If the Vancouver Canucks had beaten the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, it would have been one of those moments.
It would have pushed the Canucks to the top of the Pacific Division, tied on points for the best record in the NHL. It would have amounted to a statement of intent – ‘We are as good or better than the best.’ People would have started talking about something going on in B.C.
That unpleasantness was avoided by a never-in-doubt 4-1 Canucks’ loss.
Afterward, Vancouver coach Rick Tocchet was at pains to point out how convincing a win it was: “They’re Stanley Cup champs for a reason.”
Mission accomplished. The Canucks can carry on unhindered for a while longer.
Vancouver isn’t the surprise team of the season, as much as it is the league’s unmarked package. It was no one’s preseason favourite and, no matter how well it does, it still isn’t.
The only way in which the Canucks have allowed anything more than their eyes to be visible over the waterline is Quinn Hughes. For a while, the defenceman led the league in scoring. But now that he’s gone from Bobby Orr numbers to Denis Potvin numbers, people have stopped noticing.
The Canucks don’t win a whole bunch of games in a row, or lose many, either. They are quietly and consistently quiet and consistent. You might describe their approach as “Who? Us?”
Their Canadian peers do not get the advantage of this approach. Every story written about the Edmonton Oilers right now has the same thesis – “Is it fixed?” But you have to say it with a bit of a squeal in your voice, to capture the hysteria.
The only really good thing to happen to the Leafs this year is the Oilers. It gives people a target that isn’t them. Everyone else playing north of the border is working somewhere between treading water and sinking slowly.
Only Vancouver has managed the trick of being both relatively good and relatively invisible.
Every Canadian team is an object of anxious fascination in its own market, but once the whole country gets in on the action, things start to fall apart. So far, Vancouver has avoided that hassle.
How’d the Canucks do that? They did it by never becoming so famously bad that they were expected to bounce off the bottom of the league like a Superball. Essentially, they didn’t tank well enough.
The Canucks have in recent times been terrible, just not epochally terrible. Not awful enough to win the lottery.
What the past few years are in the midst of proving is that no Canadian team wants to draft first overall in a good year for prospects. Not really.
It is good for business. There’s no doubt of that. What’s Connor McDavid’s most significant accomplishment in Edmonton? He launched a downtown sports theme park that will ring like a cash register for ownership for the next 20, 25 years.
The hockey part of things? Come on. Get your priorities straight.
A first overall pick puts all of the attention on you. It’s fun to imagine for a while, but the imagining never stops. Via Pittsburgh and Chicago, hockey fans have been taught a new set of rules – tanking is good; tanking makes you better; you know you’ve tanked right when you pick first; a first pick equals multiple Stanley Cups. Even when that doesn’t happen, people still expect it to.
No player is good enough to turn around an NHL team. But the attention you’ve invited doesn’t know that. It begins to grind on you, year after year, until all you can hear is, ‘Are we there yet?’
The last time a Canadian team won a Cup with its own No. 1 pick on the roster was Guy Lafleur in Montreal. Still, everyone acts like their own Guy Lafleur is two or three terrible seasons away.
What a Canadian team needs (if not wants) is first-overall quality further down the draft list. Much further, if possible. They need to acquire underpriced guys who aren’t huge names, but capable of making major contributions.
Big splashes are easy because they get everyone off your neck for a week or two, but then even more people hop on. Incremental improvements are hard because no one gives you any credit for going from bad to not so bad.
Vancouver made one splash in its current waxing phase – centreman Elias Pettersson. The city’s romantic affinity for transformative Europeans ensured he would be treated like the Second Coming. But because he wasn’t a first overall, no one outside Vancouver was as invested.
That allowed Pettersson the room to be streaky. Were he, say, a first pick such as Nail Yakupov or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, he would already have been mangled by expectation. But in Vancouver, he’s allowed to be the second- or third- or eighth-best player on a given night, as opposed to the best every night.
When you think of the best player on the Canucks, it’s a rotating cast. You haven’t been told for years that any one of them is a guaranteed generational star. So no one expects anyone to be. All they have to be is good together. At this point, that seems to be working.
Two years on, no one seems to have learned the most important lesson of the 2021 Canadiens – to make it in Canada, you have to be the team no one saw coming.
As Carey Price was in the midst of driving that roster to an unlikely Stanley Cup final, people were still debating why it wasn’t the Oilers or Leafs instead. It was their time. They’d done everything the right way. Why wasn’t it working out? How could this team who’d tanked wrong, signed players wrong and got hold of zero open-ice superstars presume to win?
Because if history is our guide (and most of that is the ancient variety) there are only two ways to win in Canada. Time travel back to the 1980s, or build a winning team where no one else can see you.
This year, Vancouver is the team that meets that criteria. The trick will be continuing to get better, while also continuing to convince people it’s not worth talking about.