What is the Canucks’ potential this season?

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The Jim Benning era Vancouver Canucks have been one of the more, let’s say, fascinating teams in the NHL over the past few years.

In his seven years as the team’s general manager they have made the playoffs two times and only once played in the Second Round (the bubble season). They also completely fell flat in the North Division, missing the playoffs entirely in what should have been a great opportunity to make some noise.

So they have not really been anything close to a Stanley Cup contender. Despite that, they always seem to want to operate like they are a Stanley Cup contender and just a couple of depth veterans away. That has resulted in some overpayments in free agency and taking on significant contracts to the potential detriment of their own salary cap situation.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Despite all of that, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about them because they do have what should be the most difficult pieces for any contending team to acquire: Cornerstone, franchise talent. The group of Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and J.T. Miller is absolutely good enough to be the foundation of something great.

They just have not been able to build anything meaningful around them yet. Making matters worse, the salary cap situation is so tight that they only have $10 million in salary cap space to re-sign Pettersson and Hughes (their two best players) this offseason.

So what is this team’s potential here?

The forward depth does look much better

This has been a big problem in recent seasons. For as good as Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat, and Miller have been the Canucks have not had enough secondary talent around them. They invested a lot of money in players like Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland, Brandon Sutter that were not giving them a return on that investment (though Ferland’s case was a bit of bad luck given his injury situation; nothing you can do about that).

This offseason they were able to shed the contracts of Beagle and Roussel and get Sutter to re-sign for a quarter of his previous rate, going from a $4 million salary cap hit to a more manageable $1.25 million.

Some other important developments among the forwards…

Nils Hoglander was one of the bright spots for the Canucks in 2020-21 as the 20-year-old rookie posted solid possession numbers and scored at a 20-goal, 40-point pace over 82 games. If he can build on that he suddenly becomes an intriguing part of the team’s core.

[Related: Can Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs finally make Playoff run?]

Jason Dickinson was a solid pickup from the Dallas Stars and should be an upgrade as the team’s third-line center, allowing Sutter to center the team’s fourth line where he should be far more effective.

Vasily Podkolzin, the No. 10 overall pick in 2019 and the team’s top prospect, has signed his entry-level contract and is ready to make the jump to the NHL. He has enormous potential and could be a significant addition to the team’s core.

• While Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s addition stole all of the headlines, Conor Garland might be the more significant addition. He is just entering his prime years in the league, drives possession, and is one of the most efficient 5-on-5 scorers in the league. Of the 481 forwards that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time the past three seasons, Garland’s 1.04 goals per 60 minutes are 31st in the NHL. And he did that playing on a team without much offensive skill around him.

• The most important development: A healthy Elias Pettersson after he was limited to just 26 games a year ago.

It is a much deeper, talented, and better group of forwards.

There are still some concerns elsewhere with the roster

Specifically on defense and with the salary cap, where they have close to $14 million dollars going to the duo of Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers over the next few years.

They managed to dump a lot of their undesirable contracts on Arizona in the Garland/Ekman-Larsson deal, but may have taken on an even more undesirable contract in the process.

A few years ago adding Ekman-Larsson would have been a major move. But his play has rapidly declined the past two seasons, he is now into his 30s, and his contract carries a huge salary cap hit for the next six years. Maybe a change of scenery and a new collection of teammates helps him get back on track a little. But it is not a stretch to think his best days are in the rear view mirror.

That is a problem for two reasons. The first is because by almost every objective measure the Canucks were one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL this past season.

Their 5-on-5 numbers…

  • 60.2 shot attempts against per 60 minutes (31 out of 31 teams)
  • 32.9 shots on goal against per 60 minutes (30 out of 31 teams)
  • 2.65 expected goals against per 60 minutes (31 out of 31 teams)
  • 31.6 scoring chances against per 60 minutes (31 out of 31 teams)
  • 11.7 high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes (30 out of 31 teams)
  • 2.93 goals against per 60 minutes (28th out of 31 teams)

They were also 17th out of 31 teams on the penalty kill. Will a 30-year-old, declining Ekman-Larsson and a 31-year-old Travis Hamonic coming in to replace Alex Edler and Nate Schmidt be enough to dramatically fix that? We will have to see, but it does seem like the goalie duo of Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak are going to have to be fantastic every night to give them a chance.

The other problem is the elephant in the room where Pettersson and Hughes still remain unsigned and they may need another move elsewhere on the roster to make room for them.

What is the potential here?

The good news for the Canucks is they play in the right division.

Vegas is a playoff team. Edmonton should be a playoff team if for no other reason than it has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but even that is not a guarantee. Beyond that every other team in the division (Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary, San Jose, Seattle) has some kind of significant flaw. After Vegas there is not a team in the division (including Edmonton) that makes you say “this is a definitely playoff team.”

That leaves the door open for a team like Vancouver. The forward talent and goaltending make the Canucks an intriguing team. But the defense and lack of flexibility within the salary cap are two significant Achilles heels that are going to stick with them. As long as they do it is difficult to see the Canucks emerging as anything more than the third playoff team in the Pacific or a fringe wild card team. At least their games should be high scoring and entertaining.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.

Avalanche spoil Kuemper’s return, top Capitals 3-2 as Bednar sets mark

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER – Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano and Alex Newhook scored against former teammate Darcy Kuemper and the surging Colorado Avalanche held off the Washington Capitals 3-2 to give coach Jared Bednar his franchise-record 266th victory.

Logan O'Connor added two assists, Nathan MacKinnon had an assist for his 700th point and Alexandar Georgiev made 37 saves in the Avs’ season-best sixth straight victory. They moved into third place in the Central Division, one point ahead of Minnesota.

Bednar, coaching his 500th game for Colorado, improved to 266-185-49 and passed former Quebec Nordiques boss Michel Bergeron for the most coaching victories in franchise history.

Alex Ovechkin returned from an injury to score his 31st goal for Washington. Conor Sheary also scored and Kuemper stopped 23 shots in his first game in Denver since helping the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in June.

The crowd stood and applauded after a first-period video tribute for Kuemper, who won 37 games in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs.

The Avs chose not to re-sign Kuemper, who then inked a five-year deal with the Capitals in July.

He had his moments against his former team, including nifty glove saves against Jacob MacDonald and Lehkonen in the second period to keep it a one-goal game. But Newhook’s goal with 4:21 left in the second made it 3-1.

The depleted Capitals dominated the third period but still lost for the fifth time in seven games.

Ovechkin’s one-timer at 9:44 of the third was his 811th goal after he missed his first game of the season Saturday with a lower-body injury. But Washington was without T.J. Oshie, who left to be with his wife for the birth of their fourth child. And Nicklas Backstrom was a late scratch with a non-COVID illness.

Then Tom Wilson exited in the second period after blocking a shot and underwent an X-ray between periods.

The Avalanche, who haven’t trailed during their win streak, solved Kuemper at 8:57 of the first when MacKinnon absorbed a big hit from Dmitry Orlov and fed Lehkonen for his 15th goal and sixth in six games.

Cogliano redirected Kurtis MacDermid‘s shot 2:04 into the second to make it 2-0. Sheary cut the. lead in half when he tipped in Martin Fehervary‘s shot for his 12th goal just over two minutes later.

HE BROKE THE CUP

It also marked the return of Washington’s Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had 22 points in 67 games for the Avs in 2021-22, He’s remembered for dropping and denting the Cup during the on-ice celebration.

“It’s part of my journey here,” a smiling Aube-Kubel said of his fumble, adding the season was “the best time of my life.”

NOTES: Avs D Cale Makar (upper body) practiced Monday and took part in the morning skate, but missed his fourth straight game. … Avs W Anton Blidh cleared waivers and skated on the fourth line. … Aliaksei Protas centered Washington’s third line in his first NHL action since Jan. 5 and was robbed by Georgiev in the first period. … The Capitals have only four games left outside the Eastern time zone.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Pittsburgh.

Avalanche: Host Anaheim.