. The last time he was re-injured, he had initiated the contact. Ferland made it through training camp and an exhibition game with no physical effects. His game is all about being physical, which will put him at risk of getting another concussion. If he can remain healthy, Ferland can have a huge impact on the Canucks playoff hopes and perhaps even provide some offense. He’ll likely be on the third line with Antoine Roussel and Adam Gaudette.
  • Jake Virtanen – Just prior to the training camps opening, Virtanen again got in trouble for some off ice activity that maybe wasn’t advisable under the circumstances when he was filmed at a strip club in Vancouver and not wearing a mask and not appearing social distance. This action could have potentially put his teammates at risk of catching COVID-19 as they were going into the bubble in Edmonton. In the week leading up to this infraction, provincial health authorities had announced a couple of strip clubs, not the one Virtanen was in, that had potential outbreaks of covid-19. This isn’t the first time that Virtanen was caught doing some thing that showed a lack of maturity and professionalism. He came into training camp at the beginning of the season out of shape. This time around, he had some competition with Zack MacEwen, Micheal Ferland, and Kole Lind vying for a spot on the Canucks playoff roster. He did not respond well to the competition, throwing an unnecessary hit after a frustrating shift in practice that could have injured a teammate. Virtanen had 18 goals this season and could potentially be a viable option offensively for the Canucks. However, he is also a defensive liability, which is something that the Canucks can’t afford in a short five-game series. It was telling that he was a healthy scratch for the only exhibition game this week in Edmonton Ferland and Brandon Sutter are likely going to be options ahead of Virtanen and Loui Eriksson. Virtanen’s time on the Canucks is likely coming to an end in the off-season due to cap space with the cap expected to stay the same in the next two seasons.

3. The Canucks and the Wild managed to complete the three games they were scheduled to play in the regular season before play stopped due to COVID-19. The Wild won two of the three games in the season series and both teams scored nine goals. Jacob Markstrom was in goal all three games for the canucks. Devan Dubnyk played two of the three games against the Canucks this season for the Wild. Bo Horvat and JT Miller were key contributors for the Canucks in the season series versus the wild scoring twice. In both wins, the wild scored four goals against the Canucks. Goaltending could be the deciding factor in this series. Which Jacob Markstrom is going to show up? The ones that challenged for the Vezina Trophy this season (he should have been one of the three finalists) or the goalie that is prone to giving up a bad goal at the wrong time? Both team’s goalies are capable of giving quality goaltending. The Canucks need to bury their chances when they get them.

4. For the 11th time in a row, the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Canucks in an exhibition games this week. Since December 20th, 2016, the Jets are 11 – 0 outscoring the Canucks a whopping 39 – 11, including Wednesday’s game. Simply put, the Canucks have been thoroughly outmatched by the Jets in virtually every facet of the game. Connor Hellebuyck has been the Jets goalie in most of the games played between the two team and he is one of the elite goalies in the NHL. Thank goodness the Jets were only the Canucks opponent in for the exhibition game and not the play-in round, otherwise the Canucks could be packing their bags and leaving the bubble by mid-week. The Canucks will have to wait until next calendar year for their next chance to defeat the Jets, unless both teams advance past the first couple of rounds of of this year’s playoffs because the Jets and Canucks probably wouldn’t meet until the semi-final or Conference Finals.

5. Let’s move on and talk about the travesty that is this year’s draft lottery. As usually happens at the end of June, the NHL ran their annual draft lottery to decide who will pick 1-15 in the next NHL Entry draft, tentatively scheduled for early October, shortly after the cup has been awarded. Things were a bit different this year, the seven teams that outright missed the playoffs plus the 16 teams the play-in round having balls in the draft lottery. The NHL was hoping that everything would go smoothly draft lottery with the three lotteries won by teams that outright missed the playoffs. Things went the way the NHL would have wanted them to go with the lotteries that decided who would get the 2nd and 3rd picks in the NHL Entry draft,  going to Los Angeles and Ottawa respectively, both of whom outright missed the playoffs. However, a placeholder team won the first draft lottery. This means, after the play-in round is completed, a second draft lottery involving the losing teams of the play-in round will occur to determine who will pick first overall in the 2020 NHL entry draft. Potentially, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who finished seventh overall in the NHL, could win the right to pick first overall in the NHL entry draft, should they lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the qualifier round and win the second draft lottery (BTW, the Habs took game 1 of their series). This should not happen. A further travesty, Detroit Red Wings, dead last in the NHL, dropped three places and will now pick 4th overall in the NHL entry draft. In some respects, the current lottery system does work, in that, tanking and finishing dead last does not guarantee picking first overall. In fact, in most years that this current draft lottery system has been in place, the team that has finished last in the NHL has dropped three spots, which can make a big difference if that year’s draft class is weak. If Pittsburgh does end up winning the first overall pick, you can bet that the NHL will revisit the current draft lottery system and adjust it.

6. The biggest challenges the NHL face in successfully completing tournament two issues. First will be the ability to properly sanitize surfaces on the benches and in the locker rooms with so little time between games. With two city hubs being used, less than an hour between each game at each hub (especially if a game goes multiple OT’s) and six games total per day, the NHL will have to be on top of things to be able to make sure that the playing surface is safe to play on. To be sure, the players will be using their own water bottles. Further, each player will have their own room at the hotel they are staying at and will not be sharing with a teammate. There might be challenges in the hotels with getting in the same elevator with various training times and game times. Another challenge the NHL will face is keeping players in the bubble and also making sure that hotel staff members don’t bring COVID-19 into the hotel. I’m sure that teams will be policing their own teammates and compliance will be high at the beginning of the playoffs. The team’s coming from the US will initially be under an eight day quarantine. Keeping players in the bubble later in the playoffs as cabin fever starts to creep in, will become a challenge. What if a player like Jake Virtanen finds himself a healthy scratch for several games and decides to say screw it and go out on the town for the night? I’m using him as an example because he has a history of this kind of behavior with the Canucks. It really won’t take more than one or two players getting sick to spread it to their team and other teams. Just look at the MLB, where 20 players and staff members were infected from COVID-19 because a couple of players decided to sneak out to a night club in Atlanta. That decision affected the schedules or 6 teams. It is less likely we’ll see something like this happen, since all the players are being housed in 2 cities.

7. It’s been 27 years since a Canadian team last hoisted the Stanley Cup. This season, six Canadian teams are playing in the qualifier rounds, the Vancouver Canucks, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens, the Winnipeg Jets, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Calgary Flames. There are technically no home teams. Edmonton and Toronto are both hosting this tournament and will probably be playing harder so another team win on their home ice. Only one team is guaranteed to make it past the qualifier round and  into the main Stanley Cup Tournament (the winner of the Jets-Flames series). Montreal probably has the greatest incentive to do well in this tournament as  the least deserving team to be in this tournament with just a 1.7% chance of making the playoffs when play stopped in March. All of the Sportsnet hockey panelists were picking the Penguins to defeat the Canadians and one Pittsburgh Penguin was musing about who was even on Montreal’s top line. It is likely that there will be at least three Canadian teams possibly four the qualifier round. Just two of a possible five Canadian teams won their opening game

8. Right off the bat, there was a nasty injury during the play-in round. Jets forward Mark Scheifele went awkwardly into the boards as he tried to avoid a hit by Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk. Scheifele immediately grabbed his left leg in agony and left the ice with the support of a teammate and the Jets trainer. After the game, Jets head coach tried to suggest that Tkachuk tried to intentionally injure Scheifele by bringing his skate up at the last minute. Judge for yourself, but I see zero intent to injure. To me, it was a real unfortunate accident that very likely ended Scheifele’s season. The Jets also lost star right winger Patrick Laine, who left the game later, clutching his wrist (probably slashed). Should both players be unavailable to play the rest of this round, the Jets will have to dig deep and find some offence from more unlikely sources.

9. The Canucks played the first game of their series against the Wild. While they fired 29 shots that got through to Alex Stalock, the Canucks were also over-passing at times. The Wild play a similar style to the NJ Devils, who like to clog up the neutral zone. Getting the first goal next game will be vital, because the Canucks absolutely CANNOT lose next game. Jake Virtanen and Loui Eriksson were healthy scratches. Look for one or both to draw into the lineup next game. Jordie Benn was also not in the lineup as he is either just back from Dallas or still in Dallas. The Canucks should add Michael Ferland or Antoine Roussel should play with Petey to deter some of the cheap stuff he endured tonight.

10. Canuck of the week: Micheal Ferland. The fiesty winger appears to have truly recovered from his concussion. While he didn’t score this week, he played his usual physical game that will eventually wear down the opposition. He took a penalty in the 3rd period Sunday for spearing

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