The Vancouver Canucks’ 5-2-1 record through eight games is the best start they’ve had in nearly two decades, dating back to 2005-06. It’s been a dream October when you combine it with Calgary, Edmonton and Seattle blowing flat tires out of the gate.
That’s excellent, but with 90 percent of the season still remaining, it’s important to also look at how the team’s achieving its results. It’s easy to get caught up with the emotional roller coaster of wins and losses over small samples, but over a gruelling 82-game season, a team’s ability to control play and scoring chances is a strong indicator of future wins/losses and whether a team is actually good in the big picture.
It’s exciting then to see the Canucks play legitimately imposing five-on-five hockey the last few games, including a pair of excellent performances against the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers over the weekend. Vancouver throttled St. Louis all night on Friday. The Canucks looked faster, won virtually every puck battle and connected play well with really sharp passing against a tired St. Louis team on the second leg of a back-to-back.
Saturday night’s matchup against the Rangers was a much bigger test. New York is vastly superior to St. Louis on paper and this time the Canucks were the tired team playing on consecutive nights. Penalties, a lacklustre power play and a missed penalty in overtime cost Vancouver the extra point, but make no mistake, it was an excellent team performance. The Canucks controlled play for most of the night, surrendering just one high-danger chance at five-on-five through the first two periods according to Natural Stat Trick.
The foundation of Vancouver’s game has looked strong after a so-so start (they were outplayed in three of their first four games), which offers believable hope.
Here are six more Canucks observations and trends based on their recent performances.
Quinn Hughes’ risk versus reward superpower
As Quinn Hughes continues levelling up as an elite No. 1 defenceman, it’s clear there’s a gap between how highly rated he is in Vancouver and the more tempered league-wide perception.
Outside of Vancouver, Hughes’ reputation likely gets dinged because he’s undersized. It feels like the perception of his defensive game hasn’t shifted since his sophomore 2020-21 season, either.
Let’s take a moment to state the facts.
Yes, Hughes is undersized at 5-foot-10, but he’s only an inch shorter than Cale Makar and Adam Fox. Hughes is listed at 180 pounds, while Fox is 185 and Makar 187 — again, a pretty small difference. Makar’s and Fox’s size is rarely discussed, yet Hughes’ frame gets disproportionate attention.
Defensively, Hughes’ performance has been legit for a long while. Since the 2021-22 season, there are 199 NHL defencemen who’ve played at least 1,200 five-on-five minutes. Hughes’ 2.22 goals-against rate ranks 36th among all defencemen in that time, ahead of names like Rasmus Dahlin, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman and Roman Josi.
I was racking my brain and watching film to consider why Hughes has been so dependable defensively in addition to his elite offensive results. We could highlight some strengths away from the puck but I think Hughes’ superpower that is he gives you all the rewards of an elite offensive defenceman without the typical risk of playing such a daring, rover style. He’s a low-risk, maximum-reward defenceman. Think about it.
How often does Hughes turn the puck from a dangerous spot in the defensive zone?
Every shift he’s in attack mode at the left point, dancing all over the offensive zone, but when has he ever been stripped of the puck as the last man back and surrendered a breakaway?
He rarely makes a bad pinch that leaves him caught up the ice and out of position.
He doesn’t leave his partner out to dry by jumping up the rush when it’s ill-advised. Nobody could accuse him of cheating for offence.
Hughes pushes the envelope so aggressively to kick-start Vancouver’s transition and offensive game and yet he’s always in control, which prevents defensive breakdowns. That’s a rare quality because when you attempt so many difficult plays with the puck every game, you’d expect there to be a defensive trade-off, the way there is with a player like Karlsson.
Below is an example of that trait from Saturday’s Rangers game. On this play, Hughes fumbles the puck for a second, which he almost never does. He’s in a vulnerable spot with Mika Zibanejad on him pretty tightly. A turnover here would be a two-on-one rush against. Instead, Hughes taps the puck from the backhand of his stick toward his foot and backheel kicks it behind himself directly onto his stick. He does it all in one motion, without breaking his skating stride.
Video courtesy Sportsnet
That illustrates how Hughes is even in control when seemingly vulnerable, which is a reason why he doesn’t make mistakes that lead to big defensive breakdowns.
How a Filip Hronek adjustment is improving chemistry with Hughes
Filip Hronek has a big shot from the point. Point shots aren’t inherently bad, but unless you have heavy traffic in front, it’s a low-percentage play compared to simply getting the puck in Hughes’ hands and letting him cook.
Through the first few games, Hronek was a little too trigger-happy. In the play below, Hronek loaded up for a one-timer, got blocked and the puck ended up all the way in the Canucks zone. It was a wasted offensive zone possession with Hughes on the ice.
Hronek’s made a smart adjustment over the last three games to get Hughes more puck touches. He had 10 five-on-five shots on goal through the first five games. He’s had zero in three straight games. Hronek is doing a clever job of faking his shot and setting Hughes up in better locations.
That’s how he assisted one of Hughes’ goals against the Blues.
Hughes was gushing about that pass in the locker room after the game.
Last year we saw two versions of J.T. Miller. Through the first 40-50 games, he racked up points but was terrible defensively and borderline unplayable in a shutdown centre role. After the coaching change, he was a two-way beast on top of even better offensive production.
One of the biggest X-factors for the Canucks this season was seeing what version of Miller would show up. Miller (along with his wingers Brock Boeser and Phil Di Giuseppe) has been outstanding in the early going. He’s got 12 points in eight games which is tied for eighth in league scoring but most importantly, his line has been up to the challenge of matching up against other teams’ top lines.
The Canucks are controlling a sturdy 55 percent of shot attempts during Miller’s five-on-five shifts and have outscored opponents 7-2. That’s really impressive considering the calibre of top-end talent the Canucks have played against so far.
On Saturday night against the Rangers, Miller saw 6:42 head-to-head against Mika Zibanejad and the Rangers’ top line. Neither team generated offence in those minutes, with Zibanejad’s line mustering just one shot on goal. Accomplishing that on the second half of a back-to-back is excellent work.
Besides the numbers, there’s something intangible about the energy, work ethic and heavy shifts this line stacks that’s stabilized the team and demonstrated a perfect template for how Rick Tocchet wants the team to play.
Where the Canucks have improved defensively
In mid-November last year, I watched back every goal Thatcher Demko surrendered to that point in the 2022-23 season. The purpose of that was to analyze Demko’s early struggles and identify trends in the lacklustre defensive play in front of him.
Out of the 44 goals against tracked, 16 of them (36 percent) were preceded by an east-west seam pass, the most dangerous passing play in hockey. It was reflective of a bigger issue with the team’s tendency to leak odd-man rushes against.
I bring that up because those are two specific defensive areas (odd-man rushes and cross-seam passes) where the Canucks seem to have improved in the early going based on the eye test.
On the penalty kill, the Canucks are doing a way better job of clogging passing lanes in the slot. At even strength, it helps that Canucks forwards have significantly cut down turnovers on zone entry attempts. Tocchet’s made this a huge priority and that’s ensuring Vancouver doesn’t have to defend as many odd-man rushes in the first place.
When there are occasional breakdowns, the Canucks are also doing a commendable job of disrupting plays with their sticks. Vancouver got a little lackadaisical after it built up a big lead against St. Louis, but otherwise, it was strong in this area over the weekend.
Here’s a highlight pack with some good rush defence examples from the last two games. It includes Hughes saving a Grade-A chance, Andrei Kuzmenko working his tail off to backcheck and break up a three-on-two rush pass, Mark Friedman racing back to break up a breakaway and Ilya Mikheyev and Hronek teaming up to thwart a three-on-two rush.
Canucks’ third line needs to step up to prevent five-on-five offensive slowdown
Two things are true at the same time: Miller’s line is playing really well and benefitting from good luck offensively. Miller’s on-ice shooting percentage is 15.1 percent at five-on-five, whereas his historical average with the Canucks is closer to the 9-10 percent range.
Expecting Vancouver’s second line to cool down offensively at some point isn’t a hot take. Boeser isn’t going to keep scoring at a 61-goal pace and Miller won’t produce at a 123-point pace forever.
When that production tapers off, the Canucks will need more offence from its bottom six, starting with the third line.
Pius Suter has been solid defensively but is pointless through eight games. Conor Garland has a strong history of five-on-five point production and was a strong bottom-six catalyst down the stretch last season, but he’s picked up just one point in his last seven games. Dakota Joshua flashed some scoring chops last year but has just one point. The underlying offensive numbers for Suter’s line through eight games aren’t flattering.
Further down the lineup, Anthony Beauvillier has just one point in eight games, too.
All four of those players have the talent to offer a lot more. The Canucks are going to need them soon because while the top half of Vancouver’s lineup is excellent, it can’t be expected to do the heavy lifting every single game.
Tyler Myers’ usage and mini resurgence
Tyler Myers played 20:54 per game last year. It hasn’t taken long for Tocchet and Adam Foote, who runs the defence, to trim those minutes this season.
Myers averaged just shy of 19 minutes through the first three games but has dropped since his disastrous game against the Lightning, averaging just 15:40 over the last five games.
To his credit, he’s looked much better over the last 2-3 games. There was, of course, the dazzling short-handed goal against the Rangers but his overall play has been calmer and less mistake-prone.
The Canucks’ bolstered team environment during this stretch has likely played a role in lifting Myers, too. When the forwards are backchecking hard, coming deep to provide good outlet passing options and recovering loose pucks in the offensive end, it goes a long way toward making any defenceman’s life easier.
For example, check out how having two Canucks forwards provide close support allows Myers to make a poised, nifty breakout decision.
Reduced usage and better team infrastructure won’t solve the second pair RD concern, but hopefully we get more of what we’ve seen from Myers during the last 2-3 games.
(Photo of Quinn Hughes and J.T. Miller: Bob Frid / USA Today)