Vancouver Canucks fans had at least some reason to be optimistic about this season.
They were coming off a 2019-20 campaign that saw them win a playoff round for the first time in a decade, and then come within a Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. On top of that the roster has three blossoming stars in Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes who should be their foundation for years.
There were obvious flaws (scoring depth) and the offseason was far from perfect with the losses of Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher and Tyler Toffoli. But they also added Nate Schmidt for almost nothing, and managed to get Braden Holtby on a cheap deal to pair with Thatcher Demko.
It was a team with concerns, but one that should have also created some excitement.
But so far nothing is going right.
The Canucks enter Monday’s game against Ottawa with the league’s worst points percentage (.288), worst goal differential (minus-13), and worst goals against number (4.71 goals against per game).
When you add that to the returning issue of no secondary scoring, as well as the fact that Pettersson has opened the season mired in a slump offensively, and you’ve got frustration wrapped in disappointment.
Some of this should have been expected and is the result of the Canucks’ own managerial missteps. The number one issue with this roster was always going to be depth beyond the top-five or six players. They overspent in recent years on the bottom of the lineup and have not received much of a return on those investments. It is those small overpays here and there that ate up enough salary cap space to prevent them from keeping players like Toffoli or Markstrom. Or simply adding better depth.
It had to be extra frustrating then to have Markstrom shut them down in back-to-back games (only two goals against him in a pair of defeats) and watch Toffoli fill the back of the net.
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But while the scoring depth is a major concern, the biggest issue so far this season has been the abysmal performance of the team defensively. And abysmal might be giving it credit.
There is not one area defensively where the Canucks have been anything other than awful.
Goals against? Last.
Shots on goal against? Last.
Total shot attempts against during 5-on-5 play? Last.
Scoring chances and expected goals against (via Natural Stat Trick)? Last and last.
Save percentage? Next to last (ahead of only Pittsburgh).
Penalty kill? This is the high water mark on their rankings defensively … 23rd.
Even with Hughes, Schmidt, and Alex Edler this is not a particularly deep or impressive group on paper. It has been even worse on the ice so far.
The problem in Vancouver has always seemed to be (to these two eyes anyway) a front office that has thought the team is better than it actually is. Instead of focussing on building toward something long-term, even if that meant taking a short-term step back, throwing money at veterans in a desperate attempt to squeeze out a trip to the playoffs just to say you made it.
There is an argument to be made that is what happened during the 2019-20 season.
Yes, they have a great core. And when the goaltending is good, the team can be good. But there is only so much a handful of stars and great goaltending can do for a team. When the stars are firing on all cylinders and the goaltending is strong you can put together a great stretch and win a lot of games and make some real noise. That was exactly the case in the bubble this past season. But asking them to do that over a full season, and then again in the playoffs, is asking a lot.
When the goaltending is not there, or when even one of the star players hits a funk (like Pettersson has so far this season) it can be enough to mess up the whole thing because there is not enough support around them to make up for it. We are seeing that right now, especially as the team self destructs defensively.
Nobody should throw in the towel on this team this season because the goaltending should get better. Pettersson will start creating offense again. They have enough potential impact players that can be difference makers while they play in a division where enough teams around them are also flawed. They are not out of it. Yet.
These next three games against Ottawa might tell us a lot about this team and where it is going.
This is a chance for them to shake off their slow start and collect some points against a team that, quite frankly, still is not very good. These are points the Canucks have to bank. If they can get four or five points over the next three games it could help air out the stink from the first week. But if they somehow manage only two points, or even a split over these next three games? That might be a real cause for concern.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.