The Jim Benning era in Vancouver has been an easy one to criticize because, quite frankly, none of it has made much sense.
They have never been truly terrible, they have never really been good, and every offseason seems to focus on adding more and more depth players on long-term contracts in free agency in an effort to maintain some level of consistent mediocrity instead of actually building a championship contending organization.
This is how it has all looked from a distance, anyway. And maybe all of that criticism has been justified (and will continue to be justified in the future) but we have to at least acknowledge something about the 2019-20 Canucks — they might actually turn out to be pretty good.
Entering Friday’s game in Anaheim the Canucks are 8-3-1, have earned at least a point in nine of their past 12 games, and are one of the most surprising teams in the league. Even better for Canucks fans is there is plenty of evidence to suggest that all of it is for real. If nothing else things seem to at least be trending in the right direction.
Skeptics might point to the fact that Vancouver had a strong start last year (9-6-0 through their first 15 games) before falling off a cliff over the next four months, and hey, maybe that happens again. But everything about the way the Canucks were playing last year pointed to that start being a fluke and not something that was going to be sustained. Over their first 15 games they were getting caved in from a shot attempt standpoint, getting badly outscored at 5-on-5, and getting by based on nothing more than luck and good fortune.
This year’s early positive results are being driven by a positive process that at least has the look of something that might be sustainable long-term.
The 5-on-5 numbers through the first month paint a strikingly different (and more optimistic) picture this year. They are the ones pushing the pace of the play, they cut down the number of shot attempts they give up defensively, and as a result their goal differential has experience a massive positive swing.
One thing the Canucks have had going for them is they do have the most important pieces in place, and that is high-end, impact players. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser were rookie of the year contenders the past two years (Pettersson actually won it) and are both off to great starts this season. Their early success should not be a surprise because they are on track to be great players and have excelled from the moment they arrived.
But the real game-changer has been the presence of their newest Calder Trophy contender, defenseman Quinn Hughes.
Hughes was always going to be the X-factor on this team because he has the ability to play a role and be the type of player that can really swing the rebuild in a positive direction. He’s already playing 20 minutes a night, he’s driving possession, and he’s producing offense. The Canucks were lacking that sort of impact player on their defense, and Hughes has stepped right into that role and has yet to look out of place, even as a 20-year-old rookie.
The roster still has flaws, and there is still valid reason to question some of the contracts they have signed and made their salary cap situation needlessly complicated, but for the first time in four or five years the arrow finally seems to be pointing in the right direction.
Where they go from here this season remains to be seen, but they have at least given themselves a shot this year and seem to have a chance to build on something.