It‘s hard to imagine a Vancouver Canucks season flying as far off script as this one.
After a stirring run in last year’s playoffs, the team entered the 2020-21 campaign as a solid bet to build on their unexpected success and go even further this time around. Instead, their season is now pretty much a write-off, with almost every player on the team infected with COVID-19 and their hopes for the playoffs all but extinguished.
The team could well have as many as eight games to reschedule once it is ready to resume action. It’s believed the league has a plan to make them up by cramming in a few extra games during the regular season and using a buffer week after it concludes that was designed for just this sort of eventuality.
Those are the practical matters that flow from a COVID outbreak among an NHL team. Then there are the real-life concerns that stem from an eruption of a COVID mutant, the more transmissible and deadly P.1 variant, and the impact, both in the short and long term, that it could have on the health of the players and their families.
While everyone is expected to recover, it’s difficult envisioning the virus not taking some sort of short-term toll on the players. Sure, when they come back they will have cleared the protocols imposed on those recovering from the disease, but will they all be 100 per cent? It’s hard to think that is possible.
After the Buffalo Sabres returned to action following a COVID outbreak, the team proceeded to lose 18 games in a row.
This would all be worse for the Canucks if they were playing before packed crowds. They aren’t. And they won’t be until next season. Consequently, with money tight, ownership didn’t make many off-season moves that would cost money. No one saw this as a potential Stanley Cup year for Vancouver anyway, so why splurge on pricey free agents? That is likely to happen in a year or two when the team, if all goes according to plan, has the look of a legitimate Cup challenger.
At a point in the season when many Canucks supporters thought they’d be looking at the standings to figure out potential postseason seedings, they now gaze at them imagining what a lottery pick might look like.
As of Tuesday, there were only six teams with fewer points. Hard to say where things will end up, but the Canucks are highly unlikely to go on a post-COVID tear. They also have more talent than Buffalo, so a losing streak of those proportions is just as far-fetched. When play does resume, Vancouver is likely to have superstar centre Elias Pettersson back from a hand injury that kept him out of action for several games before the shutdown. So that should help.
As long a shadow as COVID has cast over the Canucks season this year, all is certainly not lost. That shadow will eventually recede and the sun could shine brightly on this team in the not-too-distant future. It has an exciting nucleus in Pettersson, defenceman Quinn Hughes, captain Bo Horvat and sniper Brock Boeser. Goalie Thatcher Demko looks like a future Vézina finalist. Swedish rookie Nils Hoglander has surpassed expectations and is a nice complementary piece. And the team will be bolstered next year by Russian power forward Vasily Podkolzin, who NHL Hall of Famer Igor Larionov has likened to a Mark Messier-like brute.
Some veterans with big contracts will move on next season, freeing up money to be used elsewhere. There is a good chance the team buys Loui Eriksson out of the last year of his six-year, $36-million deal, the worst signing of the Jim Benning era as general manager. Head coach Travis Green and the team have so far not been able to agree on a new deal, although most expect there to be a meeting of the minds after the season concludes.
The Canucks faithful call for Benning’s head every other week. That is not going to happen. Owner Francesco Aquilini continues to have faith in him and his ability to build a Cup contender.
However, it will take a special group to beat any team that Connor McDavid is on, or Auston Matthews for that matter, too. But Vancouver does have a core that should be able to compete with anyone a few years down the road.
Right now, however, the team is simply focused on getting healthier and finishing what will surely be one of the strangest and grimmest years in franchise history.