The Vancouver Canucks have been here before, Nov. 24 and four points out of a playoff spot.
It was 2009, and the situation was slightly less worrisome than it is in 2013. The Canucks – led by the same players who lead the team today – were four points behind the Los Angeles Kings in 2009 for the eighth spot in the Western Conference, and the Canucks had a game in hand.
This year, it’s tougher: Vancouver, as of midday Sunday, was four points behind Phoenix – in eighth – in the competitive West, but had played two additional games.
Four points – two wins – doesn’t seem like much, especially with so much of the season to go. But history – at least recent history – shows the gap is a serious one. In 2009, the Canucks made it. But from this point in the schedule, no team in the West over the past five full seasons – 2007-08 through 2011-12 – has made the playoffs from where the Canucks stand.
There are always teams in the race in late November who fall out, and a couple each year in late November who are a bit behind the pace and make it. Nashville in 2010-11 and 2011-12 was three points out and made it both times. Calgary made it in similar circumstances in 2007-08. Vancouver did it in 2009-10.
People love to say that sport is a game of inches. It is absolutely the case in hockey. And in the present case for the Vancouver Canucks, that’s not an exaggeration.
The solace – even as the Canucks blew a lead on Saturday and lost 2-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks – is their solid play, even if the win-loss tally is ugly. The Canucks have lost seven of their past nine games, and the team ends a six-game home stand Monday night, the longest of the season, playing host to Los Angeles in the finale.
In most of the losses, the Canucks have outplayed their opponent, measured by shots on goal and shots attempted. And the Canucks – a team for which advanced stats are part of the lingua franca – know this. They were stride for stride with Chicago through two periods on Saturday and in the third, as they fell behind, they drove play in the final 10 minutes – but couldn’t set the red light ablaze.
The losing has sparked increased chatter, the opinion these Vancouver Canucks are simply not up to the task, that the team as constituted is not a contender. There does seem to be a significant lack of scoring depth. An overhaul of the roster, however, is unlikely for two reasons: the first is the tight salary cap this year, and so many teams near the cap means any sort of blockbuster moves are very difficult; second, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis has decided to go all-in with the team as currently configured.
Four years ago, in 2009, the Canucks struggled early, and the core of the Sedin twins (Henrik won the scoring title), Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Roberto Luongo carried the team to the postseason. The names remain the same, just older.
Thing is, the team is not only fixed for this year, but is pretty much in place for next season and 2015-16 as well. All the primary characters on offence, defence and in goal are on long-term contracts. Wine may get better with age but hockey players rarely do, especially when they’re all in their 30s.
After the Chicago game, defenceman Kevin Bieksa specifically mentioned the statistic Fenwick Close, though not by name. The gauge measures teams when the score is within one goal, and tallies shots on goal and misses, for and against, to assess puck possession. Bieksa noted the Blackhawks were first in puck possession, and the Canucks were sixth – just as they stand on Fenwick Close.
The remedy – how to convert driving play into Ws – is obvious, even if the goal is elusive.
“We can’t do anything other than keep on pushing through it,” Bieksa said.
Coach John Tortorella, his temper contained as per usual this year, had a succinct three-minute press conference. Asked about whether he was tired of talking about scoring chances, he said: “Yeah.” Asked what the solution was, how to coach and coax offence, he said: “Going to bang away at it.”