Canucks are in same place as two years ago, but the direction is different

Heading into the All-Star break, Canucks found themselves in a familiar spot.

Pass it to Bulis

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Two years ago, the Canucks went into the 2017 All-Star break with a 23-20-6 record, giving them 52 points — just one point out of a playoff spot. A young forward led the team in goals and points and represented them at that All-Star Game.

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Two years later, not much has changed. The Canucks once again had 52 points heading into the All-Star break with a 23-21-6 record and once again sit on the cusp of a playoff spot, tied in points with two teams ahead of them that have games in hand. They’re even led in goals and points by another young forward, who represented the team at the All-Star Game.

In other words, the Canucks are exactly where they were two years ago, before they slid down the standings to finish 29th in the NHL. Nothing has changed; yet, at the same time, everything has changed.

The 2016-17 Canucks were a team in decline, stumbling down from a mountain peak that included two Presidents’ Trophies in the previous years. Bo Horvat led the team in scoring at the All-Star break, but he had just 32 points in 50 games, an indicator of just how much the Canucks struggled to score. By the end of the season, they set a new franchise low for goalscoring.

If last season was the valley, the 2018-19 season seems like a trek up a new mountain. They may be at the same altitude as two years ago, but instead of stumbling downward, they’re climbing. The Canucks used the fifth overall pick they got following their dismal 2016-17 season to draft Elias Pettersson, who leads the Canucks this season with 23 goals and 45 points in 40 games.

It’s not just Pettersson, however, that has the Canucks looking like they’re on the way up. The 2016-17 didn’t have much youth beyond Horvat. Of the Canucks’ top-ten forwards in scoring at the All-Star break, only Horvat, Sven Baertschi, and Markus Granlund were under 25.

This season, the Canucks’ top-four scorers are all under 25 — Pettersson, Horvat, Brock Boeser, and Nikolay Goldobin — and not far behind is Jake Virtanen, as well as Granlund and Baertschi, who are now 25 and 26, respectively. It’s a lot easier to be optimistic when fans can see the shape of the Canucks’ new core coming together.

That’s not to say the Canucks are in good shape for the future and can now rest on their laurels. A team that has fallen short of the playoffs in four of the last five seasons should have a core group of young players making an impact in the NHL. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Many teams get to this point — a collection of young stars that, given the right circumstances, could battle for the playoffs — and falter, failing to propel themselves beyond that into true contention for the Stanley Cup. The Canucks need to supplement their offensive depth, but their biggest need is on defence.

While Pettersson, Boeser, and Horvat have emerged as the new leaders of the Canucks at forward, the same hasn’t happened on the back end. The Canucks’ defence is still led by the longest-tenured players on the team, Alex Edler and Chris Tanev.

Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher are fine defencemen, but not the type of top-pairing defencemen needed for a new core. 20-year-old prospect Olli Juolevi has potential, but his rocky development path and knee surgery suggest he’ll be more of a second-pairing guy.

All hope lies in Quinn Hughes. The Canucks’ first-round pick from 2018 has number-one potential thanks to his stellar skating, high-end hockey sense, and sublime skill. At 19, he’s leading his NCAA team in scoring as a defenceman, which is unusual, to say the least.

If Hughes can have a similar impact on defence as Pettersson, Horvat, and Boeser had at forward, the Canucks should continue in their upward trajectory. Like all hikes up a mountain, however, it will take patience and perseverance to reach the peak.

Big Numbers

11, 19 - Elias Pettersson is the obvious favourite for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Despite missing games to injuries, he’s put significant distance — 11 goals and 19 points — between himself and the next best rookies.

41 - Defenceman Jett Woo, drafted in the second round in 2018, has 10 goals and 41 points in 42 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors in the WHL, which leads all Canucks’ prospects in points this season.

Stick-Taps and Glove-Drops

A tap of the stick to Elias Pettersson, who opened some eyes with his solid performance in the Fastest Skater event at the 2019 All-Star Skills Competition. Not know for his speed, Pettersson finished in fifth, close behind some of the fastest skaters in the league.

I’m dropping the gloves with whoever decided not to put Pettersson in the Shooting Accuracy event, even if it was Pettersson himself. Pettersson leads the NHL in shooting percentage and had a chance to give the Canucks back-to-back rookie winners after Brock Boeser won the event last year. 

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