Vancouver Canucks: Lessons to be learned from Preds and Pens

Feb 7, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville Predators forward Pontus Aberg (46) shoots the puck while defended by Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luca Sbisa (5) during the first period at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 7, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville Predators forward Pontus Aberg (46) shoots the puck while defended by Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luca Sbisa (5) during the first period at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /

The Vancouver Canucks offered up a pretty dismal 2016-17 season. As such, there are plenty of lessons that the Canucks could learn from watching this year’s Stanley Cup Finalists, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.

Over the past three seasons, fans of the Vancouver Canucks were told repeatedly that the team was going to push to make the playoffs, with the tantalizing promise that once the playoffs begin, “anything can happen.” The Canucks only achieved that goal once, and the mystical “anything” turned out to be a quick exit at the hands of the Calgary Flames.

Now that the front office is apparently committing itself to the rebuild, it is time to dispense with the dream of sneaking into the playoffs and having a magical against-all-odds run to the Cup. This was a rather foolish dream in the first place.

Instead, the Vancouver Canucks need to take the long road of building a legitimate contender, as both the Penguins and Predators have been for several seasons. There are lessons to be learned here.

Get Lucky

Let’s be honest, getting lucky will not happen to the Canucks. Luck has never been favourable to this franchise, and two-straight years of dropping in the draft lottery are probably the freshest examples. As such, following in the footsteps of the Pittsburgh Penguins isn’t really an option.

In 2004, the Penguins had the second-overall pick and got Evgeni Malkin (Alex Ovechkin went first.) In 2005, the Penguins won the lottery and drafted first, getting Sidney Crosby. You just can’t manufacture luck like that.

These are two generational players, with few peers anywhere in the NHL. Vancouver’s closest comparables are the Sedins, who at their best were close, but probably not quite as dominant as Malkin or Crosby. Since 1999, when the Sedins were drafted, Vancouver hasn’t had a chance at anyone of that caliber.

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Pittsburgh’s franchise has been built around these two players, as Vancouver’s was built around the Sedins, but as Henrik and Daniel near their retirement, there are no replacements in the wings. Brock Boeser looks to be a great player, but he is not Connor McDavid or Austin Matthews.

While Pittsburgh’s success is not down to Malkin and Crosby alone, it is indisputable that those two players are the backbone of everything these Penguins have achieved.

Consider: is Marc-Andre Fleury’s career .908 playoff save percentage (league average hasn’t been lower than this since 2000-01) a series-stealer? Who is Chris Kunitz, without Sidney Crosby? Is Phil Kessel still producing as effectively if Malkin isn’t drawing so much attention from defenders? Does Pittsburgh have shutdown defense?

If the answers to these questions is no, then we have to chalk up a fair bit of its success to those two indispensable and irreplaceable players that have led it to four Stanley Cup Finals and two – perhaps soon three – Stanley Cups.

Work the Draft

Nashville is probably the team that Vancouver has a better chance of emulating. Unlike Pittsburgh, Nashville doesn’t have a single generational player. PK Subban, while a great player and a wonderful hockey personality, is not an impact player the way that Crosby or Malkin are. Instead, Nashville has collected a strong set of very good players, and one of the ways they have done that is by working the draft.

Pekka Rinne, upon whose shoulders Nashville’s hopes most likely rest, was drafted 258th overall in 2004. Roman Josi, anchor of Nashville’s blue line, was drafted 38th overall in 2008. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, also key to the Preds’ defense, were drafted 11th and 102nd overall, respectively, in 2009. Austin Watson, impactful forward in the bottom six, was drafted 18th overall in 2010. Pontus Aberg and Colton Sissons, both of whom have scored key game-winning goals in this playoff run, were 37th and 50th, respectively, in 2012. And perhaps the biggest coup of them all, Viktor Arvidsson, with 13 points in these playoffs, was drafted 112th overall in 2014.

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That is an impressive list, especially considering how deep in the draft many of these players were acquired. Only two of these were even in the first round.

Even Pittsburgh has made some major gains through the draft, notably 77th overall in 2013 (Jake Guentzel), 22nd overall in 2012 (Olli Maatta) and 80th overall in 2010 (Bryan Rust).

In the current era of the draft lottery, no team can rely on tanking for a generational player. (Thanks, Edmonton, for ruining that for everyone.) So if Vancouver is going to build a contender, they will need to demonstrate the capacity, as especially Nashville has, to draft valuable players beyond the first round. After all, this was supposed to be Jim Benning’s specialty, and early results haven’t been particularly impressive.

Building for Skill

Ok, it seems obvious. We want skilled players. Who doesn’t want skilled players. Jim Benning has literally said “we are looking for skilled players.” Why does this need repeating?

Because even while Jim Benning claims he is looking for skilled players, the 2016-17 campaign was marked by a plethora of bumpers, grinders, muckers, and players otherwise known for the ‘sandpaper’ game they bring. (Or, as Brandon Sutter put it, players with “grit and balls.”) Derek Dorsett, Michael Chaput, Joseph LaBate, Jayson Megna, Jack Skille, Joseph Cramarossa. That’s just this year.

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A successful team needs a balance of things, and physicality is obviously part of that. But there are arguably no spots on Pittsburgh or Nashville’s roster that are taken up by players like Joseph Cramarossa (Cody McLoed is perhaps the one exception, though his skill set is probably better than Cram’s). The Stanley Cup Finalists have physical players who can score, like Patric Hornqvist or Colton Sissons.

Does anyone from the above list of Canucks crack the Pens or Preds lineup? Dorsett and Skille are the only ones who might be on the bubble, and only because they bring some skill to the table. Maybe Jake Virtanen can yet emerge as that kind of player. But the Canucks have to be looking for skill first, because they will not be a contender until they have four lines that can score.

Some of Benning’s acquisitions – especially in the latter half of this past season – suggested a shift in this direction. Nikolay Goldobin, Jonathan Dahlen, Reid Boucher are all players who bring a lot of potential skill, and Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund also fit that pattern. This is definitely the right path.

Offensive Defense

Elliotte Friedman noted earlier in these playoffs that Vancouver Canucks prospect Jordan Subban was in Nashville visiting his older brother, who told him to watch video of Ryan Ellis. Ellis, like the younger Subban, is a small and mobile defender who distributes the puck effectively and makes a significant contribution to the Preds’ offense.

The Preds’ defense has had something of a coming out party during this playoff run, with several commentators noting the speed and skill of their back end. Following the blockbuster trade of Shea Weber for PK Subban, Nashville’s defense cannot be described as physically “punishing.” Rather, they are quick and they get involved offensively, pinching more than most other teams, and it has proven very effective.

Pittsburgh’s defense plays a more traditional role (and has been decimated by injuries) but also has the advantage of the above-mentioned Malkin and Crosby on the front end. Notably though, another final four team, the Ottawa Senators, has an extremely offensive-minded defense led by Erik Karlsson. A more offensive defense might be the trend over the next few years and Vancouver needs a huge amount of help here.

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There are few brights spots in Vancouver’s defense, especially after losing Nikita Tryamkin to the KHL. Troy Stetcher is a key piece of the future and was one of the biggest surprises of 2016-17. Ben Hutton shows some positive signs but faltered this past year. Olli Joulevi should be a step in the right direction, but the Canucks have a long way to go to get to a top four like Josi, Ellis, Subban, and Ekholm. Some of my colleagues at The Canuck Way think that Benning should be open to taking an offensive defender with its fifth-overall selection this summer, and while I am partial to drafting a scoring centre, I don’t disagree that skilled, mobile defense is an area of need.


Rebuilding takes time. Most Canucks fans know this and are prepared to wait it out. In fact, the front office might have been wise to trust its fanbase three years ago and start the rebuild in earnest then. Instead, the past three seasons have been, to many minds, a waste.

Now that the rebuild is really on, it’s going to be long and hard and – especially since there is no McDavid or Matthews on the Canucks’ horizon – it will require patience.

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Nashville didn’t get past the first round of the playoffs until 2010-11, its 12th season in the NHL. After missing the playoffs from 2012-2014, it still took them until this season to get past the second round. Given that Vancouver’s path is likely to look more like Nashville’s than Pittsburgh’s, fans had better hunker in for a bumpy ride.