Vancouver’s hockey season is over, and it couldn’t have ended soon enough for many.
Thing is, it wasn’t all bad. I mean, mostly it was, but not all.
With that in mind, I’ve put together this article on some of the positives and negatives to come out of the Canucks’ 2015-2016 season.
Rookie of the year, defenceman of the year, lip syncer of the year – whatever you call him, Ben Hutton arrived this season.
In his first NHL game Hutton had 17 minutes of ice time, and by his fifth game he was over 20 minutes for the first time.
While his corsi numbers were at the lower end for the team’s defencemen, Hutton led them all in scoring with 25 points. Defence can be learned, but that offensive touch can’t.
Ending the year on the first unit power play, fans will be excited to see more of that next season.
Plus he somehow kept smiling through it all.
The Frank Corrado story was overplayed by November, but a forensic examination of the season wouldn’t be complete without a mention.
With the Canucks going through 9-12 defencemen every year since the year 1920, fans knew losing a young, promising right hander on waivers would come back to haunt them.
Hutton had proved he belonged, but had they sent him to Utica to start the season, he’d have been called up within 10 games. And they could’ve kept Corrado.
By November, Vancouver was so in need of defensive depth, Benning said he’d look at claiming Corrado off waivers if the Leafs put him on them again.
It also made “asset management” the most used term amongst Canucks fans since “flip the switch”.
Jake Virtanen finished the season with the second highest corsi-for percentage on the Canucks, meaning the rookie was very good at driving play.
Following his disastrous World Junior experience, Virtanen was given great looks with first and second liners in Vancouver.
Virtanen had four points from October to December and nine from January on.
Still, the moment we may never forget was his attempt to liquify Conner McDavid in prospects camp.
Remember the plan for Jared McCann?
In early January Benning said the team had a plan for which games McCann would and wouldn’t play for the remainder of the schedule. The idea was to allow the rookie to have days off to rest and workout in the midst of the gruelling hockey season.
Then McCann was scratched a total of seven games interspersed in January and February and played every game in March and April.
Not only were plans to allow his body to recharge thrown out, he wasn’t put in a great position for success. After playing on the top line when Henrik Sedin was injured in December and looking good doing it, McCann was relegated to the fourth line for the remainder of the season.
And despite seeing the positive effect good linemates had on Virtanen’s confidence and growth, the Canucks didn’t help McCann the same way.
If Vancouver chooses to keep him with the big club next year, you have to hope they put him with some skilled players, because he definitely is one.
It’s no secret Bo Horvat struggled defensively this season. His plus/minus was second-worst in the NHL, and his corsi plus/minus was worst among Canucks forwards, but as noted by Sportsnet’s Thomas Drance, Horvat was thrown into a shutdown centre role usually occupied by seasoned NHLers in their late 20s.
Despite taking a large majority of his draws at the defensive end, Horvat was third on Vancouver in individual shot attempts, and he put up 40 points in his second season.
For comparison, Ryan Kesler put up 37 points in his third full season with the Canucks.
More remarkable: Horvat only had eight points two and a half months into the season.
Even more remarkable: Horvat became the face of the SixPack midway through the season.
Willie Desjardins took a lot of criticism this year – when a team is near the bottom of the league in the standings, it comes with the territory.
Critics pointed to his deployment of players, wondering why he stuck to rolling four lines instead of starting his offensive weapons when given offensive-zone faceoffs, or why he constantly played it safe playing Derek Dorsett and his linemates when down or up by a goal.
Supporters pointed to his development of young players.
Examined closely, the young players who excelled were the defencemen, Ben Hutton and Nikita Tryamkin. Hard to know if that’s because they were under the constant watch of assistant coach Doug Lidster.
On the forwards, Horvat was thrust into a defensive role usually reserved for players beyond his years after many felt he was held back last season, McCann’s skill wasn’t rewarded as he saw a steady diet of Derek Dorsett as a winger and fourth line minutes all season, and Virtanen – not sure yet.
Back to Desjardins’ deployment, TSN’s Travis Yost wrote an article last week showing how well each NHL team does at playing its most potent lines.
The graph shows that Vancouver played its best shot generating lines with the least frequency of any team in the league.
Meaning all that criticism about “rolling four lines” and playing Dorsett’s line too much in the third was warranted.
Tryamkin’s existence on the Canucks is a powerful force, and not just because he acts like Wario with permanent star power in Mario Kart…
He has given fans hope and something to look forward to going into next season.
Also, being a third-round pick in the 2014 entry draft, he solidifies Benning’s legend as the draft whisperer.
Good organizations have their team’s long term plan mapped out years in advance. They have an idea the trajectory the team will take.
Not saying they’re a model organization, but even though the Flames surprised themselves by being as competitive as they were in the 2014-15 season, they didn’t let it deter them from trading Curtis Glencross for two draft picks before the trade deadline. They didn’t get caught up in thinking they might have a shot at the Cup, and altering their plans because of it.
This season the Canucks had a plan, but it wasn’t a very good one: they were going to make the playoffs.
Everyone watching the team knew that even if everything went right for them, they’d be on the bubble to make it, fighting for a wild card spot if lucky.
Three weeks before the trade deadline Benning said he was still hoping the Canucks would make the playoffs and he was looking at potentially adding some pieces for their run.
Like I said, it wasn’t a great plan.
If the Canucks had a better, more realistic plan, they could’ve looked at trading Radim Vrbata last summer, instead of letting his value drop by playing him without the Sedins. They might have sold high on Hansen before the trade deadline, with his value propped up playing with the Sedins.
They could have acted early in the trade market, as did the Leafs, allowing them to trade Dan Hamhuis and Vrbata to help the rebuild, instead of keeping them and gaining nothing.
Instead, they tried to squeak into the playoffs and when that didn’t happen, it was too late for a plan B.
To end this on a positive, I bring up the moment that might be the highlight of the season – Beth Bartkowski’s media tour during the mom’s trip.
We wrote about this in February, and here’s her story on how she met Jim Benning one more time:
“I’m in the Vancouver rink in November and they have what they call a friends and family room and this man comes in and he’s shoving sushi in his mouth, and he goes, ‘Isn’t this the world’s best sushi? It’s from Miko.’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I need to join like an AA group like Sushi Anonymous. We need to get off the sushi,’ and he said, “Sign me up.’
I said, ‘Who are you?’ and he said, ‘Well my name’s Jim Benning.’ I said, ‘Do you work for the team?’ He goes, ‘I’m the GM.’
“I had no idea he was the GM – I signed him up for Sushi Anonymous! I didn’t even know who he was. You’re supposed to know this as a mom! I don’t know who these guys are.”
Told you it wasn’t all bad.