Don’t look now, but the Canucks are first in the Pacific Division.
Actually, go ahead. Look.
Feels good, doesn’t it?
With a 27-18-4 record, the Canucks lead the Pacific with 58 points through 49 games, as they hit the All-Star break. With games in hand on Calgary, Vegas, and Arizona, they’ll have the chance to create some separation from some of the teams chasing them.
This is the furthest point into a season that the Canucks have led their division since they won the Northwest Division (yes, that’s how long it’s been) back in the 2012-13 season.
- See also:
There’s plenty of things that deserve praise for the team’s strong season to this point, so here are seven reasons why the Canucks are in first place.
1. Quinn Hughes exceeding expectations
On a team full of pleasant surprises this season, the biggest of them all is Quinn Hughes.
There were lofty expectations for the seventh overall pick from the 2018 Draft, but it’s safe to say the rookie defenceman has shattered them all.
Hughes is just 20 years old and is already doing things this team has never seen from a blueliner.
This play from Thursday’s game is just one of countless examples of Hughes using his creativity to move the puck effectively:
Quinn Hughes just did that?! pic.twitter.com/7pppCGBpz9
— Vanessa Jang (@vanessajang) January 17, 2020
Hughes has 34 points in 48 games, a 58-point pace that would break the Canucks’ all-time record for points by a rookie defenceman (Dale Tallon had 56 points in 1970-71). Hughes has also taken over Alex Edler’s spot on the power play, which has skyrocketed to seventh-best in the NHL, scoring on 23.8% of their opportunities.
And while he will always be more known for his offensive abilities, Hughes has proven he is more than capable away from the puck as well. Among Canucks defencemen this season, Hughes has allowed the fewest amount of shots and scoring chances against per 60 minutes by a wide margin.
2. J.T. Miller trade paying off
The Canucks had a busy offseason that saw a number of new faces brought in through either trade or free agency. While the free agent signings have been a mixed bag so far, there’s no questioning the team’s trade for J.T. Miller has provided a massive boost.
It was and still is a highly-scrutinized trade, but while the long-term implications of the trade are still to be determined, there’s no question that the Canucks would not be first in their division right now without Miller.
The results speak for themselves. The 26-year-old is second on the team with 46 points (17-29-46) in 49 games, on pace to shatter his previous career-high of 58 points. With Miller on the ice the Canucks have dominated possession at 5-on-5, controlling 56.2% of the shot attempts and scoring 59.7% of the goals.
Miller played throughout the lineup early in the year but he seems to have found a permanent spot on Elias Pettersson’s wing, though he takes a vast majority of the face-offs. He’s done exceptionally well in that area as well, winning 59.3% of his draws which is the second-best percentage in the entire league.
3. Elite goaltending
The backbone of any team, the Canucks have received exceptional goaltending from both Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko this season.
After an excellent 2018-19, the 29-year-old Markstrom has somehow found another gear this season and is performing like an elite goaltender. Among starting goalies (min. 25 GP), Markstrom ranks seventh in both save percentage (.916) and goals saved above average (7.97). Increase that minimum threshold to 30 games, and only Ben Bishop, Connor Hellebyuck, and Andrei Vasilevskiy rank ahead of Markstrom in those categories.
Demko has been no slouch either. The 24-year-old rookie boasts a strong 9-4-1 record, with a .904 save percentage and 3.06 goals against average. When Markstrom has needed rest or a leave of absence, Demko has proven he’s capable of backstopping the team to victory.
4. No sophomore slump for Pettersson
After arguably the most electric rookie season in franchise history, there was all kinds of pressure on Pettersson to not just repeat, but improve upon that performance this season.
So far, Dekey Pete has delivered.
After putting up 66 points in 71 games as a rookie, Pettersson is clicking at over a point-per-game rate in 2019-20 with 51 points (21-30-51) through 49 games. Alongside Miller and Brock Boeser (or lately, Jake Virtanen), Pettersson has driven Vancouver’s top line and top power play unit all season long.
Even with a number of other players stepping up this season, Pettersson is still the proverbial star at the top of the tree.
5. Core players have been healthy
The Canucks have certainly had more than their fair share of injuries over the years, but this season has been a luckier one on that front.
They haven’t been completely healthy of course — no team ever is — but the team’s core players have largely been together all season.
The team’s six highest-scoring forwards have all played in all 49 games, while Hughes — the leading scorer among defencemen — has missed just a single game.
The Canucks have particularly struggled with injuries to defencemen in recent years, but this season has been nearly perfect. Aside from Hughes’ one-game absence, Alex Edler is the only blueliner to miss time due to injury this year — a 10-game absence in which the Canucks went 5-5-0. Chris Tanev has played in every game this season (knock on wood) despite having never played more than 70 games in a season over his 10-year career.
6. Depth players are stepping up
When injuries have caused players to go down this season, the Canucks have been able to find players to step up into bigger roles.
There’s been a few examples of this, most notably Virtanen, who has slowly been earning an increased role with his improved play this season. The 23-year-old has been rewarded with some time in the top six and on the second-unit power play time, and he’s making the most of it.
Jake Virtanen has 19 points in his last 24 games. That's a 65-point pace and he's doing it without top PP time. #Canucks
— Bailey Meadows (@baileymeadows20) January 19, 2020
Already passed his previous career-high of 25 points, Virtanen seems to be getting better every game and is becoming a huge revelation for the Canucks.
Another great example is Loui Eriksson, who has looked surprisingly good on the second line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson. A lot of credit has to be given to the Canucks coaching staff for finding a role for Eriksson to succeed in while the whole city was ready to throw in the towel.
Adam Gaudette is another example, making the team out of camp and then sliding into the third-line centre role while Brandon Sutter was injured. Even with Sutter now healthy, Gaudette has played well and maintained that position, which now allows the Canucks to run three scoring lines.
7. Defending home ice
Taking advantage of home ice is key for any team in the NHL, and the Canucks have done a great job there this season. At 16-5-3, the Canucks have the fifth-best home record in the league. No team has fewer losses at home, while only Pittsburgh and St. Louis have more wins.