What Vancouver Canucks need to make the playoffs in 2019

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 18: Bo Horvat #53 of the Vancouver Canucks talks to teammate Sven Baertschi #47 during their NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks at Rogers Arena February 18, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 18: Bo Horvat #53 of the Vancouver Canucks talks to teammate Sven Baertschi #47 during their NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks at Rogers Arena February 18, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Nobody expected the Vegas Golden Knights to make the playoffs last season, and yet they reached the Stanley Cup Final. For the Vancouver Canucks to be 2019’s surprise team, here’s what has to happen.

Only twice in their history have the Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, but the chances are high that it happens a third time in 2018-19.

That’s not to criticize the players in at all. It’s just a fact that this team is still in rebuilding mode, and the Western Conference is loaded with Stanley Cup contenders. Realistically, the Canucks will probably compete for a playoff spot again in 2020 or 2021.

But maybe not.

Raise your hand if you had the Vegas Golden Knights making the playoffs, winning the Pacific Division and/or reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Nobody? Nobody has their hands up? That’s what I thought.

So if the Golden Knights can reach the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, why can’t a young team led by the likes of Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson guide Vancouver to the playoffs?

Have faith, Canucks fans.

If a few things go right, this team truly might end its four-year playoff drought in 2018-18.

Balanced scoring

With the Sedin twins retired, it means Boeser and Horvat are the only returning Canucks that had at least 20 goals and 50 points last season. Though it’s reasonable to believe Pettersson can post such numbers, the Canucks won’t make the playoffs if the three youngsters have to do all the work.

The Canucks can’t rely on Brandon Sutter or Loui Eriksson to regain their forms as reliable 20-goal scorers at this point. But if they can each chip in with around 14 goals and 30-something points, it’ll take some of the load off Boeser, Horvat and others.

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Some help from the likes of Sam Gagner, Brendan Leipsic and Jake Virtanen would go a long way, too. Again, these guys don’t have to be 20-goal scorers. But some power play production and double-digit goals from each would help significantly.

Also, some offensive production from a leaky blue line would do plenty of wonders. Head coach Travis Green stressed the importance of getting more from his defencemen in a recent interview with Sportsnet.

Blueliners step up…defensively

I just mentioned above that the Canucks need their blueliners to produce more offence. Not only that, but if the defencemen don’t clean up the sloppy play in their own end, the Canucks won’t come close to competing for a playoff spot.

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This Canucks team isn’t skilled enough like the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins or Toronto Maple Leafs to get by with merely average groups of defencemen. There aren’t enough scorers to single-handedly carry the team.

Erik Gudbranson was given a generous three-year, $12 million extension mid-season. The team is giving Ben Hutton another chance. Alexander Edler and Michael Del Zotto are entering their contract years.

All of these blueliners have a lot on the line in 2018-19. This team allowed 3.16 goals and 32.2 shots allowed per game last season, per NHL.com.

That’s not on the goalies by any means. Jacob Markstrom stole some games last season. Not even Carey Price or Sergei Bobrovsky could carry this team to the playoffs with the way this defence performed lasts season. So don’t go blaming the Vancouver goalies for the team’s struggles.

A playoff season in Vancouver starts with some better play from the blueliners. It doesn’t have to be great, but it has to stop being borderline awful. Otherwise, it’ll be another year of looking forward to the draft lottery rather than the postseason.

Decline in the Pacific Division

Even if the Canucks were to get around 95 points, that wouldn’t guarantee a playoff spot by any teams. The St. Louis Blues had 94 last season, losing out to the Colorado Avalanche, who had 95.

For the Canucks, they need the top teas in the Pacifici Division to start slowing down. The San Jose Sharks probably won’t now that they have Erik Karlsson. But the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings have two of the league’s oldest rosters, and they were both swept in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs. It’s clear these two teams are wearing down quickly.

Can the Golden Knights really repeat last season’s success? Losing David Perron and James Neal is cause for concern, but Max Pacioretty was a fine addition. Chances are, they’re in the running for the division again.

I personally don’t see it happening, but what if both the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers endure mediocre seasons? Maybe the Canucks can take advantage of a surprisingly weak division, and lock down one of the two spots?

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Making the playoffs in 2018-19 is much easier said than done for the Canucks, who have a lot of flaws that need to be taken care of almost immediately. But if a few things go right, and if the division rivals begin to slow down, making the playoffs this season doesn’t seem impossible.