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Bo Horvat skates in front of Arizona Coyotes goalie Adin Hall and Ilya Lyubushkin duing NHL action at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Thursday.
Troy Stecher of the Vancouver Canucks during the first period of the game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on Feb. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Arizona.
Arizona Coyotes left wing Taylor Hall (91) fights for control of the puck with Vancouver Canucks defenceman Christopher Tanev (8) during the first period.
God forbid we should have to see the Canucks face the Coyotes in the playoffs.
Coming into today’s play, the Canucks held a 64-per-cent chance of making the big dance.
(Needless to say, this win will up their chances.)
Who they could face in the playoffs remains very much up in the air. Credit the dog’s breakfast that is the Western Conference wild-card race as well as the Pacific Division.
Their most likely opponent, at a measly 12 per cent, is, yes, these same Coyotes.
Rick Tocchet’s team plays a trap. They trap better than just about anyone in the league. And they’ve had very good goaltending behind that defensive shell.
The Canucks did enough Thursday to take a grinding win away from Arizona.
And sure, there’s every reason to think they could do that four times come April. And sure, this town is desperate to see playoff hockey again.
In other words, we’ll take it if we have to, but it would be so much nicer to see an opponent that is looking to go run and gun against the Canucks, even if that would make for two coaches pulling their hair out.
LISTEN: In this week’s snow-delayed White Towel podcast, Ed Willes joins Paul Chapman to talk about the Canucks heading into the All-Star break.
Among the topics discussed, how do the Canucks match up in the stacked Pacific Division? In a playoff series, which team would actually be the best? Are the Canucks using Jacob Markstrom effectively? Ed and Paul also revisit the old Patcast and remember some great Jeff Paterson and Jason Botchford travel stories, and revisit the 1990s Canucks and Pat Quinn’s skill as a general manager. And, finally, Ed talks about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations and tries to compare bands to great NHLers.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device:
Random Jake facts
Jake Virtanen is tied with Elias Pettersson with five game-winning goals, best on the Canucks, also ninth in the league.
That said, his goal on Thursday night was the first time anyone has scored a goal while he’s on the ice with Pettersson and Miller. They’ve been a line several times this season. That’s not a good rate of production for a line that, with Brock Boeser, has been one of the league’s best.
All this said, Virtanen has been producing. He’s well aware of how slow things went for him in the second half last season.
His answer on how to avoid hitting the skids again was blunt.
“I want to make sure that I’m working my ass off, to keep working hard and doing what I’m doing,” he said.
Mathieu Perreault was not pleased that Virtanen went unpunished for the elbow the Canucks winger threw at his head on Tuesday night.
Asked about the situation earlier on Thursday by Winnipeg reporters, he pulled no punches.
“Player safety, my ass. This was literally an elbow to the face to a guy that didn’t have the puck,” he said. “I see him coming, I brace for a hit. It’s a late hit, I didn’t have the puck and he flicks his elbow in my face.”
“If they’re not going to do anything about it, I’m going to take matters into my own hands, next time this happens: I get to swing my stick across his forehead and I shouldn’t get suspended.”
“I can’t really protect myself there if the league’s not going to protect me. I’m the smallest guy on the ice so I can’t really fight anybody. The only thing I can do to defend myself is use my stick, so the next guy that comes at me like that is going to get my f—ing stick. And I’d better not get suspended for it.”
Virtanen wasn’t around for the morning skate so it wasn’t until after the game the media was able to quiz him about the incident.
The winger said he’d heard Perreault’s comments but said he didn’t think there was an issue with the hit. What he heard was frustration.
“He’s a good player and I’ve nothing bad to say about him. I wasn’t trying to just go out and murder a guy, and I could have been a lot worse if I really hit him. He’s a good player and I honestly didn’t even mean to do that and you know, it is what it is. He can be frustrated, I mean, I think anyone would kind of be frustrated at that point. He’s a good player and that’s about it.
“… Stuff’s going to happen and it’s not going to be flowers and roses all the time, where everything is clean. It’s hockey and things move fast out there and sometimes it’s, you know, whatever, and I didn’t even mean to do it, so it is one of those.”
Between player safety passing on disciplining Matthew Tkachuk for predatory hits on Zack Kassian — if it were Raffi Torres, would it still be a pass? — and now Virtanen going unpunished for his head blow, who knows what the league is looking to punish these days.
A contract to consider
Troy Stecher, you may have heard, needs a new contract. He’s proven to be a dependable defender, a guy who can play on a shutdown pair, who can dish the puck pretty well, who is also perfectly fine on your third pairing.
He generally makes every partner he’s with better. But in a world where the Canucks can only keep one of him or Chris Tanev, one where Brogan Rafferty and his one-way 2020-21 contract are waiting in the wings, it’s a hard read to determine what his future role on the club might be.
Asked last week whether he’s had contract talks with either Stecher or Jake Virtanen’s camp, GM Jim Benning said they hadn’t.
“For the most part, you know, we’ll wait and see how they perform over the course of the year and try to get those guys signed in the summer,” he replied, essentially drawing in the bulk of the pending free agents on his docket into his answer. (That would also include Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom, Josh Leivo, Tyler Motte, Adam Gaudette, Zack MacEwen and Oscar Fantenberg .)
He also added that he had his pro scouting meetings coming up — the Canucks’ quartet of pro scouts are actually in town as we speak — to build the final picture of Benning’s strategy for the months ahead.
Stecher is a sharp guy. He knows the ins and outs of NHL roster construction. So it wasn’t really a surprise that he didn’t shy away Thursday when I asked him if he’s been thinking about his contract at all. It would have been an easy out to say he hadn’t been. But that’s never the way with Stecher. He considers his thoughts. He puts forward, often, a lesson he’s learned.
And that’s what he did.
“I did early on,” he began. “I’d definitely be lying to you if I said I wasn’t, but in the early months I did and it kind of dwelled on me and I think it affected my play.”
But then it hit him to not think about it. He even went so far as to not talk to his agent Eustace King. It’s been a couple months since they’ve spoken, in fact. Whether that was because it was obvious to him that contract talks weren’t going to be forthcoming anytime soon, given the game of Tetris building next year’s squad is so obviously going to be, it is clear that focusing on what he can do has helped him in his play, at least in his own mind.
“I don’t think my minutes have gone up that much, but I feel like my play on ice as an individual has increased and I’m giving our team good quality minutes.”
He then had some interesting things to say about plus/minus, a stat he knows is flawed but also one that does have a great deal of importance in contract negotiations. Stecher is currently +5, tied for second on the team.
“People have their opinions on their plus/minus but it’s something I try to pride myself on, especially playing in the third pairing, with the minutes I’m getting. I don’t want to be a minus player because it’s just an excuse for them to take me out. I want to make sure I’m doing something where I’m helping the team, that shows that I’m not affecting us in a negative way.”
Plus/minus’s greatest flaw as a stat is that it credits or assigns blame to the whole lineup when a goal against could be about one player’s gaffe or simple bad luck in timing. Luck has a lot to do with the stat .
There’s an existential truth to his focus. He doesn’t want to be on the ice for goals against. He wants to be making decisions on the ice, whether that’s in his own zone, looking to stop the opposition or in the neutral zone, forcing turnovers, or in the offensive zone, looking to make a smart pinch and help create a scoring opportunity for his mates.
When you’re playing on the third pairing, you don’t get a lot of chances but you want to make them all count was his message.
“After my first year, I think every single year I’ve started on that third pairing. My first year I got cut and then my second year I started with Hutty on the third pair. It’s just been that way every year and with injuries I’ve been given some different opportunities. This year, thankfully, we’ve been really healthy, and with that we’ve had a better record as a group. I think I learned that at an early age that it’s a privilege to play in this league and you can be out of it pretty quick, so no matter how much I’m playing I always want to make sure that I’m not giving anybody a reason to even contemplate taking me out of the lineup.”
The cap question
Which brings us to the next thought: What about Stecher vs. Tanev? The cap is going to be a tight situation next year. If Jacob Markstrom is re-signed — Benning has made it clear that’s his preference — he’ll be earning a raise of some kind. He won’t be the only one after a raise, either.
Jake Virtanen is also building himself quite the arbitration case, given how excellent his even-strength production has been.
But I digress: this is a strange goalie market this summer. There are going to be some intriguing alternatives available for less than what Markstrom is surely after. And there will be the Bobrovsky mess hanging over everyone. The late-blooming Markstrom certainly doesn’t have the popular reputation that Bobrovsky carried into the summer of 2019.
He can still point to contracts like Martin Jones’s ($5.75m x five years) or Robin Lehner’s ($5m this year) or Mikko Koskinen’s ($4.5m x three years) and say “that’s my value.” He’s clearly got a case to be paid more than that trio.
Equally, the Canucks can look at some of the other good young goalies who will be looking for a new team — Alexandar Georgiev, say — and note that this market may not be the best situation for a goalie, aged 30, looking to chase a big-ticket contract.
Even so, if he’s retained, that will mean less money to spend on Tanev and Stecher.
Plus Brogan Rafferty has a one-way contract next season, meaning that if he’s re-assigned to Utica, he’ll be making his full salary, not a reduced amount like it is this year. There’s no reason to think he’d be able to replace Stecher or Tanev on the defensive end, but his scoring talents are obvious, even if he is a 24-year-old cleaning up on players who are four years younger.
It all adds up to the reality that the Canucks should recoup some sort of value from one of the defencemen. Call it the Trade ____ Club.
There’s going to plenty of pressure on Jim Benning to both satisfy the short-term desires of making the playoffs while also recognizing the long-view challenges, like their cap constraints next season, and weighing that against the chance of at least recouping a pick or a prospect for one of his to-depart quality defencemen.
Me, aloud, to no one in particular: Who is Ilya Lyubushkin?
Drancer, replying to me: the ultimate no-name NHLer. I only know about him because I didn’t before and looked him up.
Loui Eriksson joined the Bo Horvat line just before Christmas, a forced move because Josh Leivo shattered his kneecap. As we know, Horvat and Tanner Pearson have been producing since, and they’re getting lots of chances offensively too.
Eriksson, it can’t be denied, has had a positive effect.
But it is rather hilarious how much of the production has been because of their late-game presence defending against opposition who have pulled their goalie.
It all adds up to some fantastic online humour.
Did you spot him?
The Canucks hosted a Canucks media alumni night and also recognized Jim Robson’s birthday (it’s tomorrow).
When they put the great broadcaster up on the screen, we all couldn’t help but notice a blur at the bottom of the screen.
That was, we realized, Elliott Pap.
I was later sent a very nice photo of the group from former Province Sports colleague Jim Jamieson.
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