Vancouver Canucks Holiday Read: Rising to the Challenges

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The Vancouver Canucks are growing — painfully. Proving the old adage: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

How many elements do the Vancouver Canucks need to battle? Untimely injuries, crazy NHL scheduling, suspicious officiating against… the list seems to go on and on. As we head into the NHL holiday break until Boxing Day, let us take time to appreciate the bits of joy and intrigue — perhaps lost in the midst of all the struggles and battles — from the first 36 games of the 2015-16 season.

Battling: The Injuries

The Canucks were hit with injuries to all sorts of players. Just looking at the injuries that kept the players out for multiple games, top defenceman Chris Tanev was out for two games. Top defensive forward and second line centre Brandon Sutter is out since November 10th, projected to come back mid-January. Back-up goaltender Jacob Markstrom was out for 15 games with a hamstring issue, and now Ryan Miller is out with “cramps”.

The physicality department took some blows, too. Defenceman Luca Sbisa is out for 17 games and counting, hoping to return in the first weeks of January. The new Mr. Do-It-All Brandon Prust was out for 11 games, and rookie right winger Jake Virtanen had to take leave for eight games thanks to a nasty hip-pointer injury. Another young player, Ben Hutton, got sidelined for seven games, and Chris Higgins has been out from the lineup for 15 games and counting. Dan Hamhuis is out indefinitely with his facial fracture.

Related Story: Canucks Blessed with the Perfect Sequence of Injuries

The latest to return from injuries was the captain, as Henrik Sedin led the team to a hard-fought win in Tampa Bay. And now, Tanev is all banged-up, thanks to the blind zebras to bullets from Steven Stamkos’s stick.

From injuries to the ankle, the hand, the abdomen, the hamstring, the hip, and “cramps”, the hockey gods hit the Canucks hard with the injury bug this season. And the kids are being not-so-gently thrown into high-pressure situations with all the bodies out. Jared McCann filled in on the first line. Bo Horvat led all forwards in short-handed time on ice with 9:19 in the game versus Tampa Bay.

Battling: The Scheduling

The Vancouver Canucks have played a league-high 22 games on the road. That means that they have played only 14 games at home all season. Ridiculous scheduling if you ask me, especially for a Vancouver team infamous for their travel distances.

Of those 22 road games, the Canucks played 19 of them against Eastern Conference foes. The Canucks only play 13 more games against Eastern teams.

The Canucks have just one more long road trip East in January, and they will never have to leave the Western Conference for the rest of the season. The last Eastern road trip is six games long, and will feature the Washington Capitals, the Carolina Hurricanes, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not an easy trip by any means, but fun storylines, nevertheless. We will hopefully see former Canucks Eddie Lack and Nick Bonino in action, as well as the well-rumoured Travis Hamonic and the struggling Sidney Crosby.

Battling: The Coaching

If there is one part of the Vancouver Canucks organization that I want to pick apart, it would be the coaching. We won’t argue about the up-tempo offence and the general style of play. It is the player deployment. Why did you use Higgins in that shootout situation? Why was Vrbata out there on the 4-on-4, a then-mightily struggling 34-year-old against a quick team with plenty of ice to burn?

There are so many in-game decisions that Willie Desjardins messed up, being inflexible to the ebb and flow of games and his players. The players were always playing hard, and the goaltenders bailed the team out on multiple occasions during the season. Had Alain Vigneault or Mike Babcock been behind the bench instead of Willie D, I would bet that the current Canucks have a solid hold on the second Pacific Division playoff berth.

Related Story: Ryan Miller Not Good Enough?

Shining: The Goaltending

I am not arguing that Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom have been lights-out. Miller, especially, had a couple of off-nights that he would like to forget. Markstrom, I would argue, has been the better goaltender of the two, save that Boston Bruin 4-0 shutout loss. Not counting that single Bruins loss, Markstrom has 192 saves on 207 shots against, good for a dazzling .928 save percentage, good for seventh in the league.

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As for Miller, the aging net-minder is great in the sense that his game-time performance is so predictable. You know that a well-rested Miller will win you games, while an injured one or a cramping one will not. When he played for reals, he won some games for the Canucks. Especially with the defence going down in a heap in front of them, Vancouver’s netminders have done relatively well.

Taking a deeper dive into the world of goaltending reveals how good Markstrom actually has been. According to war-on-ice.com, Markstrom is ninth in high-danger save percentage — right below Cory Schneider and above Antti Niemi. With adjusted save percentage metrics, Markstrom is in fact above Henrick Lunquivst, Brandon Holtby, Jaroslav Halak, and Marc-Andrey Fleury. A heck of a company to be with, if you ask me.

Shining: The Sedins

And of course, the Sedins are the Sedins. “Dank and Hank” are lighting it up. Daniel is eighth in league scoring, and Henrik is eighth in assists. Just like the old times, eh? Daniel is going at a point-per-game, Henrik just behind at 32 points in 34 games.

The Sedins are two of the league’s top-30 oldest players. Not a single player older than them has recorded more than 25 points this season. While the rest of the Canucks try to extend their play beyond keeping the puck out of their own net — and failing miserably at doing so — the Sedins held the ship from sinking to the bottom. And they kept the pressure off of the kids.

Shining: The Kids

Speaking of the kids, talk about how Bo Horvat has redeemed himself. Sven Baertschi now has four points — three goals — in the last three games. Alex Biega boasts the best plus-minus of the entire healthy Canucks defence corps. Ben Hutton continues to impress as a calm presence who makes the most decisive out-let passes out there. The Kids have come a long way, folks. Ronalds Kenins fit in nicely against Tampa Bay, and now has 10 hits in three games this season.

McCann actually looks like he can play in the NHL. Biega looks like a regular, and Horvat is becoming a defensive leader, finding chemistry with Baertschi. Did you realize that Biega is just second to Henrik Sedin in Corsi-for relative? Biega also has the highest percentage of on-ice shots for that get through on net. I am telling you, he is the next Alex EdlerEdler.

Next: Canucks failing to adjust to the Trade Market

This season, as troublesome as it is, is a good one for the Vancouver Canucks. Sure, it could have been a bit more exciting, a bit more winning, and a bit more injury-free. But as we hit the Christmas break for the NHL, Canucks fans — we have more than we think to cheer about.