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ten weekly random thoughts – Week 1: January 11-17

The Canucks kicked off the 2021 season with a two-game mini series against the Edmonton Oilers. The Canucks took the opener of the series 5-3 on the back of a 2 goal effort by Brock Boeser and a 28 save effort from free agent signing Brayden Holtby. Nils Hoglander scored his first career goal. Travis Hamonic got his first point as a Canuck with an assist. He may take longer to hit his stride, given that he hasn’t played since March, having opted out of the RTP tournament and not being able to practice with the Canucks until right before they broke training camp due to a required week-long quarantine. The next day, the Oilers exacted revenge, led by Connor McDavid, Leon Draisatl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. After holding the trio to an assist on opening night, McDavid (3G 2A), RNH (2G 1A) and Draisaitl (4A) scored a combined 12 points. The Canucks defense had no answers for the dynamic trio. Thatcher Demko wasn’t overly sharp in his season debut, making the mistake of freezing the puck with two seconds left in the period, instead of clearing it in the corner. His rebound control also could have been better. Nate Schmidt scored his first as a Canuck and Hamonic also had an assist. On Saturday, it was reunion day with Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev and Josh Leivo all facing their former teammates after opting to sign with Calgary in the off-season (Louis Domingue is also a Flame, but on the taxi squad). Hamonic also faced the Flames after signing with the Canucks last week. It was a tough game for the Canucks. Playing their third game in four nights, it showed with timing being off, lackluster performance and just an inability to match up to the fresher Flames. Jacob Markstrom got his 1st shutout as a Flame and Calgary notched 3 PP goals. Looking at the week ahead, the Canucks wrap up the road trip and first mini series with the Flames on Monday. They then return home to face the Habs for three games in four nights starting Wednesday (Tyler Toffoli faces the Canucks after signing with Montreal). Hopefully the Canucks get JT Miller and Jordie Benn back after the pair were held back for the road trip due to Benn having a false-positive result for COVID-19 (more on that later). Here are ten random thoughts from week 1 of the NHL.

1. The final roster was pretty much as expected. Nate Schmidt will be paired with Quinn Hughes to start the season. Olli Juolevi cracked the lineup after two frustrating years with injury. He held his own in the one game he got into during the playoffs. Juolevi will be on the 3rd pairing with veteran Tyler Myers. Sven Baertschi, unfortunately did not crack the roster (or taxi squad), meaning it’s extremely unlikely you’ll see him in the NHL, given he’s in Utica and would require a 14-day quarantine if recalled. The taxi squad will consist of career minor leaguer Justin Bailey (65 games of NHL experience), prospects Guillaume Brisebois and Brogan Rafferty (both played a handful of games in the 2018-19 season and spent the 2019-2020 season in Utica. Jack Rathbone enters his his pro season after graduating from Harvard. Marc Michaelis  is making the transition from the German league. Mike Dipietro will also be on the taxi squad in the event of an injury to Holtby or Demko. Dipietro is nearly 2 years removed from a forgettable NHL debut under extenuating circumstances (Jacob Markstrom was injured and Anders Nilsson was traded to Ottawa and Mike McKenna was subsequently claimed by Philadelphia when the Canucks tried to waive him). Since then, Dipietro has seen plenty of playing time in Utica and should be more prepared in the event of an injury. Jake Virtanen, who was demoted off the top line, and Loui Eriksson will be in/out of the lineup depending on matchups and performance. There’s lots of promise in the lineup, but there are sure to be growing pains as well

2. A big x factor this season will be COVID-19. Back on March 12, all play stopped in the NHL and NBA after Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus that’s wreaked havoc worldwide. The regular season was declared over in June and the NHL finished the 2019-2020 season with a Stanley Cup tournament with every team that had a mathematical shot at the playoffs when play stopped in March. The tournament went smoothly with no positive COVID-19 cases. However, that will almost certainly not be the case this time for a few reasons. First, the return to play tournament was played in two locations in Canada with extremely stringent protocol in place (very limited movement of players outside of going between the hotel and arena, which was fenced off. This time, the bubble will be larger and involve more travel between cities. The COVID-19 protocol are still strict (no going to retail stores or restaurants), but players can walk around less crowded parts of the city (so don’t expect Brayden Holtby to be traversing the seawall on a bright sunny day when it would likely be crowded). Also, pretty much everywhere in North America the Covid-19 situation is significantly worse than in the beginning of 2020 and in the summer. Ontario is reporting over a thousand new cases a day and their hospitals are getting crowded, reportedly to the point where doctors are picking and choosing who gets oxygen. The NHL can look at the NFL and MLB to know what to expect and take lessons from those two leagues. Already, the NHL has had to postpone games with 6 Dallas Stars players and staff testing positive for COVID-19. The Canucks are without JT Miller and Jordie Benn after Benn received a false positive result (Miller was considered a close contact of Benn because he is staying at Benn’s home). What you hope doesn’t happen is some games being decided by which team did the best to avoid Covid-19. The Miami Marlins represent the worst case scenario. They had 18 players and staff contract COVID-19, messing up the schedules of seven teams as the MLB had to postpone a week’s worth of games so the Marlins could sort themselves out and make a new team through recalls and a couple of signings. The NFL’s worse case scenario was when the New Orleans Saints had no quarterbacks available. What would happen if both Brayden Holtby and Thatcher Demko were to get COVID-19? The Canucks only have Mike Dipietro on their roster. Recalling a player from Utica is not an option due to the 14 day quarantine. I suppose the Canucks would have to borrow a goalie from another team because they are right at the cap and can’t afford to sign anyone else. I expect the season to be completed successfully with some bumps in the road.

3. Three Canucks who are entering a pivotal season:

  • Jake Virtanen – The 6th overall pick in the 2014 NHL entry draft, Jake Virtanen has been a frustrating player for both coaches and fans alike. Virtanen has had multiple training camps where he has not shown up in ideal physical shape. OK, you can understand the first camp or two not being where the team wants you in terms of physical conditioning (and also maybe excusable if coming off an injury), but when it’s your 6th pro training camp, you’re kind of expected to know better. Off the ice, Virtanen has also had some controversies, including distracted driving over the summer and being in a nightclub right before entering the bubble in preparation for the return to play tournament. On the ice, Virtanen is a good example that success in junior hockey doesn’t necessarily translate to being a star in the NHL. Virtanen had a 1117 point season for the Abbotsford Hawks of the PCBHL. For the Calgary Hitman, he had 71 and 52 point seasons. Last season was his best offensively (18G 18A) in the NHL. Virtanen has shown potential to be effective in the top 6. He has a golden opportunity to start the season with JT Miller out at least until Wednesday. Virtanen was quickly demoted off Bo Horvat’s line in the 1st period. He needs to be consistent or it could be a long season for him.
  • Travis Green – Head coach Travis Green is entering the 4th and final year of his contract. The first 2 seasons under his guidance weren’t great if you’re measuring purely wins and losses. The Canucks finished in the bottom ten of the NHL in each of Green’s first 2 years behind the bench. Then again, the expectation wasn’t to make the playoffs with the Canucks committed to rebuilding with the Sedins retiring and older players moving on. In fact, Alex Edler is the only player left from the team that went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2011. Now the Canucks have had a taste of the playoffs, winning the qualifying round and then knocking out the defending champs in the return to play tournament over the summer. The challenge this season will be to make the playoffs having lost 5 key players to free agency (Markstrom, Tanev, Leivo, Tyler Toffoli and Troy Stetcher). The challenge will be to see development in their younger players. The Canucks have a tough stretch of games coming up, with a trio of games against the Habs (always a tough opponent) followed by a lengthy road trip that starts January 30 and includes stops in Winnipeg (a team they haven’t beaten since 2016), Montreal and Toronto. If the Canucks struggle through that stretch of games and can’t get back on track, Green could be let go after the season.
  • Thatcher Demko – After a strong showing in the return to play tournament, the Canucks opted to let Jacob Markstrom walk in free agency, thereby giving Thatcher Demko the starter’s job (or at the very least, a bigger role in a 1A/1B tandem). In his first game of the season, Demko stopped 41/46 shots. He wasn’t as sharp as he could have been, spitting out a couple of rebounds and also making a mistake on the Oilers second goal by freezing the puck and not knocking it in the corner with a couple of seconds left in the period. Brayden Holtby will almost certainly be the goalie exposed in the upcoming expansion draft, and if he is selected by Seattle, Demko might truly be the #1 goalie.

4. Faceoffs are such a crucial and underrated stat in hockey. Win the draw and you gain control of the puck. Lose the draw and you have to try and get it back. Case in point, on two of the three goals against Calgary, the Canucks lost the draw and Calgary scored within a minute. Against Edmonton Thursday, Connor McDavid was allowed to sneak behind the Canucks defense and snap a buzzer beater home. During the season opener, it was a bit of an odd game. On all three Oilers goals, the Oilers won the faceoff prior to the goal. However, all five faceoff right before Canucks goals were also won by the Oilers. On Thursday, 7 of the 8 faceoffs prior to the goals were won by the team that scored (Adam, Gaudette won the draw on the Oilers 5th goal). In two of the three games thus far, the Canucks actually won more faceoffs than their opponent, but they did not win the draws they needed to win. Manny Malhotra was helping with faceoffs, but he was hired by the Maple Leafs as an assistant coach mid-September. Could the Canucks be missing his guidance in the faceoff dot?

5. One area that’s an early concern is the power play. It’s far too predictable and the Canucks are trying to be too cute with the passing. They had almost a 2-minute 5-on-3 advantage. They managed one shot, missed the net with another shot and had a third shot attempt blocked. Sure, it doesn’t help missing JT Miller, but the other players need to step up in his absence. And another thing, get rid of that stupid drop pass! It’s a time waster and if teams get wise to the play, it could lead to a shorthanded breakaway. Also, Tyler Motte should not be on the second PP unit Through Saturday’s game, the Canucks are one of 11 teams that have yet to score a PP goal. By contrast, Montreal leads the league with a 60% success rate with the man advantage. The good news is Miller returned to practice Sunday after being cleared by BC Health officials

6. Another early area of concern for the Canucks is taking penalties and not killing them off. Tyler Motte has been guilty of going to be box too much with 4 minors already. Antoine Roussel was slapped with a ten-minute misconduct after a night of frustration on Thursday. Alex Edler decided to wrestle a Calgary Flame with the play way up the ice. They say the penalty kill starts with the goalies and maybe Thatcher Demko and Brayden Holtby could have made an extra save, but the Canucks had to spend extra energy killing off unnecessary penalties. They rank 26/29 teams (the Dallas Stars have yet to play due to COVID-19 concerns) with only Arizona, Buffalo and St. Louis having a worse time than them at killing penalties.

7. It was milestone night for Brock Boeser on Saturday. He played in his 200th career game Saturday. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Boeser. In his rookie year, he saw his season end on this reverse hit by Cal Clutterbuck. The next season, he missed time with a wrist injury and last season he injured some ribs on a hit. Off the ice, Boeser always has h is father, who has dealt with multiple health adversities, including cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. Despite all that, Boeser has had a solid three years in the NHL, scoring 163 points (77G 86A) and is -1 for his career. Hopefully he’s in a Canucks uniform for life.

8. One team that the Canucks have had a horrendous time against is the Winnipeg Jets. If there’s any ideal conditions for the Canucks to end the losing streak currently at ten games, it’s this season. Often times, the Canucks road games against the Jets have come at the end of a long 5 or 6 game road trip. It is crucial that the Canucks get at least a couple of wins against thr Jets because if they don’t, it will be very difficult to make the playoffs. The Canucks play the Jets nine times, beginning Jan 30 in Winnipeg. They only play 56 games this season. If they lose all 9 to Winnipeg, they have to probably come close to sweeping one of the other Canadian teams. Ottawa would be a potential possibility to sweep, but not a guarantee. Here’s hoping they can get the proverrbial monkey off their backs early and often.

9. Here’s some of my predictions for the upcoming season:

North Division playoff teams: Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton
West Division playoff teams: Vegas, Colorado, St. Louis, Minnesota
Central division playoff teams: Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina, Nashville
East Division playoff teams: Boston, Washington, NY Islanders, Philadelphia
Conference finalists: Winnipeg, Vegas, Boston, Tampa Bay
Stanley Cup winner: Boston over Vegas
Alex Ovechkin will score 50 goals
Hart trophy winner: Connor McDavid
Selke trophy winner: Patrice Bergeron
Jack Adams trophy winner: Travis Green
Vezina trophy winner: Frederik Andersen
Norris trophy winner: Victor Hedman
Calder trophy winner: Alex Lefreniere (Nils Hoglander will make it four Canucks Calder finalists in a row)
Team most likely to disappoint: Calgary – they signed a bunch of free agents (mostly Canucks) to big contracts. The big questions are whether Chris Tanev can stay healthy and how Jacob Markstrom does without goalie guru Ian Clark
Team most likely to exceed expectations: Vancouver. Many pundits have picked the Canucks to take a step back after losing out on every one of their UFA’s
the season will finish relatively on time.
It’s likely that there will be bumps in the road with respect to COVID-19 cases (heck, Dallas has already had 6 positive cases). However, the NHL is kind of at an advantage with respect to when they started play. The NFL and MLB have already successfully completed regular seasons, so the NHL can refer to their policies and see what worked and didn’t work in their leagues.
The hockey will be exciting with a sprint of a season, players having a longer layoff (some teams more than others) and teams being healthier than they would be. I suspect we’ll see more injuries, especially early on with no preseason to ease into playing and an abbreviated training camp.

10. Canuck of the week: Boeser. The veteran right-winger has been one of the better Canucks over the first 3 games, scoring twice on opening night, having a +2 rating and throwing 5 hits. He even won a faceoff. Hopefully this will be a bounce back and injury-free year for Boeser.

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