Knight Class: Lessons the Canucks can take from the Vegas series into free agency

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So your team came within one win of the Western Conference Final. As if 2020 could get any weirder, right?

No one expected the Vancouver Canucks to win a playoff series over the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues, let alone drag the Vegas Golden Knights to a Game 7 in Round 2, at this time last year. Every game the Canucks played in the now distant 2019-20 season seemed to foreshadow a team that’d likely take their two or three home playoff dates and still leave a very happy team.

But by the time the Golden Knights finally finished Vancouver off, expectations for this team had fluctuated more than the cost of turnips in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The Canucks went from an uninspired opening game in the qualifiers to five straight dominating wins against the Minnesota Wild and Blues, chasing Jordan Binnington from the net multiple times and pulling off surprising victories through elite goaltending and a skilled power play unit.

In Round One, the Canucks showed just how much potential they have against the heavily built and favoured Blues. But in the second round, no matter what the Canucks did the Knights seemed to have the pieces to neutralize them. And in the hockey world, a lot of decisions are made based on who teams lose to in the postseason. Especially if you’re Vancouver.

When the Canucks lost to Boston in the 2011 Cup Final (sorry, you know I have to mention it), they responded by trying to get bigger and tougher with additions like Zack Kassian, Dale Weise and a new bench boss in John Tortorella. Over time, Vancouver’s identity as a fully loaded scoring machine with Hall of Fame goaltending became more and more muddled, leading to Vancouver missing the playoffs entirely by 2013-14.

Which is why in this particular case, it might actually be a good thing that the Golden Knights were the ones to knock out the Canucks. While there’s definitely certain aspects of Vegas’ game that Vancouver shouldn’t attempt to copy, the essence of the Knights’ success is a mixture of speed, skilled cost effective depth and a defensive group with multiple scoring threats; all things the Canucks should look to address this offseason.

Need For Speed

While the physicality of all three series definitely played a role in wearing down the Canucks, the team that finally undid them had another very important edge over Vancouver: their speed.

The Canucks’ young guns may be routinely pointed out for their quick pace of play and skating, but the Knights’ entire roster takes it to a whole other level. Vegas’ strategy boiled down to three major points; being able to win puck races, battles along the board and completely walling up the neutral zone on defense.

One Golden Knight who feasted on the Canucks slower skaters was winger Alex Tuch. Tuch is the prototypical power forward who used his size and fleet-footedness to make life difficult for Vancouver, especially on transition plays.

As the game trends towards a younger and speedier style, big players like Tuch who can keep up with the pace of play represent a major piece missing from the Canucks’ forward group. While the team held out hope that Jake Virtanen would develop into that role, it seems like that ship may have finally sailed.

The best thing the Canucks can do is prioritize finding faster players to fill out both their bottom six on offense and their depth defense spots. Not only will it give Travis Green more options that can carry the same pace of play as Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, but also make it much easier to shut down speedier opposing players in their own end of the ice.

The Hughes Factor

One big aspect of Vegas’ win was their ability to shut down Quinn Hughes. Huggy Bear had been nearly unstoppable during the first two rounds against Minnesota and St. Louis, scoring at a point per game pace through the first ten. But the Knights were able to limit Hughes to just a single point through the first four games, exposing just how badly the Canucks required his offensive contributions to win.

With Hughes getting special attention from the Knights, his fellow defensemen were unable to pick up the scoring slack. The rest of the Canucks’ defensive core added just four points in the series, made up of Alex Edler’s three assists and a single helper from Chris Tanev.

When it came to offensive production on the Canucks’ blue line during the 2020 playoffs, it was Quinn Hughes or nothing. (Graphic by Lachlan Irvine, stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com)

It’s pretty clear that for the Canucks to move forward, Hughes simply can’t be the only scoring threat on the blue line. The recent signing of Harvard man Jack Rathbone will be a big addition next season, and Olli Juolevi might finally have what it takes to crack the big leagues, but expecting them to carry the offensive load right away is asking a lot.

Compare that to the Golden Knights, who have an abundance of skill on defense. Putting double coverage on Vegas’ series points leader Shea Theodore only frees up the likes of Nate Schmidt or Alec Martinez for a scoring opportunity.

While it’s fair to say the Canucks need defenders who help limit the opposition’s scoring chances, the best defense is still a great offense. And right now, if not for Quinn Hughes, the Canucks wouldn’t have either.

Uncut Gems

In an era of hockey where maintaining a youthful roster is more important than ever, the 2019-20 Canucks’ average player age of 27.37 years old only made them the 17th oldest in the NHL. But among the 24 teams competing in the July restart, Vancouver landed in the older half of the competitors.

Now with a salary cap crunch looming, exacerbated by the NHL’s heavy revenue losses during the pandemic, and the Canucks find themselves at their biggest fork in the road under this management regime. In order to keep the team competitive and simultaneously free up the cap space to lock up their core players, Vancouver needs to offload a number of their expensive, older players and replace them with younger, more cost-effective talent.

While the Knights are currently one of the oldest teams in the league, their management group did an excellent job in the team’s first seasons finding cheaper, undervalued players to fill out the expansion roster and used their flexibility to construct a lethal juggernaut in just three years.

By using the 2017 Expansion Draft to fill out their roster through low cost picks like William Karlsson and Shea Theodore, Vegas was able to use their large amount of free cap space to chase big names like Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty later on. Even though COVID-19 has put Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon right up against the cap ceiling, the Knights already have the majority of their core locked up long term and their success on the ice will make it easy to attract depth signings on bargain contracts again.

The Canucks may not have a long stretch of success to impress potential signees with, but with quite a few teams being forced to let go of players they can no longer afford there’s going to be some pretty talented options available in free agency for Vancouver to choose from, albeit at much team-friendlier costs. The list is already starting to grow after the league’s qualifying offers deadline passed yesterday afternoon, with players like Anthony Duclair, Matt Benning and Andreas Athanasiou all set to hit free agency on Friday. Oh, and also Troy Stecher.

Of course, the hardest part for the Canucks will be moving some of their own expensive contracts taking up their cap room. It might involve throwing valuable draft picks into some deals with other teams or finding trade partners desperate to fix their own untenable situations (any Arizona related rumours lately?), but if the Canucks can find any way possible to move on from the over $25 million currently dedicated to costly depth players, it’s a route worth exploring.

The Canucks shouldn’t change their team philosophy towards building a team specifically meant to beat the Vegas Golden Knights. But if they took the right lessons out of their playoff series against Vegas and recognize the steps it took them to get where they are now, maybe Vancouver can become home to the next Golden Knights.


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