Here is something remarkable: The Vancouver Canucks, after 39 games this season, are 22-11-6, good for 50 points. Last season, in the truncated 2013 campaign, the Canucks were, after 39 games, 22-11-6, good for 50 points. The previous season, following the Stanley Cup loss and ahead of a surge to a second Presidents’ Trophy, the Canucks were 24-13-2 after 39 games – good for, yes, 50 points.
The main difference is striking. In the two previous seasons, 50 points at 39 games was good for first place in the weak Northwest Division. This year, it’s only enough for fourth place in the powerhouse Pacific Division and a tenuous hold on seventh in the strong Western Conference. Too bad for Vancouver that there is no Canadian Football League crossover to the East, where the Canucks would rank third in the conference.
At what is effectively Vancouver’s regular-season halfway mark, with their longest Christmas break since the mid-1970s, the team is an average good team, a big comedown from recent seasons when they were among the very best in the National Hockey League.
New coach John Tortorella’s head has not exploded, and the only real fireworks have been some intense chewing-outs, replete with finger poking, of players on the bench. Tortorella can be credited for getting as much out of an older team as disposed coach Alain Vigneault did in years past with somewhat younger bodies. But unless something really changes, the Canucks could be headed toward the same fate: a first-round playoff exit, on a trajectory to start on the road against a powerful California team.
Halfway home, here are the hits and misses, and a couple in between, of the Canucks’ 2013-14 season.
Hit: Mike Santorelli
The one-time 20-goal scorer signed what was essentially a minor-league contract in the summer, but from the first day of training camp, winning a two-mile race, he has been the soul of this Tortorella team. Paid just $550,000, he is the bargain of the year, a fixture on the second line, playing tough minutes, and 24 of his 26 points have come at even-strength, ranked 18th in the league. Another mark of success: Santorelli has as many points as linemate Ryan Kesler.
Misses: Zack Kassian, David Booth
A project and a weird dude, neither has delivered anything close to what the team needs. But there have been signs of life, and the Canucks’ trajectory could change if a third line anchored by these two somehow comes to life and finds a real scoring punch. So far they have seven fewer points together than Santorelli.
Hit: The penalty kill
The best in the league, ceding the fewest shots against. A hard fore-check, plus an aggressive in-zone attacking kill – the epitome of the Tortorella touch.
Miss: The power play
Ranked 24th in the league despite getting the second-most shots at the net. Tortorella teams generally haven’t had good power plays.
Hit: Ryan Kesler
After two years of injuries, Kesler is back, carrying the team out of a slumping November, where the season could have spiralled into a disaster.
The 33-year-olds have big new contracts, and each twin has 33 points in 39 games, their worst points-per-game performance since before the 2004-05 lockout.
Jury out: Roberto Luongo
Grading the 34-year-old is tough, as he has been good: 16-9-3, a save percentage of .920 – a bit better than his career average – and a goals-against of 2.24, better than his career average. Yet he has not been great – and now he’s out, injured, with what is probably a groin strain.
Hit: Eddie Lack
The rookie backup has been excellent. A save-percentage of .928, goals-against of 1.93 and a record of 6-2. Cory Schneider – who dat? – has only four wins in New Jersey.
When the Canucks score two or more goals, the team is hard to beat, a record of 22-1-5. Too bad they’ve scored only one in more than a quarter of their outings, losing all of those games (0-10-1).
Hit: Chris Tanev
The remarkable ascent of the undrafted defenceman accelerates this year. He’s as steady as ever in his own end, joins the rush, has found some offensive punch and leads the team in short-handed minutes. At four-on-five, the Canucks are actually plus-one goal when Tanev is on the ice for the penalty kill – one for, zero against.
Miss: Alex Edler
He seemed spooked after a three-game suspension for a hit to the head of San Jose rookie Tomas Hertl and produced just nine points in 27 games before hurting his knee.
Hit: Puck possession
Mostly a hit. The Canucks are at the bottom of the top-third of the league in driving play, which is a good predictor of future success.
Jury out: John Tortorella
A coach can only do so much, and Tortorella has done good work in Vancouver. His success or failing will be measured in springtime.