Sven Baertschi

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Injuries derail best thing about Canucks this season

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Even if you wanted to douse the fire a bit with talk of lucky bounces, it was impossible to totally dismiss the excitement generated by the Vancouver Canucks’ young, shockingly effective top line of Sven Baertschi, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser.

As it turns out, regression isn’t what spoiled the party. Instead, two-thirds of that tremendous trio have been dealt significant injuries in a short span.

About a week ago, word surfaced that Horvat would miss about six-to-eight weeks with a broken foot. Monday’s update was similarly grim for Baertschi, as a fractured jaw is expected to cost the winger four-to-six weeks.

Here’s the update from Canucks head coach Travis Green:

You really need to crane your neck to find a silver lining in the dark clouds hanging over the Canucks, who’ve lost two straight games and five of eight.

Some will find it intriguing to see how Boeser, the Canucks’ lethal-scoring and well-coiffed winger, fares with both his partners in crime on the shelf for at least a month.

[Boeser recently channeled Pavel Bure with a sweet goal.]

To his credit, Boeser collected a goal in each of the two games with Horvat sidelined; perhaps some of his ability will simply override linemate concerns? His shot continues to befuddle goalies, as you can see from the video above and also read about in detail via this great breakdown by Justin Bourne of The Athletic (sub required).

When you consider the Canucks’ schedule going forward, what seems like a good opportunity instead becomes something of a mixed blessing.

Mon, Dec 11 @ Winnipeg
Wed, Dec 13 vs Nashville
Fri, Dec 15 vs San Jose
Sun, Dec 17 vs Calgary
Tue, Dec 19 vs Montreal
Thu, Dec 21 @ San Jose
Sat, Dec 23 vs St. Louis
Thu, Dec 28 vs Chicago
Sat, Dec 30 vs Los Angeles
Mon, Jan 2 vs Anaheim
Fri, Jan 6 @ Toronto
Sat, Jan 7 @ Montreal
Mon, Jan 9 @ Washington
Thu, Jan 12 @ Columbus
Sat, Jan 14 @ Minnesota
Fri, Jan 20 @ Edmonton
Sat, Jan 21 @ Winnipeg
Mon, Jan 23 vs Los Angeles
Wed, Jan 25 vs Buffalo
Mon, Jan 30 vs Colorado

As you can see, 2017 ends with some significant opportunities for the Canucks, as their road-weary start pays off to a lot of home-cooking in December. The new year gets off to a rocky start with that seven-game road trip from Jan. 6-21, but the overall haul without one or both of Horvat/Baertschi is reasonably friendly.

Such a stretch might end up sending mixed signals to management, however.

[Top line put on a show against Sidney Crosby and Penguins in early November.]

If the right path is to continue to rebuild while also enjoying unexpected returns thanks to youngsters like Boeser and clever work by Green, then treading water amid injuries might provide too much false hope. Yes, it must be refreshing to at least get the glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel, but the Canucks still need to look at this situation realistically.

There’s also the possibility that Vancouver will rally, only to really hit a wall during that early-2018 road trip.

Being middle-of-the-road is less depressing in the moment than “tank mode,” yet there’s also the risk of puck purgatory: falling short of the postseason while ruining chances to add more franchise-altering young players like Boeser. He seems like quite the find as the 23rd pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, but recent history shows that you’re most likely to build a winner with lottery-level prospects rather than shrewd, late-first rounders.

Just about any way you slice it, this is a bummer for the Canucks, who lose precious weeks to better gauge a proper value for Baertschi (a pending RFA who should expect a hearty raise from $1.85 million).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canucks’ kids smoke Crosby, Letang, Penguins

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With nine points in nine games so far this season, 20-year-old Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser couldn’t keep this up.

It turns out he decided to pick up that pace at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ expense. Boeser generated a hat trick and an assist in the Canucks’ 4-2 win, and he actually probably robbed himself of a fourth goal when he selflessly tried to set someone else up for an empty-netter.

Boeser isn’t the only member of the Canucks’ kids line (does it have an agreed-upon nickname yet?) who stood out on Saturday. Bo Horvat, the more established member, scored a goal and three assists. While Horvat is 22, Sven Baertschi is the grumpy old man of the trio at 25. Baertschi collected a trio of helpers himself.

So, Boeser is now at 13 points, Horvat has 11, and Baertschi also has 11 over 10 games. They were involved in all four of Vancouver’s goals tonight. They’re a huge part of the Canucks improving to 7-4-2, while Jacob Markstrom helped to curb the Penguins’ push to get back into the game.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this dominant performance was that it came against stars like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang:

This continues a passing of the torch in Vancouver, as consider this: Daniel and Henrik Sedin received less than 10 minutes of ice time apiece on Saturday. This was all-youth, and a brave decision by head coach Travis Green, who seems to be accelerating the Canucks’ ascent toward credibility.

Now at 8-6-2, you could see Crosby’s frustration, and not just due to a missed call late in the game. The Penguins mercifully end a five-game road trip with a 1-3-1 record.

Speaking of being on the road a lot, the Canucks will face a serious test this month. Vancouver will deal with 10 of its next 14 games away from home:

Mon, Nov 6 vs Detroit
Tue, Nov 7 @ Calgary
Thu, Nov 9 @ Anaheim
Sat, Nov 11 @ San Jose
Tue, Nov 14 @ Los Angeles
Thu, Nov 16 vs Vegas
Sat, Nov 18 vs St. Louis
Tue, Nov 21 @ Philadelphia
Wed, Nov 22 @ Pittsburgh
Fri, Nov 24 @ New Jersey
Sun, Nov 26 @ NY Rangers
Tue, Nov 28 @ NY Islanders
Thu, Nov 30 @ Nashville

The Canucks are off to a shockingly solid start, but we’ll get an even better idea of this team through that run.

Nights like these might be frustrating for the Penguins and a beautiful one for the Canucks, particularly their rising top trio of forwards. Time will tell if Vancouver can keep it going and if Pittsburgh can shrug off these early peaks and valleys.

Besides, it’s a long season, so Penguins fans should enjoy some comic relief:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Former Penguins prospect Pouliot gaining confidence with Canucks

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VANCOUVER — A trade prior to the start of the season brought Derrick Pouliot to Vancouver. An injury to the club’s top blue liner, Alex Edler, presented a chance for the former Penguins prospect to get into the Canucks lineup.

Through seven games, Pouliot’s confidence is beginning to grow with the Canucks, who have started to roll over the past few games despite expectations that they would once again struggle in the Western Conference despite a number of offseason acquisitions and a coaching change.

Selected eighth overall by the Penguins in 2012, Pouliot had never played a full regular season for Pittsburgh, instead splitting his time between the minors and the NHL since joining that organization. Just prior to the start of this season, the Canucks decided to take a chance on the left-shooting defenseman, sending Andrey Pedan and a fourth-round pick in 2018 to Pittsburgh.

In Vancouver, Pouliot re-joins his old Portland Winterhawks teammate Sven Baertschi and coach Travis Green. He acknowledged that it’s nice knowing some familiar faces as he gets more familiar with his new team. On the ice, Pouliot has three assists while being used on the point on the power play.

“I feel good out there on the ice. Hockey is fun and it’s good to come to the rink every day,” said Pouliot last week, after the Canucks thumped the Washington Capitals. “The change of scenery is sometimes all you need.

“Getting more comfortable with the guys, how they play, the guys’ habits … and then just playing a regular shift, playing every night. It really helps your confidence grow and your overall game develop.”

Pouliot is so far averaging just below 16 minutes of ice time per game on the third pairing, while posting a Corsi For rating of just under 52 per cent at five-on-five, per Corsica. Known as a player that can quarterback the power play from the blue line, the Canucks have given him opportunities with the advantage at 2:51 per game in the absence of Edler.

While the Penguins were willing to move on from the now 23-year-old blue liner, Canucks general manager Jim Benning admitted at the time of the trade that they have had interest in Pouliot dating back to his junior days and the hope is that his offensive potential, which he has shown in the WHL and then when he made the jump to the AHL, will pay off in Vancouver. The belief from Benning was that Pouliot fit in well with the style Green wanted to play, and he was confident it was worth the chance as the team searches to find more offense throughout its lineup.

Pouliot also isn’t the first player struggling to make the full-time jump to the NHL that the Canucks have taken a chance on in recent years. Baertschi and Markus Granlund were both prospects in the Flames system, splitting time between the NHL and AHL but ultimately unable to secure full-time roster spots in Calgary before they were acquired in trades with Vancouver.

“I think he’s a guy that plays with a lot of confidence most of the time and he makes his plays,” said Baertschi of Pouliot.

“The way I know him from back in junior is he’s exactly the same player, still. Maybe a little more mature now. But he still wants to make plays. Sometimes you don’t expect that exact play but he’s still going to make it and that’s what makes him such a good player.”

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

The Buzzer: Canucks continue Red Wings’ slide

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Player of the Night: Sven Baertschi

Last season, Baertschi was a bright spot for a dismal Vancouver Canucks team, generating new career-highs in goals (18) and points (35) in 68 regular-season games.

The 25-year-old carried over some of that momentum early on, generating three points in seven games, but they were all assists. Sunday marked his best moment of 2017-18, as Baertschi scored his first two goals of the campaign (giving him five points in eight contests).

Bo Horvat is the honorable mention in the Canucks’ 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings, collecting his first two assists of the season. Jake Virtanen also found the net for his first goal of the season.

(As an aside, Derek Dorsett somehow has five goals already in 2017-18. Dorsett’s career-high is 12 goals, but he’s already in range of tying his second-best mark of seven.)

Highlight of the Night: Why not go with Baertschi’s two goals?

Factoid of the Night: This marks the fourth straight loss for the Red Wings, dropping them to 4-4-1 after a promising 4-1-0 start. But the hits could keep coming.

Beginning with Tuesday’s game against the Sabres in Buffalo, Detroit will play three straight road games and seven of their next eight away from home. The bright side is that they’ll enjoy a ton of contests at their expensive new pad starting in mid-November, but the next few weeks could really dim whatever optimism the Red Wings built up early on.

(For pro-tanking Red Wings fans, this might not be such a bad thing.)

Sunday’s lone score: Canucks 4, Red Wings 1

Canucks, Kings ‘put on a show’ during first NHL preseason game in China

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SHANGHAI (AP) A golden dragon was held aloft on poles by skaters. Kobe Bryant appeared on video. NHL mascots gave the crowd a primer on what this odd game is all about.

NHL preseason hockey made its debut in China – a 5-2 victory by the Los Angeles Kings over the Vancouver Canucks – in a step by the league to crack an immense market.

The fans in Shanghai got a fast and physical display Thursday – 17 power plays and 57 shots on goal, all met with loud cheers. Each hard check drew a collective “oooh” or “aaah.”

“Obviously, you wanted to put on a show for the fans here and they got to see some goals, too,” said Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi, who scored the Canucks’ first goal.

An announcer came onto the ice to explain the finer points of the game as Fin (Vancouver’s killer whale) and Bailey (Los Angeles’ lion) acted out infractions such as charging, crosschecking, tripping and hooking.

A golden Chinese dragon came out next, hoisted on poles by seven skaters. A group of Chinese kids in hockey uniforms joined the NHL players during China’s national anthem.

With Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the NHL is showcasing two preseason games in a country unfamiliar with hockey. The Kings and Canucks play their second game in Beijing on Saturday.

Even if the rules remain somewhat of a mystery, the crowd appreciated the speed and collisions.

“To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know the crowd, the noise, the atmosphere,” Los Angeles coach John Stevens said. “I think the whole thing for me is we’re here to grow the game. It’s my hope that the more they see it, the more people like it.”

Tanner Pearson scored twice for the Kings and Alec Martinez and Jeff Carter each had a goal and an assist. Jonathan Quick made 31 saves.

Team allegiances were hard to find in the crowd, the most demonstrative fans being rowdy Canadians waving their country’s flag.

Spectator Inge Zhang was more appropriately attired for an NBA game, wearing a Miami Heat jersey with pink letters. A media manager for the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, she was excited because she heard a certain NBA great might be there.

“So we came here actually for Kobe Bryant,” she said while her friend laughed. “But I love this sport, too.”

Bryant, in fact, did show, although in a video message to support his hometown Kings.

“I see more foreigners here tonight than Chinese, but I think there are still a lot of hockey fans in China,” Zhang added. “I think the NHL should take this opportunity to grow the sport here.”

That’s the plan now that the NHL has signed a contract to bring two preseason games to China for six of the next eight years.

“The effort here really is to build from the grassroots up, to try to grow the appreciation for the sport, the understanding of the sport,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said before the game. “We’ve certainly made the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the Chinese government aware that we’re willing to help any way we can as they gear up and prepare for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.”

But this is the first step in a long process.

“It’s great for China itself to see the NHL live and in person, see the speed of the game, how good the players are,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “But whenever you’re bringing hockey to a new country, it’s going to take time. I think it’s great the NHL is committed to doing that.”