“I thought we were tanking?” Those were the words of Vancouver Canucks President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford less than two months ago.
The Canucks were mired in a 2-7-0 slump in their previous nine games at the time and went 3-8-1 in their next 12. Bruce Boudreau was still their coach, Bo Horvat their captain, and Thatcher Demko was out with an injury.
The Canucks ranked 26th out of 32 teams in points percentage when Rutherford made that comment on January 16. They sunk to 28th on February 17 and appeared to have a realistic shot at falling further.
The tank was on. Connor Bedard was in sight.
But that was then and this is now.
The Canucks are having fun again because they have since turned their game around, thanks in large part to the return of Demko on February 27, and players buying into head coach Rick Tocchet’s system.
They’ve done it without Horvat, who was their leading goal-scorer when the Canucks traded him to the New York Islanders on January 30.
Anthony Beauvillier, who was part of the return for Horvat, has actually outscored the former Canucks captain since the deal. Playing primarily on a line with Elias Pettersson, Beauvillier has 14 points (7-7-14) in 17 games since joining the Canucks. Horvat, by contrast, has just nine points (5-4-9) in 17 games with the Islanders.
Vancouver’s best players have also stepped up, notably Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Andrei Kuzmenko, and Quinn Hughes.
The Canucks’ winning streak has also coincided with many of their top-six defencemen being out of the lineup. Oliver Ekman-Larsson hasn’t played since February 15, due to an injury. Ethan Bear last played on February 25, and Luke Schenn was held out of the lineup after February 18 before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Canucks have managed to turn things around with an unheralded trio of AHL defencemen call-ups in the lineup regularly since February 18. Christian Wolanin has played in 11 games since then, with Guillaume Brisebois (9) and Noah Juulsen (7) also suiting up often since February 18.
It’s too little, too late of course. Vancouver is 16 points back of the Winnipeg Jets for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. If the Canucks were to win all of their remaining 16 games, they would finish with 95 points. It took 97 points to make the playoffs in the West last season.
That’s why the Canucks’ first five-game winning streak of the season hasn’t been met with jubilation from fans. The winning streak is bittersweet for many, given it’s serving to reduce their odds of getting Connor Bedard in the draft lottery.
And it could get worse.
According to Dom Luszczynczyn of The Athletic, the Canucks have the NHL’s second-easiest remaining schedule.
Added a chart for remaining strength of schedule pic.twitter.com/560bFocXN8
— dom 🕰️ (@domluszczyszyn) March 15, 2023
Ten of Vancouver’s remaining 16 games are against non-playoff teams, which includes games against many of the few teams currently below them in the standings, like San Jose, Arizona (2), Anaheim (2), and Chicago (2).
They also play Los Angeles (3), Vegas, Dallas, St. Louis, Calgary (2), and Seattle.
The Canucks play their next three games on the road, in Arizona Thursday, Los Angeles Saturday, and Anaheim Sunday. Will they return to Vancouver on an eight-game win streak?
If the Canucks keep their current spot in the standings, they would have a 6% chance at winning the lottery, and 6.4% odds at picking second. The most likely outcomes would have Vancouver picking eighth (54.4%) or ninth (30%). There would even be a chance they could drop to 10th.
This year’s draft is deep, according to prospect experts, so there will be consolation prizes to be had.
But given the timing of this win streak, Canucks fans have to be thinking… I thought we were tanking.