Jim Benning

Restrictions make NHL playoffs more likely to happen in U.S. than Canada

Signs point to the U.S. and Canada extending their bans on non-essential travel (i.e. crossing borders) to late July, according to Reuters. What does this mean for the NHL going through with the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs (and other return-to-play plans)? We’ll dig deeper, but the quick version is that the NHL is more likely to hold playoffs and training camps in the U.S. than in Canada.

A lot can change, to be clear. But things are definitely gravitating toward the United States.

Canada’s 14-day quarantine guideline makes U.S. logical spot for NHL playoffs

In the simplest terms, Canada’s 14-day quarantine guideline lingers as the key difference.

As a refresher, note that anyone entering Canada must self-isolate for those two weeks. Only afterward can you, say, play hockey.

In noting that the Flames might hold training camp in the U.S., general manager Brad Treliving explained to Sportsnet’s Eric Francis why the 14-day quarantine requirement could hamper anyone operating in Canada.

“The logistics have been worked on for a camp in the U.S., if need be,” Treliving said. “I don’t want guys coming back to Calgary and sitting on their butts for two weeks in their condos and being out of shape when it’s time to go again. It may make more sense for us to have camp in the U.S. so we can have guys together quicker and being productive. The quarantine issue is a big one.”

Francis notes that NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the 14-day quarantine would likely take Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto out of the mix as hub cities for the Return to Play plan. That seems especially logical considering that each location would aim to support 12 different teams with at least 50 people per team.

But, really, if you’re only going with hub cities in the U.S., it would probably make more sense to do it all south of the Canadian border, right?

Again, Treliving indicated that the Flames are looking into that. Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre reported that the Canucks were leaning in that direction as early as May.

While Phase 2 calls for scattered, small groups, training camps and the 24-team format would require much larger groupings. The timetable is small enough that setbacks could be significant to threading the needle for a return to play.

Things could change, but cultural viewpoints might not

On one hand, a lot of variables could make it tougher for the NHL’s return-to-play plan to succeed at all. On the other, it’s possible that Canada might become a more feasible option.

Such a change would boil down to Canada tweaking its quarantine policies.

Treliving floated an interesting idea about adapting quarantine. Rather than isolating players to sit on their butts in condos, what if a player could extend their “bubble” between their homes and the Saddledome?

” … The only place you’re going is a bubble – it’s with a peer group, not the public,” Treliving said. “And it’s probably the safest, cleanest, most sanitized place in the city of Calgary right now. You’re being tested on a regular basis.”

Bending the rules could be a thorny issue, though.

To an extent, an NHL return-to-play plan is already rolling the dice a bit. You’re trying to manage the risks of exposure with the rewards of handing out the Stanley Cup, and avoiding financial losses.

But, as much as the league emphasizes that it doesn’t want to take medical resources away from those who need it, we’ll need to see if that’s actually how things work out. This is unprecedented stuff, after all.

Simply put, Canada and the U.S. may just approach COVID-19 containment differently.

This isn’t just about mindset; it’s also about scale. David Ljunggren and Steve Scherer of Reuters succinctly summarized how differently COVID-19 hit the U.S. vs. Canada.

More than 110,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States, one of the world’s worst-hit nations. Canada reported 7,835 deaths, and 96,244 coronavirus cases on June 9.

So, yes, it’s possible travel ban restrictions might be loosened in Canada. Maybe those bubbles will expand faster than a player’s waistline waiting around at a condo.

In the grand scheme of things, though, it sure seems like if the NHL can pull off a return-to-play plan, it will probably involve training camps and the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs operating in the U.S.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:

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.

Long-term outlook for Vancouver Canucks

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Vancouver Canucks.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Canucks must lock down some key players (and make important decisions) soon.

Most importantly, both Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes see their entry-level contracts expire after 2020-21. The Canucks’ long-term flexibility may hinge on how much each player costs. It will be interesting to monitor those situations. Could Vancouver convince either of them to sign extensions as early as the 2020 offseason? Either way, how much of the salary cap will each rising star take up?

While the Canucks have Brock Boeser signed to a team-friendly deal, that will also be up after 2021-22.

So, while there are core pieces in place, we haven’t fully understood the cost of many pieces.

There are some players locked down to medium term, however. Both Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller are signed through 2022-23, and quite affordable at a combined AAV of $10.75M. Tyler Myers ($6M AAV through 2023-24) seems like less of a positive, but for better or worse, he’s slated to be a part of the core.

Myers presents a neat transition to the bad news: Vancouver has some flab on its salary structure. There’s dead money devoted to the Roberto Luongo salary recapture, Ryan Spooner buyout, and to some extent, Sven Baertschi.

Yet, the brighter side is that the Canucks can transition shaky money to rising stars. Brandon Sutter‘s $4.375M AAV can be put toward Pettersson and Hughes after 2020-21. A whopping $12M (Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Roussel) comes off the books in time to re-up Brock Boeser … and so on.

So, it’s pretty easy to see a solid situation getting better.

[PHT Power Rankings: Where do Canucks rank among best and worst long-term outlooks?]

Long-term needs for Canucks

That said, it’s crucial for GM Jim Benning to have more success in free agency — even if it means simply abstaining from spending.

Will the Canucks feel the urge to break the bank to make Tyler Toffoli more than a rental? Will they give 30-year-old defenseman Christopher Tanev a risky contract?

In particular, key decisions await in net. Jacob Markstrom is a pending UFA, while intriguing 24-year-old goalie Thatcher Demko is only covered through 2020-21. Should the Canucks keep one or both around?

It will be crucial to surround Pettersson, Hughes, and Boeser with supporting talent. So far, it seems more likely that Benning will find some help in the draft and via trades than in free agent spending.

Whether things worked out (Miller) or didn’t (Myers), it seems like Benning was impatient when it came to pushing this team along its winning curve. The Canucks will be without either their 2020 or 2021 first-rounder, and also don’t have their second-rounder for 2020.

The Canucks need a lot of help on defense, and are also pretty top-heavy on offense. Addressing those needs will be key to take the right step. In that regard, Benning’s mixed leaps with stumbles.

Long-term strengths for Canucks

Trading away Tyler Madden in the Toffoli deal hurts the Canucks’ prospect depth, but there’s some definite intrigue, particularly in Nils Hoglander and Vasili Podkolzin.

If any of those prospects really blossom — Olli Juolevi, anytime now — then the Canucks could really be onto something.

That’s because they already boast an enviable assortment of young talent. Elias Pettersson keeps setting the bar higher, and he’s only 21. Quinn Hughes is tantalizing at 20. Boeser (23) and Bo Horvat (25) both stand in the meat of their prime years. Miller isn’t ancient by any means, either, at 27.

We’ve seen a Canucks offense that can be explosive at times, and Markstrom’s hovered around elite quite a bit.

If you want to be a downer, you might focus on the Oilers boasting an even better top end with young stars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Beyond that, though, the Canucks also seem likely to be a fixture in a Pacific Division that could feature some rough teams at the bottom.

There’s a lot to like with the Canucks. We’ll see if Benning can push the right buttons to bring them up yet another level.

MORE ON THE CANUCKS:

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.

Biggest Vancouver Canucks surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Vancouver Canucks.

“Even better than expected” surprises for the Canucks

With the Canucks, good players often turned out very good in 2019-20. Delightfully very good players sure looked truly great.

Take, for instance, J.T. Miller leading the Canucks in scoring with 72 points. Many of us believed that Miller was a very, very nice winger with the Rangers and Lightning, but he exceeded just about all expectations.

Quinn Hughes managed similar feats. If you want to start a weird fight on Twitter, argue about Hughes vs. Cale Makar for the Calder Trophy. Simply put, though, Hughes being this good this fast was a pleasant surprise. Yes, we were expecting big things, but Hughes escalated that conversation.

Pettersson deserves his own section

Most of all, Elias Pettersson isn’t just a star. It’s fair to call him a superstar. You might not get that right away from good-but-not-top-level scoring this season (66 points in 68 games), but he’s a huge catalyst for Canucks success.

Take, for instance, the gap between Pettersson and every other Canuck on this xGAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

But, this isn’t about damning with faint praise, because Pettersson ranks among the best in the NHL if you look at the league overall by that same metric:

Impressive stuff, especially since Pettersson ranks second overall if you look at GAR, instead of its expected counterpart. Translation: he’s fantastic, and worthy of at least some Hart Trophy rumblings.

Pettersson wasn’t the only Canucks player who played a huge role in keeping the team in playoff contention, even with a flawed roster, and Brock Boeser missing time with injuries. Jacob Markstrom‘s .918 save percentage only tells part of the story about his value as the Canucks’ last line of defense.

But from propelling teammates such as Miller and powering a potent power play, Pettersson’s further ascent ranked as the most pleasant surprise for the Canucks.

Canucks disappointments revolve around free agency

Over time, Jim Benning’s looked like a more capable GM than we first realized. Certainly more than funny facial expressions and early memes suggested.

Really, it makes you wonder where the Canucks would be if they hid the checkbook from Benning around July.

Scroll back up to that first chart, and you’ll see plenty of regrettable signings ranked toward the bottom. Signing Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel ranked as perplexing to many of us when the moves happened, and those decisions don’t seem much wiser today. It sure doesn’t look like Tyler Myers was worth the big money, either.

(And making more than a passing mention of Loui Eriksson just feels cruel.)

With Markstrom headed for a raise as a UFA, and that unfair $3M+ per year Roberto Luongo recapture penalty on the books through 2021-22, it’s fair to wonder how much year-to-year room the Canucks will enjoy to make a solid team something truly outstanding.

Pettersson and others are so good that they can create more Canucks surprises, but it would be better if they had more help.

MORE ON THE CANUCKS:
2019-20 season summary
Long-term outlook

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks. 

Record: 36-27-6 (69 games), fourth in the Pacific Division, ninth in the Western Conference.
Leading Scorer: J.T. Miller – 72 points – (27 goals, 45 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

• Acquired David Pope from Red Wings for Alex Biega
• Traded Tyler Toffoli to Kings for Tyler Madden, Tim Schaller, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2022 conditional fourth-round pick.
• Acquired Louis Domingue from Devils for Zane McIntyre.

Season Overview

The Canucks ended last season with the question of general manager Jim Benning’s future unanswered. But the pressure was taken off when he was given a three-year extension in August. That allowed the focus to be on the young core of the team taking a big step forward.

Captain Bo Horvat has his fourth straight 20-goal season. Brock Boeser has battled injury but is in striking range of a third-straight 20 goal, 50-point campaign. “ShotgunJake Virtanen has career highs in goals (18) and points (36). Adam Gaudette has double digit goals and 33 points in his second full NHL season. Elias Pettersson has followed up his Calder Trophy winning season with 27 goals and 66 points in 68 games. And Quinn Hughes‘ play (8 goals, 53 points, 21:53 TOI) is making it appear as if the franchise will add another rookie of the year to the trophy case.

Benning has brought in three veterans since last summer to bolster his roster. Miller, acquired from Tampa in a draft day deal, has been phenomenal, leading the team in goals and points. Tyler Myers, who signed a five-year, $30 million contract in free agency, has been a steady, veteran presence on the blue line. Even trade deadline pickup Tyler Toffoli has transitioned nicely with 10 points in 10 games with the Canucks.

One of Vancouver’s biggest bright spots, and a huge reason they’ve flirted with a playoff spot all season, has been goaltender Jacob Markstrom. This is a massive season for the 30-year-old, who can become an unrestricted free agent whenever free agency takes place. He’s posted a .925 even strength save percentage, a 6.66 goals saved above average, and an 84.61 expected goals against, via Natural Stat Trick. He’s not only been the Canucks’ MVP, but you could make an argument for him to not only be in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy, but also on a long list of Hart Trophy candidates.

Markstrom said last week his focus is staying in Vancouver and he has no plans on leaving. That’s good news for this team if both sides can make the numbers work.

The Canucks have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs once since 2013, and the fanbase was getting restless for some time and Benning’s job was certainly on the line. But the 2019-20 season has shown there’s reason for optimism.

Benning’s next big challenge will be keeping the main pieces together. Markstrom can be a UFA this off-season and Pettersson and Hughes will be restricted free agents in the summer of 2022 (Hughes will not be eligible for an offer sheet) and if the salary cap ceiling stays flat or does not increase by a large amount, the GM will have to get creative.

For now, the Canucks sit on 68 points and tied with the Predators for the last Western Conference wild card spot but also one point behind the Flames for third in the Pacific Division. Should the NHL choose points percentage as a way to decide the 2020 playoff format, that’s good news for them. At .565, that would put them in the second spot in the division and a Round 1 matchup with the Oilers.

Highlight of the Season

Kevin Bieksa used his time during the Sedins’ number retirement ceremony to wonderfully roast just about everyone.

As for a game highlight? Here’s Petey just being Petey:

MORE CANUCKS:
Biggest surprises, disappointments
Long-term outlook

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Canucks say Boeser could miss rest of regular season, view Toffoli as replacement

Boeser out eight weeks, injury helps explain Toffoli trade
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The Canucks provided a troubling Brock Boeser update, and in doing so, explained the steep fee they paid for Tyler Toffoli.

It turns out that the Boeser injury news is worse than thought. GM Jim Benning said that they view it as an eight-week injury. If that holds true, Boeser would miss the rest of the regular season and playoff time if Vancouver makes it.

(The Canucks also ruled out Josh Leivo for at least the rest of the regular season.)

Boeser injury and how it relates to Toffoli trade

Benning explained that, yes, Boeser’s injury partially prompted the Toffoli trade. The Canucks GM believes that Toffoli does a lot of the same things as Boeser.

On one hand, Boeser may seem like a bigger name. Boeser also produced bigger point totals than Toffoli recently.

Despite playing in 69 or fewer games during the previous two seasons, Boeser generated 26 and 29 goals, along with 55 and 56 points. Toffoli’s recent numbers are far more modest, although he managed 31 goals and 58 points in 2015-16.

Those numbers stem from the days of “That ’70s Line.” Fittingly, Benning asked current Canuck Tanner Pearson about Toffoli before the trade.

Could Toffoli catch fire after leaving the Kings much like Ilya Kovalchuk with Montreal? It’s fair to ask when you compare Toffoli to Boeser with certain metrics. Take, for instance, Toffoli’s strong showings in Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts:

Was Toffoli trade smart by Canucks?

I’ve personally argued that Toffoli was a player worth targeting because he’s better than the simplest stats might imply. If you’re looking purely at replacing Boeser, Benning indeed seems to have a point.

Of course, the other side of the argument is that the Canucks might have been risking things by adding Toffoli to a mix that included Boeser.

After all, to get Toffoli the Canucks gave up a second-round pick, conditional pick, and Tyler Madden (whom The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranks [sub required] as Pronman’s 40th best prospect). Benning told reporters that, while he spoke to Toffoli’s agent, the team is going to see how he fits before making any sort of extension decision. This seems like a hefty price for a Canucks team with an unclear outlook.

Clearly, Vancouver remains resolute in going for it in 2019-20.

To Benning’s credit, it’s not outrageous to look at the standings (particularly in the Pacific) and conclude that it’s a decent time to roll the dice:

You can get dizzy pondering the range of possibilities, from winning the division to outright missing the playoffs.

By placing Boeser and Leivo on LTIR, the Canucks also hold significant cap space, even after adding Toffoli at his full $4.6M AAV. In other words, the Canucks could throw even more caution to the wind.

(I don’t think they’ll trade for Jeff Carter to fully reunite him with Pearson or Toffoli, though. Aw, shucks.)

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.