Every now and then, I like to take a look at another team in the Western Conference and pontificate about them. Here’s something on the red-hot Vancouver Canucks.
It had been a long time coming, but a couple weeks ago the Vancouver Canucks finally moved to replace their front office and coaching leadership after a lengthy run of poor performance.
General Manager Jim Benning, as well as Head Coach Travis Green, Assistant Coach Nolan Baumgartner and Assistant GM John Weisbrod were out, with Bruce Boudreau becoming the franchise’s 20th Head Coach and Scott Walker announced as his assistant. Stan Smyl will take over as Interim General Manager and Ryan Johnson will be his Interim Assistant GM.
The decision came after a 4-1 defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins, which left the Canucks with the Western Conference’s worst record of 8-15-2. Their star center, Elias Pettersson, who recently put his name to a $22m contract, had barely made an impact, scoring only four in his first 25 games, while Brock Boeser and the usually reliable captain Bo Horvat also struggled.
Fan frustration had grown steadily as the Canucks drifted down the standings, and there was a similar drift noticeable in the Western Conference and Stanley Cup outright markets as Vancouver dropped steadily into the category of massive underdogs on all of the major sportsbooks listed on Bookmakers.com.
Boudreau will be under pressure from the beginning to turn things around, but he does at least have the credentials to do so. His overall career record of .635 over 984 regular-season games with the Capitals, the Ducks and the Wild, is solid. He was the seventh head coach in the history of the NHL to register more than 200 games with multiple franchises, and was named coach of the year in 2008.
Walker, too, has plenty to recommend him. A former Canuck, he has been heavily involved with the Guelph Storm of the OHL, where he has served as Head Coach and President of Hockey Operations, winning an OHL Championship in 2013-14.
The good news for Boudreau and his team is that the season can still be salvaged. And there has been a notable upturn in results since the removal of the previous leadership team. In fact, the Canucks are currently on a streak of four consecutive wins, the longest streak in the Pacific Division, and the joint second-longest sequence in the Western Conference.
That has at least given the team a little breathing space, and has eased fears that the team could be heading for a points total in the low 60s and a season as disastrous as the 1998-99 campaign when they finished bottom of the West with just 58 points.
Boudreau may also benefit from the fact that no one expected the Canucks to make the playoffs from when he took over. Generally, the playoff bar is around 93 points, which means that Vancouver will need to amass 63 points from their remaining 51 games. That works out to a little over a 97-point-pace for an 82-game regular season, which would put them on par with the 2010-11 and 2011-12 teams, both of which won the Presidents’ Trophy. Such a transformation seems unlikely.
It is probably fair to say that their position in the standings and their win record did not fully reflect the team’s ability at the time when Green was removed. Evidence for that comes in the form of the high number of narrow losses that the team has recorded.
In 16 defeats so far, Vancouver has lost by one goal or two goals, including an empty netter on 11 occasions. In those situations, one more goal, one more penalty kill or one more save, as well as a fair share of luck, can turn defeat into victory. To an extent, they can expect that luck to even out over the course of a season, although unfortunately for Green, the patience of the franchise had run out.
There are clear promising signs here. Three of their four wins under Boudreau have been narrow victories, and two came through shootouts. It could be that a change of personnel at the top and the sense of a new beginning has given the players enough of a boost that they have been able to change those small negative margins into small positives.
One factor that could work against Boudreau, and which ought to ensure playoff talk is not taken seriously, is the difficulty of the Canucks’ schedule. In fact, at the time that Boudreau was appointed, pundits were predicting that their remaining schedule was one of the top four toughest in the NHL.
It is a sobering thought to bear in mind that their poor start coincided with the relatively straightforward part of their schedule. The Canucks are yet to play the Capitals, Maple Leafs or Panthers, while they have two further games against the Flames and the Oilers, who are currently second and third in the West respectively, not to mention another three against the Golden Knights.
Despite their six consecutive wins, Vancouver still has only one team below them in the standings, the Seattle Kraken, and they are a full 10 points behind the division leaders, the Vegas Golden Knights.
But if the playoffs are a fanciful aim, there is still a lot to be salvaged from this season, besides pride. If Boudreau’s team can extend their current winning streak and turn around the poor morale at the franchise, and if he can get the best out of Pettersson, Boeser and Horvat, he will give the franchise a solid platform to approach the 2022/23 season, with the playoffs a realistic target.