The Canucks’ five-game east coast road trip ended with only a pair of wins, further highlighting their defensive shortcomings and heightening worries about the play of the usually spectacular Thatcher Demko. Vancouver sits at 5-9-3, an abysmal 63-point pace over 82 games, while tough questions linger about the future of captain Bo Horvat. The team has surrendered 69 goals in regulation and overtime through 17 games, a rate of over four goals per game. While some players have improved on their already impressive offensive arsenal, like Elias Pettersson and Horvat, and others have surprised as top options, like Andrei Kuzmenko, it’s impossible to compete for the playoffs with a league-worst penalty kill and an inability to protect leads.
Demko entered the season entrenched as one of the most dependable starters in the league, a face of the franchise with elite production to back him up. Through 17 games, he has only one win, while Spencer Martin, the longtime AHLer with only nine career NHL games under his belt heading into 2022-23, has a 4-1-1 record, albeit with a subpar .898 save percentage. Prior to their road trip, Demko sat precipitously close to the league bottom in Evolving Hockey’s Goals Saved Versus Expected (GSVx), which measures the performance of a goaltender against the league average, while accounting for difficulty of shots faced and quality of a team’s defense. Demko has surpassed Columbus’s Elvis Merzlikins for the worst GSVx in the NHL, allowing a whopping 11.39 goals more than expected. Last week’s article argued that Demko’s play would return to the norm expected of him, but at this point, it’s fair to wonder if he’s experiencing a Phillip Grubauer-esque regression. Grubauer went from placing third in the 2020-21 Vezina Trophy voting as the top goaltender in the league, to allowing 31.53 goals above expected in 2021-22, which led the NHL by a wide margin. Demko, after appearing in only 11 games thus far compared to Grubauer’s 55 last season, is on track to blow out Grubauer’s total. Despite picking up a pair of wins in his last three starts, Martin has a -0.57 GSVx, suggesting the Canucks would be even better if just one of their goalies could play at the league average.
Compounding concerns about the club, team captain Horvat, who leads the Canucks with 14 goals in 17 games, has been rumored to be on the trade market, as his contract expires following this season. Despite being the longest-tenured Canuck, an important leader and amid a breakout year, poor asset management by this front office and the one before it have backed the team into a corner. After giving 29-year-old J.T. Miller a seven-year extension and failing to bring in a single above-average blueliner (sorry, Ethan Bear and Riley Stillman), GM Patrik Allvin may find it necessary to recoup some value for Horvat before letting him walk for nothing.
Through the team’s early struggles, the marriage between coach Bruce Boudreau and the squad has strained. President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford publicly criticized and questioned Boudreau, demonstrating his front office’s hypocrisy and lack of accountability. While Rutherford can denounce his own organization’s “structure”, he should have considered employing more than one NHL-caliber defenceman. It is difficult to cast any blame toward Boudreau when the man is coaching under a front office that undermines its own coach and players. Perhaps when Allvin and Rutherford make a single transaction that helps improve the Canucks, they will have the moral authority to criticize Boudreau.
Optimism is hard to find among fans of the organization. The decisions made this offseason, notably the Miller extension and a stubborn refusal to improve the blueline, were immediately called out by large swathes of the fanbase who questioned the front office’s vision. Less than a quarter into the season, those fans are vindicated. The Miller extension was a short-sighted, crippling move, while our defense continues to get shelled night after night. If the Canucks lose Horvat, who has scored 28 goals in his last 35 games, Allvin and Rutherford won’t be able to blame Boudreau. The blame will lie squarely on management, and their ‘vision’ will be exposed as comparable to that of a naked mole-rat – nonexistent.