Ed Willes: If Canucks’ veterans fail to rise, brace for another plunge


Players scuffle around the Canucks bench as the Nashville Predators were on their way to a 7-1 beatdown of Vancouver at Rogers Arena Wednesday night.

Players scuffle around the Canucks bench as the Nashville Predators were on their way to a 7-1 beatdown of Vancouver at Rogers Arena Wednesday night.

Let’s get the usual caveats out of the way.

Yes, the Vancouver Canucks have again encountered a calamitous series of injuries that has crippled their lineup and, yes, things should change for this team when they start getting bodies back.


Despite their recent downturn, there have also been positive developments on the NHL team and in the organization that suggest better days are ahead. And, at no additional cost, we’ll even throw in the emergence of Brock Boeser as an elite goal-scorer, which accelerates the rebuild by at least a year and gives the master plan a crucial centrepiece.

So there remain some encouraging signs around the Canucks and it’s fair to say things are changing for this franchise. But it’s also fair to say the last week has raised a question that strikes to the heart of this season, a question that is all too familiar to the faithful.

Based on Wednesday night’s 7-1 embarrassment at the hands of the visiting Nashville Predators, is this team about to plunge off a cliff?

As for the answer, that will be determined in large part by the Canucks’ six-game stretch before Christmas.

“It’s no secret,” head coach Travis Green said at Tuesday morning’s skate. “We have injuries and we need guys to play their best.

“But I’m not looking for Jake Virtanen to score four goals so we can win tonight. You have to be realistic with what you have and I don’t want players trying to do things that are outside their means.

“You just don’t replace a Bo Horvat. It just doesn’t happen. But other guys can play some really good hockey.”

Now would be a good time to start.

Wednesday night, Nashville came to town with the Canucks in a depressingly familiar situation and throttled the home team in a depressingly familiar fashion.

Barely 90 seconds into the affair, P.K. Subban’s arcing flutter ball floated over Anders Nilsson and into the Canucks’ net, effectively ending any drama or hope for Green’s team.

By the end of the night, the luckless Nilsson surrendered goals on a two-man, shorthanded Preds’ breakaway, a 90-foot slapper by Subban, a centering pass that deflected at right angles off teammate Michael Chaput and three more in a 3:49 stretch in the third period.

When Kevin Fiala scored the Preds’ sixth goal, Nilsson shattered his goalstick over the crossbar.

He should have saved himself the effort. Forty seconds later, Calle Jarnkrok scored the seventh goal.

When the smoke had cleared, the Canucks dropped their fourth straight game and have now been outscored, wait for it, 20-5 over that span.

As a result, they’ve dropped to 12th in the Western Conference and now have to climb over Anaheim, Calgary and Chicago, and then one of Minnesota, Dallas or San Jose, to get back into a playoff spot.

But the more distressing development from this four-game stretch concerns the nightmarish memories it has resurrected from the last two seasons.

If you need reminding, the Canucks started the last two years of the Willie Desjardins regime in hopeful fashion before they folded like a cheap lawn chair, finishing 29th and 28th overall in a 30-team league.

Along the way some familiar themes emerged. They ran into injuries that exposed the rest of the lineup. Young players who were supposed to make a difference weren’t quite ready and the veterans weren’t quite good enough.

Goaltending held them in a lot of games before it caved under the weight of having to do too much. This year’s team was assembled to withstand the challenges that crashed the Canucks’ last two seasons. But here we are facing a similar situation again.

With a full complement, veterans such as the Sedins, Thomas Vanek, Loui Eriksson and Sam Gagner didn’t have to carry the scoring load. Now they have to assume the role of front-liners and it remains to be seen if they’re capable of delivering.

Youngsters like Virtanen, Ben Hutton, Derrick Pouliot, Brendan Gaunce and Markus Granlund weren’t playing under a spotlight during the first two months but, with each loss, the attention on them intensifies.

The Canucks need difference-makers right now. The problem is, aside from Boeser, too many of their young players aren’t ready to be difference-makers.

Green, of course, believes the solutions are in the locker-room. What else would you expect him to say? He rightly points out a win in Calgary on Sunday would reframe this conversation, but that’s the thing about the last two Canucks seasons. The benefit of the doubt just doesn’t exist for this team.

“If we win the Calgary game things are different,” Green said. “You can’t all of a sudden say you don’t have cohesion because you lost. You can win a sh—y game and maybe that changes your cohesion.

“I want to play hard, aggressive hockey. There’s an argument to be made that hard, aggressive hockey is better suited for a team that’s under-staffed. You have to have an aggressive mindset. You have to get to the net if you want to score. And you’ve got to compete. If you do that, good things happen.”

Green was asked specifically about Vanek, Eriksson and Gagner, players who’ve produced in the NHL who are now expected to step up for this team.

“You’re not going to rewrite the book on how to get goals or how to produce offence,” he said. “We want them to score. But it’s not a matter of pointing a finger at them. I’m not going to do that. They just need to play good hockey and good things will happen. I talked about the process and it doesn’t change.”

But things have to change for the Canucks and it will fall largely to the group that met Nashville. Horvat is still at least a month away. So’s Sven Baertschi. As for the schedule, five of their next six games are at home before the Christmas break, followed by another three-game home stand that takes us to the New Year and a five-game roadie.

There aren’t a lot of soft spots in that sked. But there might be even harder questions by the end of it.

“You reset every day and you go and play the game the way it should be played,” Green said.

And hope those good things happen. This team could use some good things to happen.



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Players scuffle around the Canucks bench as the Nashville Predators were on their way to a 7-1 beatdown of Vancouver at Rogers Arena Wednesday night.

Players scuffle around the Canucks bench as the Nashville Predators were on their way to a 7-1 beatdown of Vancouver at Rogers Arena Wednesday night.

Players scuffle around the Canucks bench as the Nashville Predators were on their way to a 7-1 beatdown of Vancouver at Rogers Arena Wednesday night.
If the injury-riddled Vancouver Canucks hope to avoid falling out of contention for an NHL playoff berth, columnist Ed Willes said they need players like Loui Eriksson, right, to step up and lead the charge.
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