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Twenty weekly random thoughts: weeks 3 and 4 – October 7-20

As I was feeling under the weather last week, I am doing a special twenty random thoughts post that will cover 2 weeks. The first ten thoughts will focus on the week of October 7-13 and the final ten thoughts will focus on what happened last week. Alex Biega was moved to the Red Wings, technically Sunday night, but I’m including it here because I ran out of space in the previous week’s random thoughts post After losing their first 2 games, the Canucks made one significant change, flipping Michael Ferland and JT Miller on the scoring lines (more on that later). On Wednesday, October 9, the Canucks opened the home portion of their schedule with a tilt against the LA Kings, the Canucks original opponent 50 years ago. The pregame ceremony, which I’ll get into later, was very well done and involved players from each decade (Dave Tallon and Orland Kurtenbach from the 70’s, Stan Smyl from the 80’s, Kirk McLean decked out in his goalie gear from the 90’s, Todd Bertuzzi from the first decade of the 2000’s and the Sedins from the current decade). Henrik Sedin and Kurtenbach were involved in the ceremonial handover of new captain Bo Horvat’s new jersey (more on that later). The game itself wasn’t close, with the Canucks feeding off the energy in the building and behind their newly anointed captain to pound LA 8-2. JT Miller had a huge 4-point (1G 3A) game. Three of the goals on the night came from defenseman, including Quinn Hughes scoring his 1st career goal. Jacob Markstrom stood tall in net. Brandon Sutter even added a pair of goals. In between the games, the Canucks practiced at 8-rinks (more on that later). On Saturday, the road-weary Philadelphia Flyers rolled into town and were one of a half dozen unbeaten teams heading into play that night and who had traveled 10,000+KM and played in three different countries (Prague (Czech Republic), Philadelphia (USA) and of course Canada. This  game turned into a playoff-style grind that saw the Canucks edge the Flyers in a shootout, thanks to the superb goaltending of Markstrom. Chris Tanev also had a strong game with a pair of assists.

To kick off the most recent week, the Canucks took on the Detroit Red Wings, a team that is a shadow of the one that that made the playoffs 25 straight seasons before missing the previous three seasons. There is a bit of Canuck lineage on the Red Wings, with Tyler Bertuzzi, nephew of Todd Bertuzzi, playing on the Red Wings. Thatcher Demko got his first start of the season with Jacob Markstrom away on personal business. After allowing a goal on the game’s 1st shot, it was all Canucks the rest of the way with five consecutive goals. Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and Alex Edler all had 3-point nights. The PP unit struck for 3 goals in 5 opportunities. It became clear the Canucks had this game when they killed off a lengthy 5-on-3 early in the 3rd period. The Canucks then embarked on a 4-game road trip starting in St. Louis against the defending Stanley Cup champs. This game also featured Calder trophy winner Elias Pettersson and Calder Trophy runner-up Jordan Binnington. The Canucks came from behind twice and eventually made it four straight wins after Thatcher Demko matched Jordan Binnington save for save. It was nice to see Michael Ferland finally get his first as a Canuck after he struggled in the first five games of the season Bo Horvat did what good captains do and put on his work boots for this one. He scored a massive game-tying goal on a goal mouth scramble with just over six minutes left in the game. He also helped the Canucks dominate overtime racing up and down the ice to force turnovers. JT Miller continued his strong start to the season with another goal. A great effort led to the first road victory of the season. Two days later, the Canucks took on the NJ Devils in a match-up of the Hughes brothers (Quinn and Jack), who are both early favorites for next year’s Calder trophy. The Devils, like the Canucks, made a significant trade at the draft, acquiring defenseman PK Subban (the Canucks pried JT Miller from the cap-tight TB Lightning. One goal stood up as the winner in this one as Jack Hughes scored his first career goal against older brother Quinn’s Canucks. The Devils won this one on the back of very solid goaltending by Devils goalie MacKenzie Blackwood and 17 blocked shots by NJ defenders. The Canucks rang a couple of shots off the goal posts. The Canucks wrapped up the week with a tilt against the NY Rangers, who made a big splash in free agency, signing Artemi Panarin and trading for Jacob Trouba. Hughes will  also faced another Calder trophy favorite,  Kaapo Kakko, who was the 2nd overall pick in the 2019 NHL entry draft. Henrik Lundqvist is still the Rangers goalie and tends to be a thorn in the Canucks side. The Canucks responded nicely to the shutout loss, jumping out to a 3-0 lead after the 1st period. Jacob Markstrom was outstanding in his first game back after missing a week to take care of personal issues. The Canucks barely held on in the end thanks to sitting back and overstaying shifts, but they did enough to win.. Looking at the week ahead, the Canucks wrap up the road trip with a rematch against the Red Wings. The Canucks wrap up the week taking on Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. It could be the second to last time Ovechkin plays in Vancouver, as he could opt to retire when his contract expires in 2 years. Here are twenty random thoughts from weeks 4 and 5 of the NHL.

1. Let’s kick things off this week talking about the trade of Alex Biega. A free agent signing by the Canucks, Biega spent his 5 seasons as a Canuck bouncing between the minors, press box and playing. He was a depth defenseman who was a mainstay in the bottom pairing. He was also an effective penalty killer and played a physical game. Over 179 games as a Canuck, Biega had 36 points (4G 32A), 169 blocked shots and 482 hits. He played his first game in a Red Wings uniform last Tuesday, .

2. It’s amazing how one simple change can have such a huge impact on line chemistry. The first 2 games, the Canucks went with Bo Horvat between Tanner Pearson and JT Miller and Elias Pettersson between Brock Boeser and Michael Ferland. In practice the Monday after returning home from Alberta, the Canucks swapped Miller and Ferland and the change paid immediate dividends. The new Ferland/Horvat/Pearson line looked dangerous  this week. Miller had a huge 4-point night playing with Petey and Boeser. Hopefully the new lines can keep up the good chemistry

3. The opening night ceremony was well done. This being the 50th season of the Canucks, there will be celebrations practically every home game. On opening night, the Canucks included a player from each of the five decades when they announced the 2019-20 Canucks. It was great to see the various uniforms from the different eras as well (Dave Tallon wore the original stick jersey, Stan Smyl wore the infamous flying V jersey from the 80’s, Kirk McLean wore the skate jersey (and came out in his goalie gear), Todd Bertuzzi (who received the biggest cheer) came out in the white orca jersey from the early 2000’s and Daniel Sedin wore the home blue jersey the Canucks donned the better part of this decade). Mark Donnelly, who has been the primary anthem singer at Canucks home games since 2001, belted out the national anthems ahead of this historic opening night game. IMO, he is the best of the anthem singers I grew up watching because Donnelly always involves the fans when he sings the Canadian anthem. There were so many players who played prominent roles over the years that the Canucks could have picked to help celebrate opening night at Roger’s Arena. Whether some other choices were unavailable or declined, we’ll never know. However, the ones that were picked and accepted were awesome choices.

4. Also on opening night, the worst kept secret was revealed when the Canucks officially named Bo Horvat the 14th captain in team history. To have Orland Kurtenbach (the Canucks original captain) and Henrik Sedin, the most recent captain, present Horvat with his new jersey bearing the captain’s “C” on it, was a nice gesture. Iain McIntyre, one of the Vancouver Sun’s Canucks reporters, kind of let the cat out of the bag a couple of hours prior to the game when he tweeted the Canucks lineup with the C highlighted next to Horvat’s name. The team evidently knew who the captain would be ahead of the season in a team meeting with the Sedins making a special appearance. At the end of the day, Horvat really was the only choice, given his experience and prominence within the team. The other choices were either too young (Pettersson and Boeser) or too injury prone (Tanev and Edler). I think Horvat will do a phenomenal job leading the Canucks for the next several seasons.

4. The power play has had good and bad moments early on. They struck for the first time this season against LA, thanks to some slick puck movement and getting the puck up the ice. However, in their lone chance in regulation time Saturday, the Canucks reverted back to the bad habits that render the PP ineffective (being too stationary in the offensive zone, wasting valuable seconds retrieving the puck when the Flyers cleared and needlessly dropping the puck back. One of these times, teams are going to anticipate the drop pass (because the Canucks use it virtually every PP) and intercept the pass. I’d like to see the Canucks rush it up the ice more often and also be moving around when they have possession in the offensive zone to open up shooting lanes. Also, get Quinn Hughes on that 1st PP unit. He’s so dynamic with the puck and deserves the chance to play with the top unit.

5. Another bad habit the Canucks displayed was sitting back with a lead in the 3rd period Saturday October 12. The shots were pretty even (17-13 for the Flyers) through 2 periods and the Canucks were up by one. With the Flyers playing in their 10th different time zone in a week, the Canucks should have been attacking the Flyers at every turn. Instead, the Canucks went into the defensive shell and forced Jacob Markstrom to come up big several times before the Flyers inevitably tied the game with 5 minutes left. The Canucks nearly lost the game with 50 seconds left, but were saved by the goal post. In today’s NHL, teams will burn you if you try and sit on a lead.

6. On Friday October 11, the Canucks held a practice at 8-Rinks Arena in Burnaby, a short 10-15 minute bus ride from my apartment. The Canucks also occasionally hold practices at UBC Thunderbird Arena. These practices are open to the public and many of the players will sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. I think it’s great that the Canucks do this because not everyone can afford to go to a game or for an autograph session where one must buy a ticket. I have a skate jersey I got for my 7th birthday (no longer fits me of course) that I use for player autographs. I have most of the current team’s autographs on it already on it. Alex Edler also was kind enough to pose for a photo after the practice Friday. With the Vancouver Warriors playing out of Roger’s Arena (their season runs from end of November-end of April), the Canucks will be holding more practices at both 8-Rinks and UBC Thunderbird Arena when Roger’s Arena is unavailable.

7. Canucks fans who watched the Stanley Cup playoff run in 1994 will remember this amazing save from Kirk McLean that kept game 7 of the 1st round alive. On Saturday October 12, current Canucks starter Jacob Markstrom made a nearly identical save to win the game for the Canucks. Skip to the final thirty seconds of the video to see Markstrom’s save. He has really grown into an elite goalie after missing the cut his first season with the Canucks.

8. The Canucks-Flyers game also marked the return of ex-Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who coached the Canucks from 2006-2013 and was 313-170 over 540 regular season games behind the Canucks bench. He led the Canucks to the playoffs in 6 of the 7 seasons, including 2 straight president’s trophies for best record in the league and the 2011 Stanley Cup final. Vigneault went onto coach the NY Rangers the following five seasons, compiling a 226-147 record in 410 regular season games. He led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final his first year behind the Rangers bench, where they lost to the LA kings in 5 games. Saturday’s game was a typical one for an Alain Vigneault-coached team — a tight defensive battle.

9. Loui Eriksson has the unfortunate  rep for most expensive healthy scratch in the NHL right now. After being in the opening night lineup, Loui Eriksson hasn’t played since. He’s in the doghouse likely for an inexcusable lack of effort getting back on the eventual game-winning goal opening night. I mean, I get it was Connor McDavid, arguably the fastest player in the game, who was racing back into the Canucks zone after Brandon Sutter made that horrible unforced error at the Canucks blueline, but you have to make an effort to get back and at least make the play a little tougher for McDavid. Far too often since his arrival to the Canucks three seasons ago, Eriksson has been nowhere to be found on the stats sheet at the end of the night. He’s not a physical player and he really doesn’t block many shots, nor does he take many shots. At the end of the day, perhaps the best thing the Canucks can do is what they did with Roberto Luongo and Biega and let his agent speak to other teams and maybe garner some interest. The Canucks may have to accept a low draft pick, but at the end of the day, Eriksson is taking a roster spot from a player in the minors, like Kole Lind, who deserves a chance.

10. Canuck of week 4: JT Miller. Acquired at the draft in a trade with the TB Lightning, Miller benefited greatly from switching up the lines. He had a huge 4-point night vs LA and helped create the goal Brock Boeser scored against the Flyers. Miller, Pettersson and Boeser were a dangerous line for the Canucks in week 4.

11. Week 5 started with news that Jacob Markstrom had been granted a leave of absence to deal with a personal family matter. While it’s unfortunate that he’s dealing with bad news, in the long run it could be beneficial for him and the Canucks. First, it gets Thatcher Demko into a game. Second, Markstrom has required treatment after the last 2 starts, as per McIntyre. Third,  it serves as a bit of a mental break in the grind of a long season. Markstrom has been one of the Canucks best players early on, but every goalie needs time to reset and refocus. Here’s hoping that whatever Markstrom is dealing with, it ends positively.

12. Let’s talk about Thatcher Demko for a second. This is an important season for his development because now the Canucks have some decent depth behind him with Zane McIntyre, Michael Dipietro and Jake Kielly all in various stages in their career development. Demko is entering his first full season in the NHL after being recalled for good from Utica following the Jan. 4th trade of backup Anders Nilsson. Demko was 4-3 with a 2.81GAA and .913save% in 9 games (8 starts) last season. The 23-year-old rookie will be looking to build on the solid second half performance and help the Canucks return to the playoffs. Demko recovered nicely Tuesday. After allowing the first shot he faced to beat him, Demko stopped 26 straight to lead the Canucks to a 5-1 victory.

13. On Tuesday, Tyler Motte, who missed the first 2 weeks with an upper body injury suffered in the preseason, made his season debut, playing on the 4th line withe Jay Beagle and Tim Schaller. Motte is another energy guy who plays a physical game and is a strong penalty killer. In 79 games last season, Motte had 16 points (9G 7A), was -10, led the team with 200  hits, had 52 blocked shots  and a better than 2:1 ratio for forcing turnovers over coughing up the puck. Surely the Canucks puck possession will improve with Motte back in the lineup. Motte had a solid season debut, finishing with an even rating, 2 shots on goal, a hit and he forced a turnover. Motte sparked the 4th line, which was dangerous all night.

14. Another player working his way back from injury is Antoine Roussel, who has been skating on his own for a while and should be ready to return sometime next month, barring any setbacks. Roussel tore his ACL back in March and had season-ending surgery shortly after. Typical recovery time is 6-9 months. In 65 games last season, Roussel scored 31 points (9G 22A), had 87 hits, blocked 50 shots and gave up the puck as much as he forced a turnover (20 times each) He also won 50% of the draws he took (17/34). When Roussel does return, he’ll likely start on the 3rd line.

15. There has to be some concern with the health of Oscar Fantenberg, especially since the Canucks recalled Ashton Sautner and Travis Green said that no player was expected to be sent down to Utica. A roster move should have been required with the recall of Sautner since the Canucks were at the 23-man roster limit. Evidently Fantenberg is dealing with the same virus that forced Michael Ferland to miss time in the preseason. You can bet the team will be extra cautious with the use of water bottles until the virus has run its course and there have been no new cases. Fantenberg will probably be kept away from the team until the Canucks get back from the road trip. It’s been a frustrating start to his Canucks debut for Fantenberg, who played less than two preseason games for the Canucks, suffering a concussion. He has yet to make his regular season debut, although he was an option the past couple of games after getting cleared to play. Now, his playing future is uncertain.

16. Surprise teams of the first 3 weeks:

  • Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers had essentially the same team as last year, save for trading  Milan Lucic for James Neil and basically swapping goalies (Cam Talbot inked a deal with Calgary, while Mike Smith came north to Edmonton). Connor McDavid looks determined to break the Oilers playoff drought early on. Chicago handed Edmonton its first loss of the season on Monday. Can the Oilers sustain the winning at this rate? If I’m an Oilers fan, I’m nervous that the Oilers played from behind in all five wins.
  • Colorado Avalanche: The Avs were the last unbeaten team in the NHL after the Oilers loss Monday. The Avs are proving early on that last season’s playoff run to the 2nd round was no fluke. Mikko Rantanen, who signed a hefty 6 year contract, leads the Avs with 9 points. Captain Nathan MacKinnon is right behind him with 8 points. Phillip Grubauer has done his part with 4 of the wins. This Avs team looks dangerous early on.
  • New Jersey Devils- on the flip side, you have the NJ Devils, who have Jack Hughes, this year’s first overall pick and PK Subban, acquired in a trade at the draft, who lost their first four games before winning two straight. The Devils have the NHL’s worst goal differential @ -16.  Heck, even Ottawa has a win.

17. One thing I’m getting into a bit more this season is fantasy hockey. I’ve had fantasy teams a couple of recent years, but this is the first time I’ve had more than one team and using different websites. This year I have a team through Yahoo and a team through ESPN. Of course, the first step in any fantasy draft is to pick your players. Usually the draft is set a day or two before the season begins so that everyone knows who will be on everyone’s roster. My experience in picking players was vastly different this year. First, the ESPN draft had 40 rounds and the Yahoo draft was less than half that amount (~16 rounds). My draft order was roughly the same in both drafts (9 and 10). Draft order is important as there is a drop in talent after the best players. Most of the fantasy drafts I’ve participated in use a snake draft whereby the pick order reverses every round (i.e. 1-16 then 16-1 and so on). There are definitely strategies to picking players (one can pick the best player available or if they want a certain player they think might not be available the next time it’s their turn to pick, the fantasy player might opt to pick that desired player. It’s impossible (and not recommended) to pick all players from one team. Among the players picked, there are several bench players that don’t count towards the score on a given day unless you swap ne with an active player (can only be done between games). There are also a couple of spots allocated as injured reserve because as we all know injuries can and will happen with the physical nature of hockey. Once the draft is complete , it’s important to keep an eye on the players you pick because how well your team does as a whole determines your rank in the league. In the case of the ESPN league, it works a bit differently in that you are pitted against a different fantasy player and the winner of each week is determined by who did better in all the stats (faceoff wins, goals, assists, and most any stat you can think of that the  NHL tracks). For the real competitive fantasy player, it’s like a full-time job and if you’re really good you can win substantial monetary prizes. For me, fantasy hockey is more of a way to keep an eye on all the games and watch the sport I love.

18. One troubling trend the Canucks have shown at times this season is not being ready after scoring a goal. Against St. Louis Thursday, the Canucks were burned twice in under two minutes by Vladimir Tarasenko, who was in the right place at the right time for passes that he whipped by Thatcher Demko. Luckily, the Canucks were able to chip away and eventually tie the game, but you have to be ready the shift after a goal.

19. I want to end things off by talking about the schedule a bit because once again the NHL shafted the Canucks by making them be the first West Coast team to play back-to-back matinees. Hockey players are creatures of habit and are used to playing at 7pm or 7:30pm. Making a team play earlier in the day once is cruel enough, but to do it two days in a row is unheard of. The only decent thing is the Canucks had next to no travel time between the two games this weekend. The Canucks are already at a huge disadvantage with travel to begin with being on the west coast and a 90 minute plane ride from the closest road team. A team like the NY Rangers and NJ Devils, the two opponents of the matinees this weekend, have significantly less travel over the course of a season. It seems every year the Canucks get shafted in some way by the schedule makers. Last season, the Canucks had 3 6 game eastern conference road swings in the first half of the season. It was during these trips where the Canucks ran into injury problems. I just wish the NHL would be more fair to the Canucks sometimes.

20. Canuck of week 5: Thatcher Demko, who won 2 of 3 starts this week with Jacob Markstrom away on a personal leave. Demko stopped 83 of 88 shots in regulation and matched Jordan Binnington save for save in Thursday’s shootout win until Josh Leivo’s sweet goal in the 6th round to end it. Goaltending has been a pleasant surprise thus far.

 

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