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ten weekly random thoughts – Week 4: February 1-7

After a week of such promise, where the Canucks won four straight games, including outscoring the lowly Ottawa Senators 16-4, and beating Winnipeg in Winnipeg for the first time since 1996 (that Jets franchise moved to Phoenix following that season. On Monday, the Canucks travelled to Montreal, looking to exact some revenge from the week before. The Habs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the game’s opening 6 minutes off a pair of turnovers, including one off a dreaded drop pass while on the PP. The Canucks got one back, but the Habs got a late one to head into the intermission down 2. The response in the final two periods was one of defeat. The Habs largely controlled the play, outshooting the Canucks 30-18 and outscoring the visitors 3-1. Tyler Toffoli added a goal for his 6th against the Canucks. The lotto line was -3 on the night. with just 3 shots from Brock Boeser and a shot from Elias Pettersson. The Canucks allowed 30 shots and blocked just nine.  Jake Virtanen drew into the lineup and had three shots on goal, 5 hits and a giveaway and takeaway in 14:51 of ice time. The next night, Travis Green opted to switch up the top line, putting Bo Horvat with Pettersson and Boeser and JT Miller between Nils Hoglander and Tanner Pearson. Virtanen was back in the press box with Antoine Roussel back in the lineup after missing the previous game either grieving the loss of his agent or due to a minor ailment. It was Josh Anderson (2 1st period goals) and Tyler Toffoli (2 goals and a selfless assist) who did the damage offensively. To the Canucks credit, they got within a goal in the game’s final minute, but could not extend the game to OT. Next, the Canucks moved onto Toronto, where they met with the 1st place Maple Leafs. Toronto came in as the fresher team with four days off before this tilt. First goal was a poor defensive effort by a flying Auston Matthews, who basically walked in uncontested and beat Demko. The Canucks responded with a game-tying goal shortly after, but the Leafs lethal PP, which came in operating at a league-high 43% success rate, struck for a goal. Heading into the 1st intermission, you’d think a team would rally the troops and come out with a determined effort to tie the game. Instead, the Leafs added two more goals to the Canucks one to build a 2-goal lead that might as well have been a 100 goal deficit on this night. Jason Spezza scored a hat trick, the 8th of his career and his 1st since April 9, 2016. On Saturday, things started coming to a head with Braden Holtby giving JT Miller an earful (and probably a death stare) after the Canucks winger appeared to give up on the Leafs 4th goal. Miller has not had a good start to the season and was denied a goal earlier in the game due to an offside call. The Canucks were down 5-0 and looked like they were about to be shutout, but Brock Boeser broke the shutout bid with a tip-in on a late PP. Auston Matthews and Wayne Simmonds tallied twice each and Frederick Anderson was sharp. Jalen Chatfield had an especially poor night and should start the week in the press box as a result. Travis Green tried to get some fresh legs on the ice with Loui Eriksson and Justin Bailey making their season debuts in place of Adam Gaudette and Zack MacEwen. Bailey was used sparingly. Eriksson didn’t make a huge impact and his line was -2 on the night. Looking at the week ahead, the Canucks wrap up the road trip with a final tilt against the Leafs. They then return home to two days off for the first time this season. They then face the Calgary Flames and ex-teammates Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom and Josh Leivo. Louis Dominigue is the taxi squad goalie too. Maybe he might bake some fattening baked goods to fatten the Canucks up. Here are ten random, thoughts from week 3 of the NHL.

1. Tuesday was groundhog day, a day where the groundhog is supposed to come out of his hole and determine if we are to see six more weeks of winter or see spring six weeks early, depending on if he sees his shadow or not. Another allusion to groundhog day is the classic movie where the main character is stuck reliving the same day time and time again. For the Canucks, this weeks games were a similar snapshot: okay goaltending, missed assignments, turnovers and  lackadaisical effort at times. Predictably, the combined four factors led to four decisive losses to the top 2 teams in the temporary all-Canadian division. Travis Green tried to change the outcome by mixing up the lines, inserting and removing players from the lineup, but to no avail. Goalie changes didn’t move the needle either. So, how do the Canucks exit their version of groundhog day? The easing of the schedule should help by allowing time to rest and practice. The Canucks have essentially had about 2 maybe three practices since the season began. Several of the off-days were used for travel and other off-days became rest days with 4 consecutive weeks of 4 games in 6 nights. That’s a lot of hockey in a short amount of time. The good news is the Canucks only have three more back-to-back situations left and this month, the bulk of the games are at home so players won’t be living out of a suitcase.

2. Let’s talk about Jake Virtanen for a second. Pretty much right from the get-go, Virtanen has been a source of frustration for management and coaches. He regularly came into training camp out of shape, off the ice he was doing things that weren’t good for optics (caught distracted driving by filming with his  phone while driving, being out at a nightclub just prior to entering a bubble in preparation for the return to play tournament). On the ice, Virtanen showed flashes of why he was selected 6th overall in his draft year ahead of players such as William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, who have had bigger impacts at the NHL level. Virtanen was given a golden opportunity at the beginning of the season, playing with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson in the top 6 with JT Miller back home in Vancouver due to COVID-19 concerns. He did not take advantage of that opportunity, being demoted to the 3rd line by the second game. In 11 games, Virtanen has 1 goal, an even rating, 25 hits, a blocked shot, 8 takeaways and 4 giveaways. With Jim Benning probably desperate to keep his job, Virtanen could be moved in a panic move.

3. The Canucks signed and acquired 4 key players this past off-season. Let’s see how they did in the 1st quarter of the season

  • Braden Holtby – signed shortly after Jacob Markstrom opted to play in Calgary, Holtby was brought in to play a 1A/1B platoon with Thatcher Demko, who essentially won a bigger role with his outstanding play in the return to play tournament. Holtby was thought to be a solid signing as he was just 2 years removed from being a Stanley Cup champ with the Washington Capitals. In seven starts for the Canucks, Holtby is 3-4 with a .888save% and 3.83GAA. The defense in front of him has been less than stellar to say the least, but Holtby also struggled early with mechanics. His best game was Jan 28 vs Ottawa where he stopped 36/37 shots. This game came after a lengthy session with goalie guru Ian Clark. Now that the schedule has eased somewhat, Holtby should get some more sessions with Clark and hopefully get on a run in the near future.
  • Nate Schmidt – Essentially given to the Canucks by Vegas, who needed to shed some salary in order to sign Alex Pietrangelo, Schmidt was brought in to replace Chris Tanev, who also signed with Calgary. Schmidt has been paired with veteran Tyler Myers. Schmidt has been one of the more consistent Canucks (doesn’t say a lot on a team that has struggled out of the gate with 3 points (1G 2A), a +3 +/- rating, 23 blocked shots, 6 hits, 8 takeaways and 23 giveaways. The takeaway-giveaway ratio has to be a concern. Hopefully he just needs time to gel with his teammates.
  • Travis Hamonic – Signed the day before the season began (the Canucks needed to wait until Michael Ferland was on LTIR to free up the $$ to sign the veteran defenseman), Hamonic only played the 1st five games before suffering an upper body injury after a collision into the boards. Hamonic had a pair of assists, 7 blocked shots, 4 hits, 3 takeaways and 2 giveaways in the 5 games he played. He’s expected to miss some significant time.
  • Jayce Hawyrluk – a free agent signing for forward depth, Jayce Hawyrluk has had even worse luck. He was hurt during a training camp scrimmage after colliding with Tyler Motte. He has yet to appear in a game and there’s no timetable for his return. Once he does return, It’s expected that Hawyrluk will be in and out of the taxi squad, playing on one of the bottom two lines when he does get in the lineup.

4. The Canucks lost every pending UFA they had I am now going to look at how the former Canucks have done and how much they are missed.

  • Jacob Markstrom – Under the tutelage of the aforementioned Ian Clark, Jacob Markstrom blossomed into one of the elite goalies in the league. Due to the Canucks defense, he faced many grade A chances and he stole countless games that the Canucks have been losing this season. Markstrom is 5-3-1 with a 2.55GAA and .914save%, 1 shutout (against his former team no less). How much is Markstrom missed in Vancouver? Big time! The Canucks could use a goalie to steal a couple of games. Thatcher Demko had one strong week with 100 saves in 3 starts playing Ottawa twice and Winnipeg. In his other five starts, Demko allowed 4 goals twice and 5 and 7 goals once each. Braden Holtby’s best start was also against Ottawa when he allowed just one goal and stopped 36 shots. He has also been unable to make the extra save, giving up an average of 4.5 goals a game. Holtby allowed a season high 6 goals last Monday and five goals last night. The Canucks need one of their goalies to hone their inner Markstrom and start stealing some games, or they will be planning for the upcoming expansion draft.
  • Chris Tanev – The veteran defender also opted to sign with Calgary after a decade in a Canucks uniform . Where Tanev is missed most is his shot-blocking ability. The past several seasons, when healthy, Tanev regularly led the team or both teams in blocked shots, an underrated statistic in hockey. This season, Tanev has 22 blocked shots in 11 games, but he’s got a lesser role with Calgary, who are better defenders overall. The Canucks have been blocking less than 10 shots as a team on some nights, leaving the goalies to try and stop more rubber, or hope the pucks hit iron. Travis Hamonic, who was supposed to replace Tanev, is out for a bit with an upper body injury.
  • Josh Leivo – Coming off a horrific injury where he fractured his kneecap slamming into the boards December 2019, Leivo signed a 1-year deal with the Flames. During his time with the Canucks, Leivo had the ability to play up and down the lineup, giving Travis Green flexibility.. Last season, he scored 19 points (7G 12A) in 36 games before the season-ending injury. With Calgary, he has an assist, -3 rating, 5 hits, 3 takeaways and 4 giveaways in 10 games. Given those stats, it’s not likely he would have made much more difference to the Canucks than some of the other players who have been swapping between the main group and taxi squad.
  • Tyler Toffoli – Here’s a player who’s torched his former team since signing with Montreal. The Canucks and Habs played 5 of 9 games in the season series already and he has 8 goals and 2 assists in those five games, including a hat trick. Only Ales Hemsky (10G) and a guy named Wayne Gretzky (76G) have scored more against the Canucks. Toffoli would certainly be an asset playing with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson or on the 3rd line with Brandon Sutter and Antoine Roussel. He would improve the second PP unit. Maybe next time, Jim Benning, or whoever the Canucks GM is next off-season, will try a little harder when a player publicly says he wants to remain in Vancouver
  • Troy Stecher – Here’s a player who can’t torch his former team this season since he’s playing in Detroit and only divisional play is happening, including a temporary all-Canadian division. Stetcher was an emerging depth defenseman for the Canucks, who saw more minutes when injuries occurred. He scored the biggest goal of his career in the return to play tournament. He has a pair of assists, -5 rating, 16 blocked shots, 6 hits, 2 takeaways and 7 giveaways in 13 games this season. Stecher pretty much went from one rebuilding team to another rebuilding team that was further back in its rebuild. However, Stecher also landed a bigger role than he would have had in Vancouver, so good for him. Maybe one day he’ll sign with his home team again
  • Louis Domingue – Acquired a few weeks prior to the NHL shutting down due to COVID-19, Louis Domingue served as the Canucks third goalie in the return to play tournament after Michael Dipietro was deemed unfit to play with some kind of injury. Domingue mainly bided his time during the tournament baking pies, cookies and cakes. He did serve as the backup to Demko for the final three games of the tournament after Markstrom went down. Domingue’s taxi squad spot was going to Dipietro, so essentially Domingue inked with Calgary because they were looking for a 3rd goalie.

5. This next point is one that’s been a recurring topic and will continue to arise when things are going poorly and that is the call for one or both of Jim Benning and Travis Green to be fired. Let’s start by looking at the work of Jim Benning. He was hired as the Canucks GM March 23rd, 2014. He came in as someone adept at drafting players. He’s made 43 picks as Canucks GM. His most notable picks include Jake Virtanen (see point #2), Jared McCann (played 1 season for the Canucks, scored 9G and 9A in 69GP. Was traded in the off-season for Erik Gudbranson), Thatcher Demko (current Canucks starter, projected to potentially be elite goalie), Nikita Tryamkin (scored 7 points in 45 games before signing in KHL citing coach conflict and want of more ice time. Reportedly open to coming back to Canucks), Gustav Forsling – never played for Canucks, now a Blackhawks defenseman), Brock Boeser, Guillaume Brisebois (currently on taxi squad), Adam Gaudette (5th round find. has shown flashes of being solid in the NHL), Lukas Jasek (Canucks still high on him; another late round find), Olli Joulevi (just making his NHL debut this season after three injury-plagued seasons), Will Lockwood (suffered separated shoulder in WJC setting back development. Still among top 25 Canucks prospects, but slipping in rankings), Elias Pettersson (won Calder in 2019), Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovic, Michael Dipietro (goalie of the future), Petrus Palmu (another promising Finnish player), Nils Hoglander (could be 4th straight Canuck to be Calder finalist), Vasily Podkolzin (touted as next Pavel Bure). So many smart picks that have had or will have an impact on the Canucks in the coming years

Benning’s free agent signings have been less than successful. At the moment, he has several big contracts anchoring his ability to do anything to improve his team. Loui Eriksson and his hefty $6million deal were sitting in the press box for the first 14 games. Brandon Sutter is another big contract who struggles to stay healthy. Sutter has had 2 sports hernia surgeries, a shoulder separation and a broken jaw. When he’s on the ice, Sutter is effective as a 3rd line center and good on the PK. Jay Beagle has slowed a step or three and has done poorly in the faceoff circle. Benning’s poor choices in previous free agencies meant that all six pending free agents were allowed to walk in the off-season. Benning has also gotten steals in trades, acquiring Nate Schmidt essentially for a bag of pucks. He also acquired JT Miller, who was money on the lotto line with Pettersson and Boeser. This season has been a struggle with a delayed start to the season due to COVID-19. Acquiring Tanner Pearson was another solid trade and got rid of Gudbranson, who’s struggling with Ottawa currently. Ryan Spooner didn’t work out so well, but Luke Schenn really helped Quinn Hughes’ development in his short time as a Canuck. For Josh Leivo, see point 4. In all, Benning has made 43 trades, some of which have worked out and others did not. Since Benning arrived in Vancouver, the roster he inherited has completely turned over through player retirements, trades and players leaving through free agency. Would firing him now change the team’s fortune in the short term? Perhaps not. However, by letting him go now, the search for a new GM can begin forthwith and that new GM can have more time to assess the current situation. Maybe the new GM would do what Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray did in 2019 when the Ducks GM temporarily took on the dual role of GM/Coach to get a better read on the team and its needs. The Canucks owners are also likely to wait until the end of the season to assess the situation with Benning’s position

Travis Green’s job could also be in the balance, especially with the way the Canucks are responding to losses and bad periods. He’s been the Canucks coach now for going on 4 years, a long time in the coaching world. Coaches tend to lose the room after a while. Stay tuned, because Green’s future likely rests on how the team performs in the coming days/weeks. If the Canucks get swept by Calgary, it could be the end of Green’s time with the Canucks. Likewise, if Benning is gone, the new GM may want to hire his own coach.

6. When I’m watching a Canucks game, I like to scroll through my twitter feed to see some of the reaction online to what is going on in the game, be it in more general terms or a specific play or goal or save. I also partake in the Vancouver Nuckleheads facebook fan page game thread, but I want to focus on twitter at the moment. It should be noted that I follow all Canucks reporters and analysts, as well as many of the fans. For the most part, people offer intelligent responses and insight. There is a faction out there that wishes for the team to lose to gain a #1 draft pick in a rigged draft system, or to get someone fired. First off, I would never cheer for my team to lose. Further, these players are pro athletes and would never intentionally throw a game. Fans on twitter are quick to jump on struggling players. It amazes me that fans want to see JT Miller, who for all we know is still suffering from the effects of COVID-19, which includes extreme fatigue. There are almost certainly players playing hurt right now after so much hockey the first month. Twitter Canucks fans need to chill out and let things play out as they do. If Canucks twitter ran the Canucks, our roster would turn over faster than an Elias Pettersson rocket to the top corner. After every conceivable mistake, a player would be benched. Buying out any of the players would not have saved much money. Fans want more younger players on the roster? Ask Ottawa how well that’s working out for them.

7. After a month of play, two things are abundantly clear in the Canadian division: Montreal and Toronto are the teams to beat and Ottawa is all but certainly going to finish dead last in the Scotia bank north division. In the middle and fighting for the final 2 playoff spots will be Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and the Canucks. Vancouver is at a distinct disadvantage having played the most games in the league, and thus won’t control their own destiny. Calgary has an internal problem with Sam Bennett requesting a trade. They have a huge four game set against Vancouver this week that could leap frog them into a coveted playoff position. As usual, Edmonton has had leaky goaltending, but they have the ability to outscore any problems defending or stopping the puck. Winnipeg just made a blockbuster trade and will soon see how much of an impact Pierre-Luc Dubois can have on the franchise. They have the reigning Vezina trophy winner, Connor Hellebuyck in net. In terms of who leads the league in goal scoring, it seems to be who is playing the Canucks at the moment. Tyler Toffoli took the lead after Tuesday’s game against the Canucks, but was surpassed by Auston Matthews after the Leafs center sniped a pair by Braden Holtby.

8. As far as how the rest of the league looks I’ll give a quick synopsis division by division below

  • MassMutual/East – Before the season began, I felt that this division would be the division of death with so many strong teams and travel a non-factor. COVID-19 has been a bit of a factor with Buffalo, NY Rangers and NJ having several games postponed. Boston and Philadelphia have been the two best teams in the division. Boston, Philadelphia and the NY Islanders have perfect records at home. Alex Ovechkin, who was caught, along with three other Russian teammates, breaking COVID-19 protocol, just surpassed Mike Gartner for 7th on the all-time goal scoring list with his 709th goal this weekend. He’s 8 goals behind Phil Esposito. Wayne Gretzky holds the all-time record with 894 goals.
  • Discover/Central – In the central division, to no one’s surprise, Tampa Bay and Carolina have been the teams to beat. A bit of a surprise is that Florida is in 3rd place for the moment. Dallas is another team to watch out for – after all they made the Stanley Cup finals over the summer and largely have the same team coming back. Columbus could also go on a run with the newly acquired Patrick Laine and Jack Roslovic in the fold and now playing. Detroit, to no one’s surprise is dead last in this division, but they are in a rebuild
  • Honda/West – Finally, the West division has been a three-horse race between Colorado, St. Louis and Vegas, who are immersed in a three-way tie. It’ll probably come down to who wins the head-to-head battle between the three teams and don’t be surprised if a tie breaker or two is needed to decide playoff seeding. Anaheim is a bit of a surprise as the 4th best team, but they have a -9 goal differential and they have played two more games than the teams immediately below them in the divisional standings (Arizona and Minnesota) so they probably won’t be in a playoff spot much longer. As expected, LA and SJ are bringing up the rear in the division.

9. Finally, COVID-19 has had an impact in virtually every division. On Monday, Vegas and Colorado had a pair of games against each other postponed after COVID-19 concerns around Vegas, including their entire coaching staff. Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Kreuger tested positive for COVID-19. All but one day this week (Friday) had at least one game postponed. Amidst concerns about the COVID situation, the NHL implemented a few changes to protocol. First of all, the glass behind the benches will be removed for better ventilation.. The league is also considering asking teams to provide portable air filters behind the benches Second, players can’t arrive at the arena before 1 hour and 45 minutes before the game, unless undergoing treatment for injury. Team meetings are to be virtual, game day or not. Finally teams must provide additional locker space for social distancing. The league wants to get through this truncated season relatively on time because the off-season schedule is packed with Seattle joining the league for next season.

10. Canuck of the week: Slim pickings this week… Jay Beagle gets the nod for helping the penalty kill hold Toronto’s lethal PP to 2 goals in 9 opportunities. He was also the Canucks most consistent center in the faceoff circle.

 

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