Tue. May 28th, 2024

The Vancouver Canucks have started the 2023-24 season on a tear going 5-2-1 along with a ton of positivity for the first time in what seems like a decade. In the last three seasons, they have gotten off to horrible starts; last season in particular they went 0-5-2 and didn’t get their first win until their eighth game against the Seattle Kraken. In fact, you have to go back to the 2019-20 season to see a Canucks team over .500 after the eight-game mark. That season, they started 5-3-0, ironically notching their fifth win against the New York Rangers, the same team they lost 4-3 in overtime to this past Saturday. They also eventually made the playoffs (in the COVID-19 bubble) and made it to the second round against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Rick Tocchet, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Could this be the season history repeats itself but in the normal playoff format this time? It sure looks like it early on. So, let’s put the optimism hat on for a bit and take a look at three positive storylines that have emerged early this season.

Canucks Are Finally Good Defensively

That was very weird to type, considering the Canucks haven’t been good in this category for a very long time. But early on, that’s exactly what they are, good defensively. Yes, they have had their moments where they went back in time to their previous form of allowing a plethora of high-danger chances and relying on their goaltender, but in the past three games, they have restricted their opponents to less than 30 shots and have been beyond stellar at even strength.

In their last outing against the Rangers, they didn’t allow a goal at even strength and only three high-danger chances and 10 shots on goal. Most of the Rangers’ pressure came in a couple of shifts where they hemmed the Canucks in their own zone and on their many power plays (which included two 5-on-3s) where they scored all but one of their goals (their last one came in overtime on a 3-on-1). The Canucks basically eliminated the attack of a perennial playoff team and almost came away with a victory in the process. If not for those power plays, they probably win that game handily.

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The Canucks have bought what head coach Rick Tocchet is selling and have become a difficult team to play against in every zone on the ice. They are a wagon in the forechecking department, and every line seems to be willing to mix it up along the boards. Even Pettersson is throwing his weight around. All in all, the Canucks are finally establishing an identity and culture that the fans can get behind. That’s something we haven’t been able to say for a while now.

Quinn Hughes & Filip Hronek Have Formed an Elite Top Pairing

Speaking of dominance defensively, the Canucks are led in that department by their top two defencemen, Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek. They have formed a “power pairing” if you will and are arguably the best pairing in the entire NHL right now. Looking at defence pairings that have played over 100 minutes together, they are one of two that have not allowed a goal against at even strength. Only Ryan Pulock and Alexander Romanov of the New York Islanders are in that club with the power duo. But they can do that twosome one better, the Canucks have actually outscored their opponent 8-0 while Pulock and Romanov are an even 0-0. They not only prevent goals but also drive play offensively.

Going a bit further, Hughes and Hronek boast a ridiculous 58.94 Corsi For percentage (CF%) as a pairing, which is third-best in the league behind the Edmonton Oilers’ Cody Ceci and Darnell Nurse at 59.63 and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Brent Burns and Jaccob Slavin at 62.5. Talk about dominance in puck possession. No wonder the Canucks outscore their opponents when they’re on the ice, they always have the puck!

Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

All in all, Hughes and Hronek have proven to be a legitimate top pairing that can go up against anyone in the NHL. Hughes himself says that Hronek is the best partner he’s had in his NHL career so far (of course, no disrespect to Chris Tanev and Luke Schenn, who both did well, but do not have the tools that Hronek has).

“(I) probably haven’t played with a player as good as him,” Hughes told reporters earlier this month. “He’s really skilled, can move the puck, can see things. He can defend. He can skate. … They wanted to maybe split us up, but I’m happy that we’re together.”

There were questions last season about whether JT Miller could survive in the NHL as a centerman and anchor a top-six unit. Sure, there were hiccups and bumps along the way – mostly when former head coach Bruce Boudreau was in control – but I think we can safely say he’s not just surviving, but thriving right now. Since Tocchet took over in January of last season, Miller has played primarily down the middle and has 18 goals and 52 points in 42 games. He also has five power play goals and six shorthanded goals along with a 55.4 faceoff percentage, an average of 20:47 of time on ice, and a plus-15 in the plus/minus column. Comparing that to other centers around the league in that same time frame, he is tied for ninth with Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings and only seven points back of Pettersson, who sits in fourth. Elite center? I think so.

Miller has also formed a very effective partnership with linemates Phil Di Giuseppe and Brock Boeser and the trio has become Tocchet’s go-to line against the top talent on the other team. So far this season, Miller has four goals and 12 points, Di Giuseppe two goals and four points, and Boeser six goals and nine points. They aren’t just a checking line, they also provide top-end offence as well. Could they be one of the best two-way lines in the league right now? There’s definitely a strong argument to be had.

Shifting to Pettersson, he’s picked up right where he left off last season when he finished with 102 points. He already has 13 points on the season – five points back of Jack Hughes who leads the league with 18. While he’s off to a bit of a slow start goals-wise (he had four by this time in 2022-23), he is four points clear of the nine he had last season. Right now, he’s on pace for 134 points, but only 21 goals. I’m sure he’ll kick things into gear eventually, considering his shot has hit 97.67 mph already (according to NHL Edge) and three have been in the 90-100 mph category. It’s only a matter of time before those find twine instead of the goalie or defender’s equipment.

Pettersson has also improved in the faceoff dot, so his line, which now includes the improving-by-the-game Ilya Mikheyev and the human highlight reel Andrei Kuzmenko, has the puck more often than in previous seasons. He is winning draws at a near 50 percent clip at 49.5, which if he keeps it up will be a new career-high from his previous 45 in 2020-21. Most of the time, an even 50 percent is what coaches ask for from their top centermen, so if he can maintain that, his status as an elite pivot will be solidified. For reference, Henrik Sedin maintained that status averaging a 48.7 percent success rate (albeit we are missing stats from 2000-2007 when faceoffs were not being tracked).

Overall, the Canucks boast a formidable one-two punch at center, akin to when they had the aforementioned Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler patrolling the middle of the ice in the 2010s.

Canucks Are Not a Well-Oiled Machine, but They Are on the Right Track

The Canucks are not a well-oiled machine by any means, but these positive storylines are definitely a step in the right direction for a team and fanbase starving for the playoffs. Stay tuned for a “what needs to improve” article coming soon that will detail the things that are still a work in progress and need fixing in order to solidify their foundation as a playoff team. Until then, enjoy the game coming up against the Nashville Predators on Halloween!

All stats were from Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, and Hockey Reference

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