Without the cornerstone piece to distract from the dismal process of turning over talent bit by bit, reassurances for the Vancouver Canucks must come from the decisions within their control.
Now one month in, a season believed to be squandered from the start has only offered reason to believe in what’s being built in Vancouver – even if the teardown is still far from complete.
Before the Canucks lost 2-1 in overtime to the Dallas Stars (despite targeting 39 shots on Ben Bishop), Trevor Linden admitted he was “pleasantly surprised” with the team’s hot start this season. But beyond accruing 14 points from their first 11 games, what really has the Canucks president of hockey operations encouraged on the long road back to relevancy is the early returns on the objectives outlined in the offseason.
Most notably, Linden is delighted with the work of first-year head coach Travis Green, who has had a tremendous impact from a tactical and stylistic standpoint. After conceding the fourth-most shots at 5-on-5 last season under Willie Desjardins, only the Philadelphia Flyers are allowing fewer average shots across all situations with one night to go on the opening month of the season.
Fewer looks, as one would imagine, has allowed Canucks goaltenders to cut down on goals against. Only the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights have held opponents to fewer than 26 allowed by Vancouver.
The reason for the improvement – albeit in this small sample size? Not an attention to detail in the defensive end, but a renewed focus on attacking when gaining hold of the puck. Vancouver is a harder team to score against because its new head coach has made offence the priority.
“Travis has the guys thinking about when we get possession and what our movements look like from that point. It’s been impactful, there’s no question about it,” Linden said. “We’re better defensively from a shots against standpoint because we’re spending more time in the offensive zone.”
The Canucks are also spending more time in the lead, which makes their ability to suppress shots through 11 games this season that much more impressive and is indication the NHL’s lowest-event team is performing even better than its 50.43 percent possession suggests.
Linden sees this as a product of the pace. From the start of training camp and with a standard set in practice, Green’s focus has been instilling a higher tempo. So far, the Canucks’ ability to “play fast” has caught teams by surprise – and might be the primary reason that they have jumped out to a 104-point pace.
Four lines, attacking
Unable to manage injuries with a threadbare roster last season, the next objective after promoting Green was to get deeper at all positions. The Canucks aimed to have four lines attacking and to model their defence around activation, deploying blue liners that can push the puck up ice and join the rush in an effort to eliminate the disconnect at times between the forwards and back end last season.
Thomas Vanek, Sam Gagner, Michael Del Zotto and Derrick Pouliot were brought in to fill in gaps on the roster. But aside from the return of Chris Tanev (or in Linden’s words, the “anchor”) to full health, the two players that have had the greatest impact on a team striving to maintain a constant level of pressure on the opposition has been Brock Boeser and Jake Virtanen.
The 20- and 21-year-old, respectively, have completed last season’s toothless top six in Vancouver. Boeser has provided a massive spark to a burgeoning second line with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi, having scored at better than a point-per-game rate in his eight games. Meanwhile, Virtanen has recently moved up to the top line with the Sedin twins to allow Green to disperse his weapons across each line to help achieve the objective set out in the offseason.
With Virtanen, the Sedins haven’t filled the net yet, having counted just two goals and six assists between them. But the twins are encouraged by the chemistry they are beginning to build with the former seventh overall selection.
“He has really helped their game,” Linden said. “He brings speed, can regain puck possession. They have really benefitted from having a guy that plays with that power and speed. He brings an element that really helps their game.
“They have really enjoyed what Jake has brought.”
From the depth standpoint, perhaps the most impactful offseason addition in Vancouver has been goaltender Anders Nilsson – even if he’s been limited to just four starts behind first-year starter Jacob Markstrom. Identified as a prospect with a great skills package and one they believed they could help get to the next level, Nilsson has allowed just six goals in 191 minutes, having counted three wins and shutouts over both the Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators.
The newly-formed partnership between Markstrom and Nilsson has the Canucks feeling confident regardless of who’s in goal.
“We looked at it as having two guys you can count on on a nightly basis – and that’s exactly how it’s worked out for the first 10 games. Both have been excellent,” Linden said Monday afternoon.
“Not only does it create competition, but more importantly it creates stability in net. Both of them (know) they have someone behind them that can come in and play well. If you’re Jacob, you know you don’t have to carry the load, ‘I’ve got support.'”
It was all a contentious undertaking, aiming to assemble a more competitive roster while many in the fanbase and around the team felt that bottoming out was the best course of action. But with the changes the Canucks have made and targets they have set out, the players who will be around on the other side of this rebuild are getting a real sense of the value in proper preparation.
Perhaps no player is appreciating this more than Baertschi, the “historically slow starter” who Linden, Green and the Canucks brass charted out a plan for over the summer in an effort to avoid seeing him fall under the same pattern.
With four goals and eight points in his last eight games after failing to hit the scoresheet in the first three outings, the Canucks are thrilled with his opening month.
“Sven has probably been our most dangerous forward, when I think about it,” Linden said. “Even in the first four or five games when he hadn’t scored, I really liked his game I thought he was getting to the right spots. He was quick, he was on pucks, he was protecting pucks. And the last couple nights he’s been rewarded, which is great to see.”
Take what you will from Vancouver’s first 11 games.
Surely it hasn’t convinced each of those who have questioned the direction of the franchise, and what many consider the counterintuitive practice of adding while disassembling in a league becoming more and more superstar-driven.
But because nothing is certain at the bottom of the league standings, hiring the right coach to implement the right system that hinges on having the right personnel, and having real quantifiable success and validation in the process, is a far better indicator of future success than showing up on draft lottery night with fingers crossed.