After Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev joined the Calgary Flames in free agency, the Vancouver Canucks were faced with a burning question: How would the back end fare without its starting goaltender and longtime defensive pillar?
To no one’s surprise, it hasn’t gotten any better. However, few could have predicted the full extent of the Canucks’ struggles to start the 2020-21 season. Through 14 games, Travis Green’s men rank 30th defensively with 3.93 goals allowed per game. Compared to a season ago, that’s almost one additional goal (3.10 GAPG) to contend with every night. That squad wasn’t exactly an analytics powerhouse, but the 6-8-0 Canucks have devolved into a total train wreck under the hood.
They’re currently allowing the most shot attempts, scoring chances and expected goals in the entire NHL.
Unfortunately, this slide has been compounded by Vancouver’s shaky goaltending situation. Its new tandem consists of a declining veteran (Braden Holtby) and a promising if unproven 25-year-old (Thatcher Demko). Neither is solely to blame for the Canucks’ inflated goals-against numbers, but neither has helped the club’s cause either. Among the 53 netminders who have seen at least 100 minutes of even-strength ice time, Holtby (3.63 GAA, 89.6 SV%) ranks 40th and Demko (3.81 GAA, 89.7 SV%) ranks 42nd in goals saved above average. Meanwhile, Markstrom sits in eighth. Overall, the team’s on-ice save percentage has plummeted from 91.9 (14th) to 90.1 (28th).
Vancouver can’t get a key save when it needs one:
Since neither Holtby nor Demko appear capable of producing Markstrom-level results, the onus is on the skaters to right the ship. And the talent required for a turnaround is there. Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser are legitimate top-six forwards, while clever rookie Nils Hoglander looks like the real deal. Tanner Pearson and Tyler Motte, for their part, excel at grunt work.
On the blue line, Quinn Hughes remains one of the most electrifying players around. Nate Schmidt is a solid puck-mover. Alexander Edler provides a wealth of experience and defensive savvy. Tyler Myers has the size and mobility to handle a decent workload.
Though this isn’t the strongest roster in the Scotia North Division, there are certainly enough pieces to compete for a playoff spot.
So why does Vancouver look so terrible?
It starts at the top of the depth chart. 21 Canucks players have logged at least 50 5-on-5 minutes so far this year. None of Miller, Hughes, Pettersson or Boeser rank higher than 15th on that list in xGF%. That’s unacceptable. Granted, they’re still racking up their points and the club ranks 12th offensively, but it’s leaking scoring chances whenever its best players are on the ice.
Hughes’ metrics are particularly damning. Though the 21-year-old offensive dynamo remains as productive as can be (15 points in 14 games), he’s allowing the second-most expected goals and fourth-most actual goals in the entire league. Beyond the fact that he isn’t a stout defender yet, getting into a groove has been difficult for Hughes because he has seen a revolving door of partners on the top pairing. Travis Hamonic, Jordie Benn and Myers have each played at least 45 minutes alongside Hughes, and the numbers haven’t been pretty for any of those configurations.
Without Tanev’s steadying presence, the second-year defenseman is assuming heavier responsibilities that are taking a toll on his puck management. The club’s transition from defense to offense is considerably more painful this year:
Up front, Pettersson, Miller and Boeser look like they’re stuck in a daze. They’ve repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with brutal turnovers:
There errors don’t stem from the opposition’s pressure or high-end skill. These are unforced, monumental gaffes from the squad’s most important figures. They’re supposed to set the tone for their team, yet through 14 games, they’ve only set a horrible example.
Naturally, the rest of the players have followed suit.
Against the Montreal Canadiens, Adam Gaudette is loose with the puck as the last man back on the power play. Artturi Lehkonen strips him of possession and beats Holtby five-hole for a demoralizing 2-0 goal:
Here’s Schmidt insisting on a forehand spin pass for some reason. His refusal to make the simple decision—use his backhand—exposes too much of the puck and causes a mad scramble in the defensive zone:
Jalen Chatfield seems adamant about skating the puck into every conceivable obstacle. Seconds later, Brendan Gallagher buries the Canucks:
The picture isn’t any easier to stomach when the Canucks don’t have the puck. They aren’t displaying any urgency or solidity. There’s no desire to regain possession or stand their ground. As such, opponents are enjoying countless opportunities they don’t really deserve.
With a poor goaltending tandem in front of them, you’d think the skaters would band together and play a tighter brand of hockey to maximize their odds of victory. Instead, they’ve gone haywire, abandoning any semblance of team structure in favor of a disjointed play-it-by-ear approach. No one is on the same page. They’re all just hoping for the best.
That isn’t working out very well.
On Thursday night, Auston Matthews picks up the puck inside his blue line and rushes up the ice with Zach Hyman. Vancouver has two men stationed in the neutral zone to limit the damage. Or so you’d think. Miller can’t seem to make up his mind on which side to play, and by the time he realizes that Matthews is his mark, Toronto’s superstar center has blown by him and slipped the puck through Demko:
As it stands, Vancouver is constantly one step behind. Out of sync. The players are either forcing the issue or not trying anywhere hard enough. They can’t find that sweet spot. Worse yet, they can’t find a leader to help drag them out of the gutter. Not behind the bench. Not in the locker room. They keep looking to someone else, and as a result, they lack backbone. They’re crumbling at the first sign of adversity. One bad shift, one weak goal, and Vancouver just…quits.
That has yielded the fourth-worst points percentage in the NHL. The three teams below them occupied the bottom of the barrel last season too. Meanwhile, Vancouver was busy eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champions from the playoffs. The Canucks clearly have different expectations to fulfill.
Doing so begins with climbing out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves—and soon. A condensed schedule means time is not on their side.