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Jets 4, Canucks 2: From the ashes of failure, we present the playoffs

A year ago, the Vancouver Canucks were only talking about the playoffs. Now they’re in the playoffs and they’re chasing something big

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Thursday’s game for the Vancouver Canucks against the Winnipeg Jets really didn’t matter much.

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Both teams had long secured playoff positions. They were locked into opponents as well. There was one small detail at stake, home-ice advantage in the conference final, should both teams get that far, but it was clearly far from either coach’s mind as Vancouver’s Rick Tocchet and Winnipeg’s Rick Bowness both chose to rest key players.

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The final score was 4-2, giving Winnipeg a season-closing win and vaulting them before Vancouver on points, meaning they’ll have home ice advantage in the conference final should these two squads meet — and it was also an eighth-straight win for the Jets, who head into a very tough first-round series against Colorado — but for Vancouver, the result didn’t matter.

Vancouver Canucks’ Conor Garland (8) celebrates his goal against Winnipeg Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit (39) during first period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, April 18, 2024. Photo by JOHN WOODS /THE CANADIAN PRESS

It’s the big picture that matters here and the Canucks are headed to the playoffs as a first-round favourite.

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Not just a playoff team, but a true first-found favourite. It’s been a long since we’ve been able to say that with any kind of conviction.

Unlike so many recent Canucks campaigns, this season was not a meandering road with a disappointing “DEAD END” sign jutting up at the finish.

A year ago, we polled Canucks onlookers for their questions after yet another two-faced season, where the team started terribly, replaced the coach midseason, then had a strong, though ultimately fruitless, finish.

There are lessons to be learned from examining what the talking points around the team were this time last year, even before considering the answers.

First up last year was a question sent in by Cam Charron, the former Toronto Maple Leafs analyst who was working as a freelance commentator and analyst last season. He’s since been hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Charron pondered whether Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes would even be the best players on the Canucks’ roster the next time they got to 100 regular season points.

The answer is “sort of.”

Also I’m not sure Charron thought the Canucks would hit 100 points this season. He definitely saw a base of something here — he was even, quietly, a big defender of Tyler Myers — but getting to 100 points was a lot to expect of a team that had actually recorded fewer points than they did the year before.

But here we are.

Vancouver Canucks’ Elias Lindholm (23), Noah Juulsen (47), Dakota Joshua (81) and Conor Garland (8) celebrate Garland’s goal against the Winnipeg Jets during first period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, April 18, 2024. Photo by JOHN WOODS /THE CANADIAN PRESS

And yes, it turns out Quinn Hughes is the team’s best player. Pettersson might be the second-best, but given his struggles down the stretch — he just hasn’t looked comfortable for months — there’s a strong case to argue that Thatcher Demko, probably, or J.T. Miller, maybe, has passed him at the top of the list.

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Either way, this is as good an answer to a question that appeared skeptical that the Canucks could get close to contender status any time soon.

Turns out it was just a year.

Then there was longtime Canucks social media cynic Petbugs13.

PB wanted to know what management’s planwasis to build the critical mass of talent required to push through the mushy middle of mediocrity.

That’s a continuing question.

There are some good prospects in the pipeline, but the Canucks are hardly oozing in young talent on the way.

Jonathan Lekkerimaki is a fun prospect. Elias D-Petey Pettersson intrigues as a depth defender. Tom Willander is clearly a smart, personable young person, but does he really have top-pairing upside?

Patrik Allvin has done well to find depth prospects with potential and Ryan Johnson’s team in Abbotsford has done excellent work helping Linus Karlsson and Arshdeep Bains turn themselves into at least serviceable fourth liners.

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Logan Thompson #36 of the Vegas Golden Knights makes a save against Arshdeep Bains #80 of the Vancouver Canucks in the third period at T-Mobile Arena on April 02, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Golden Knights defeated the Canucks 6-3. Photo by Candice Ward /Getty Images

Cheap finds like these matter.

But you keep need to find guys. And you need to find some who will surprise, as well.

And the pickings remain slim. The 2020 and 2021 drafts, Jim Benning’s last two, which he put Todd Harvey in charge of, are unlikely to produce any NHL games.

Aidan McDonough and Jett Woo certainly showed flashes at times in the AHL this season — Woo was even on the NHL roster twice, though he never played — but both remain real long shots to be NHLers.

We know that Allvin and his staff will continue to look at the NCAA and Europe for the next Nils Aman. But, again, those are just guys.

You need to find more, and those are in the draft and in raiding other team’s farm systems. Dakota Joshua is a great example of this kind of find.

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Who’s next?

What about the cap mess, longtime fan Jamie Hamilton wondered.

In the end, Allvin traded Andrei Kuzmenko. In hindsight, it would have been wiser to deal him at the 2023 deadline, the draft pick they’d have acquired at a minimum would have been a handy trade chip to use at this year’s deadline.

Elias Lindholm has been OK, but the money that’s been dedicated to the Kuzmenko/Lindholm spot could have also been spent on a different player last summer.

Either way, Allvin did find a way to re-set his roster. He traded Anthony Beauvillier for a player they had more use for in Nikita Zadorov.

They didn’t end up moving any of Brock Boeser, Conor Garland or Tyler Myers, three players they were prepared to trade, but they instead benefited from a resurgence by all three.

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Tyler Myers celebrates his goal against the Calgary Flames during the first period
Vancouver Canucks’ Tyler Myers celebrates his goal against the Calgary Flames during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS

That was a different, somewhat-unexpected lesson in cap management: sometimes you can help your players re-set and make themselves into the kind of players you need.

But there was a pure cap move that ended up paying off in spades in the short term: the Oliver Ekman-Larsson buyout.

It was bold choice to dump a player with his pedigree, even if he was hoping to bounce back from an awful season.

The OEL money, Allvin and his staff figured, could be better assigned elsewhere.

And for this past season anyway, they hit home runs. They signed two defencemen who ended up being exactly what this team needed in Carson Soucy and Ian Cole.

They signed a pair of depth forwards who’ve quietly improved so much of this team’s five on five diligence in Teddy Blueger and Pius Suter.

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Four players out of one cap hit? That was a shrewd bit of manoeuvring by Allvin.

Vancouver still has cap issues — Tucker Poolman is on the books for one more season, likely stuck in LTIR — but they’re far less difficult than they once were. There’s no dead weight when it comes to actual players anymore.

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) saves the shot from Winnipeg Jets’ Sean Monahan (23) during first period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, April 18, 2024. Photo by JOHN WOODS /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Finally there were a pair of questions from two other lifetime fans in Dave Forsyth and Herve Nzeyimana, who wanted to know when the Canucks would be fun again.

Turns out that was this year.

A large part of this was about ownership continuing to step back, letting president Jim Rutherford and Allvin do their work.

That was what fan Nzeyimana focused on: the role of ownership, in being willing to spend the money to win the Stanley Cup and not just sneak into the playoffs.

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Three years into the Rutherford era, so far this ambition has been there.

Canucks General manager Patrik Allvin on Jan. 31, 2024. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

There’s still no sign of a practice rink.

But the renovations to the arena continue. New seats are on the way. There are renovation projects elsewhere inside the arena.

At least some of the outside spaces are getting a refurbishment.

And on the ice, the team is wildly entertaining.

That is, of course, what matters most. The coaching staff is chasing after a compelling, entertaining style of play.

The players have always been well-paid, but they’re being well-looked after again. The off-ice amenities for the players have greatly improved.

The team’s mood is better and surely some of this is about the working conditions, on top of overall improved talent.

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The moral

Here’s where things are: this is a management staff, and a team of players, who understand where they’ve come from, but they know to move forward they have to evolve.

Rutherford has won the Stanley Cup three times. Rick Tocchet has won the Stanley Cup. Ian Cole has won the Stanley Cup.

They know the dedication it takes to get there, but they don’t dwell on it.

Tocchet would be the first to tell you that his journey as a coach hasn’t been to keep looking back to what worked before: it’s more about understanding what hasn’t worked and then do something else, building towards a more complete version of himself as a coach.

There’s no pondering longingly at green lights here.

There’s a clear-eyed determination to keep their eyes on the prize.

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Let’s see where these playoffs go.

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