Bo Horvat

It’s early, but the Canucks might be really good

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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.

Editor’s note: Need Canucks tickets? Click here

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.

Add the presence of J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat entering what should be his peak years, and some strong goaltending and suddenly the Canucks are starting to look like a team that might be on to something.

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.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Eichel explodes for Sabres; More history for Caps’ Carlson

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The Sharks ended the first period up 2-0 against the Sabres, so it took quite the surge from Eichel & Co. to win that one 4-3 in OT.

Eichel was involved in all four of Buffalo’s goals, scoring two goals and two assists. That included the game-winner in overtime for the Sabres. The American-born forward ended the night with six shots on goal, a +2 rating, and went 12-10 on faceoffs.

The 22-year-old went two games without a point, but he’s still off to a hot start in 2018-19, as Tuesday pushed Eichel’s totals to 14 points in 10 games.

2. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Minnesota’s showing some signs of life with a two-game winning streak, but some of the joy was muted thanks to Devan Dubnyk leaving the game with an injury after a bad collision.

As ominous as that seems, it has to be a relief for the Wild to see Eric Staal finally have a breakthrough night on Tuesday. Staal scored two goals (including the 1-0 tally, thus the game-winner) and an assist, with those two goals being Staal’s first of the season. The 34-year-old’s been a revelation in Minnesota (peaking with 42 goals and 76 points in 2017-18), and he seemed to give the Wild a pretty sweet deal with his latest contract. Well, it’s a sweet deal if Staal’s game doesn’t sink too much; otherwise, you wonder if they’d be better off moving on and getting younger.

Anyway, this was a nice overall effort from Staal, who also had a +2 rating, five SOG, and went 8-7 on draws.

3. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks

Like the Sabres, the Canucks fell behind early on Tuesday. The Red Wings opened up a 2-0 lead against Vancouver, only for the Canucks to explode with five unanswered goals in the third period.

Horvat contributed three of those goals. While Staal gets the higher star because all of his points came against a goalie (Horvat’s third tally was an empty-netter), it was still a strong night from Horvat.

Similarly to Staal, Horvat came into Tuesday on a quiet start, as Horvat only had two goals and one assists for three points through eight contests. He managed his first career NHL hat trick on Tuesday, pushing him to six points in nine games.

Highlight of the Night

It was already covered here (alongside a fun blooper), but it has to be David Pastrnak‘s between-the-legs goal, right?

Factoids

  • John Carlson cemented his spot alone atop the NHL’s scoring leaders list by generating two goals, pushing him to 20 points on the season as Washington beat Calgary. NHL PR points out some impressive history for Carlson, including that he joined Bobby Orr (twice) and wonderfully old-timey-named Baldy Northcott (in 1932-33) as the only defensemen to lead the league outright in scoring through 20 days. Carlson reached 20 points in 11 games, tying Orr (in 1974-75) as the second-fastest surge to 20 points for a defenseman. Only Paul Coffey hit 20 faster, doing it in 10 games in 1988-89. Sportsnet notes that Carlson’s already off to one of the best Octobers for a defenseman, and the Capitals have three more games left in the month.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury earned his 446th NHL win, breaking a tie with Terry Sawchuk for seventh all-time. Henrik Lundqvist is at sixth with 450, while Curtis Joseph ranks at fifth with 454. It should be interesting to see if MAF ends up higher than Lundqvist when they’re both done — which hopefully isn’t anytime soon.
  • Sabres wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin has 10 points through his first 10 games, landing on a short list of defensemen who managed such a short at 20 years old or younger. Another Sabres stat: Eichel scored his sixth overtime goal, already tying the franchise record at 22.

Scores

BOS 4 – TOR 2
BUF 4 – SJS 3 (OT)
FLA 4 – PIT 2
ARI 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
VAN 5 – DET 2
NSH 6 – ANA 1
MIN 3 – EDM 0
LAK 3 – WPG 2
VGK 2 – CHI 1 (SO)
WSH 5 – CGY 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 blast Kings for first win of season, name Horvat captain

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The Vancouver Canucks checked a lot of boxes against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night.

Bo Horvat was named captain, becoming the first player to wear the “C” in Vancouver since Henrik Sedin in 2017-18. That would have already been a solid way to celebrate the Canucks’ home opener, but Horvat & Co. did it one better, getting the team’s first win of the season by blowing out the Kings 8-2.

There were some other bullet points that should make the Canucks happy:

  • The addition of J.T. Miller looked great. He scored a goal and three assists on Wednesday, giving him five points in his first three games with the Canucks. This was the first four-point night of Miller’s career. Brandon Sutter had quite an evening, too,
  • Quinn Hughes looked like an immediate threat for Vancouver, scoring the first goal of his NHL career, and also got an assist.
  • Hughes wasn’t the only Canucks defenseman to fill the net. Christopher Tanev connected on a great sequence by Hughes and Brock Boeser, while Alexander Edler poured it on to really get the score out of hand in the third period.
  • Fourteen different Canucks players generated at least one point in this drubbing.
  • Jacob Markstrom quietly had a strong season in 2018-19, by quite a few measures, so it’s promising to see him sharp. While he allowed a couple goals, Markstrom made 37 saves on Wednesday. Good goaltending could make the ultimate difference for a Canucks club that spent a lot of money to get better during the offseason.
  • It wasn’t such a great night for Jonathan Quick, obviously. The veteran goalie allowed eight goals for the first time in his career.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL Power Rankings: First look at 2019-20 season

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We kick off our 2019-20 PHT Power Rankings with a look at where every team in the league standings as the season begins this week.

What are expecting?

Do not give up on the Lightning, believe in the Avalanche, and be very, very, very worried about the defense in Winnipeg.

Where does your team stand as the season begins?

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They embarrassed themselves in the playoffs and this core has a record of falling short when the chips are on the table. But the same things were said about the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues for years. They got over the hump. This team can, too. Still the best roster in the league on paper.

2. St. Louis Blues. Adding Justin Faulk to a Stanley Cup winning team is a nice way to end the offseason. Big question is if Jordan Binnington can come close to matching his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

3. Boston Bruins. This team is still loaded. David Pastrnak should be considered a real sleeper to win the goal-scoring crown.

4. Washington Capitals. Feels like the Capitals are kind of sneaking under the radar as a championship contender this season. The core is still in place and they are still great.

5. Colorado Avalanche. Buying all in on the hype. They needed to address their forward depth and they did that and more with Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky joining the roster. Their young defense is almost as exciting as their forwards.

6. San Jose Sharks. Even after losing Joe Pavelski and Donskoi they still have a great group of forwards and the best defense in the league. There is also no way that Martin Jones can be as bad as he was a year ago. Right? Right?!

7. Toronto Maple Leafs. It is a broken record at this point, but with all of that talent they can no longer tolerate third place finishes and Round 1 exits. At some point, Mike Babcock and Co. have to do something.

8. Vegas Golden Knights. A full year of Mark Stone, one of the league’s best all-around players, is going to be a game-changer.

9. Carolina Hurricanes. Their playoff run was no fluke. All of the focus is on the defense, but their forwards are excellent as well. Andrei Svechnikov looks like he is on the verge of a breakout season.

10. Calgary Flames. This feels low for the team that finished with the top record in the West a year ago, but a lot of things went right for them and I just don’t know how much I trust a full season of Cam Talbot and David Rittich in net.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

11. Nashville Predators. Can Matt Duchene help fix what was a truly depressing power play unit? That unit was the biggest thing holding this team back.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. A true wild card team that seems like it could be a Stanley Cup contender or miss the playoffs entirely. A lot will depend on Evgeni Malkin bouncing back, Matt Murray staying healthy, and figuring out a capable defense after their top pairing.

13. Dallas Stars. They have elite talent at all three levels (forward, defense, goalie) and Pavelski gives them a much-needed secondary scoring threat for their second line. Still some depth concerns, but this team was a double overtime goal away in Game 7 from reaching the Western Conference Final.

14. Florida Panthers. They addressed their biggest need with the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky, and while his contract will probably be a disaster before it ends, he is good enough in the short-term to help get them back in the playoffs, something they desperately need to do for their fans.

15. New York Islanders. Can Semyon Varlamov do what Robin Lehner did a year ago? If he can’t that is going to leave a big hole that will be difficult to overcome.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets. As long as one of Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins can be passable in net I am not sure the regression is going to be as significant as some think this season. They still have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot.

17. Chicago Blackhawks. They should be able to score, but forward depth is a concern and the defense, even after offseason changes, has big questions. An Olli MaattaBrent Seabrook defense pairing might be the league’s slowest.

18. Minnesota Wild. If everything goes right there is a path back to the playoffs this season. The return of a healthy Matt Dumba and Mikko Koivu would be a good start.

19. New York Rangers. Definitely a better team and what should be an entertaining one with the additions of Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, but lack of depth down the middle and on defense will be their undoing.

20. New Jersey Devils. If Cory Schneider does not rebound in a big way it could undo what was a wildly successful summer.

21. Arizona Coyotes. Phil Kessel gives them the type of game-breaking offensive talent they have been lacking for more than a decade. Is that enough to get them back in the playoffs?

22. Philadelphia Flyers. Enough good players to be an interesting team and just enough question marks to not fully buy into them.

23. Montreal Canadiens. They were just a couple points shy of a playoff spot, but a lot of teams around them managed to get better while the Canadiens mostly stood pat.

24. Winnipeg Jets. The forwards are great, especially now that Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are signed, but the state of that defense, especially without Dustin Byfuglien at the moment, is some real nightmare fuel for Winnipeg.

25. Buffalo Sabres. They have two franchise players and made some nice offseason upgrades, but there is a huge gap between them and the top-three teams (and probably top-four, if you include Florida) in their division.

26. Anaheim Ducks. Probably one of the best goalie duos in the league and some intriguing young forwards will get a chance to excel, but still too many holes.

27. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and Quinn Hughes offer long-term hope. The rest of the roster does not.

28. Edmonton Oilers. It looks like they are on the verge of wasting another prime season of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, which is still difficult to comprehend.

29. Detroit Red Wings. Steve Yzerman is going to need some time to get this thing back on track.

30. Los Angeles Kings. Even if Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick bounce back there just isn’t enough talent around them to matter.

31. Ottawa Senators. Anything other than the worst record in the league would be an accomplishment.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Linden: Canucks summer moves about ‘long-term vision’

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The Vancouver Canucks have certainly had their critics this summer, but president Trevor Linden insists everything is going according to plan.

“There’s no question that, after seeing things for a year, I knew we had to make some changes and get to a better place,” Linden told the Vancouver Province. “There were things I wasn’t happy with. I knew we had to do some restructuring and put new processes in place.

“That’s what I’ve spent the last month doing, and I’m really excited about the changes we’ve made. Whether they show up in wins and losses this season, I don’t know, but this is a long-term vision.”

Convincing others that his and Canucks GM Jim Benning’s vision is the right one though will take some doing. After all, Benning got booed by season ticket holders when he revealed that he could have traded Ryan Miller, but opted to deal Eddie Lack instead (that trade came with a return of two picks — third and seventh rounders). There’s been a number of other divisive moves in Vancouver, from giving Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett’s significant contracts to the acquisition and five-year, $21.875 million signing of “foundation piece” Brandon Sutter.

How those moves work out will go a long way towards determining Benning and Linden’s popularity in the short-term. However, if Vancouver is to be successful, it will need to see results when it comes to the drafting and developing of prospects. That was an issue for the Canucks for years beginning with the start of the cap era, but Bo Horvat’s solid rookie season might someday be viewed as a turning point.

“To me, the two most important things moving forward are the amateur scouting side and the player development side, and there are many aspects to player development,” Linden said. “There’s strength and conditioning, there’s sports science, there’s the medical side, nutrition, and they all have to be integrated.

“The only way we’re going to get better is to draft and develop our players. Then we have to do a good job of developing them and getting them here as quickly as possible. That takes up most of my time.”

So for now the Canucks still have a pretty old core, but perhaps in a few years the franchise will start to see the rewards of Linden’s focus on drafting and developing. In the end, the work he’s doing there could pay far greater dividends than the more high profile trades and signings Vancouver has recently engaged in.