The fictional Rip Van Winkle’s 20-year dream has got nothing on Vancouver Canucks fans’ half-century nightmare.
The Canucks have a long and not so honourable tradition of not winning the Stanley Cup. The Cup has been awarded 105 times since 1914, and no Canuck captain has hoisted Lord Stanley’s hardware over his head in the side’s 50-year history.
But this is the time of the hockey season when fans of teams still in the hunt dare to dream.
In some cases, those dreams involve the Stanley Cup, while others focus on merely making the playoffs.
In the Canucks’ half-century of chasing glory, the team has made the playoffs 28 times, winning only 111 of their 246 postseason tilts.
To their credit, they have made the finals three times, but two of those, in 1982 and 1994, were widely regarded as having been achieved with the aid of a fairy godmother’s wand (with their ’82 opponents, the dynastic New York Islanders, stealing Cinderella’s broom for the inevitable and ignominious sweep).
The latest stab at splendour, in 2011, was all the more painful in its outcome because of the quality of the Canuck squad.
So, do the Canucks stand a chance this spring?
To make the playoffs, yes. To win the Stanley Cup? Still no, unfortunately.
The Pacific Division has settled down to be a surprisingly competitive bunch, with only 10 points separating the first-place Vegas Golden Knights and the seventh-place ‘Nucks. COVID-19 willing, a scrappy and improved Vancouver team should be able to make the postseason.
To get to the finals and win, though, would require a near-miraculous improvement during the season’s second half.
The biggest wild card in the hand is new coach Bruce Boudreau, a 13-year veteran who has only missed the playoffs three times and who inspired his new team to seven straight victories immediately following head coach Travis Green and general manager Jim Benning’s recent dismissals.
The fact that Green only made the playoffs once in his first four full years as head coach with the Canucks—and in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, at that—was as much a factor in his firing as the Canucks’ dismal record at the time (9-15-2).
As a rookie head coach in late November 2007, Boudreau took over the Washington Capitals when the team had a similar record (6-14-1) and finished with a 37-17-7 mark and the Capitals’ first division title in seven years.
There appears to be little doubt of Boudreau’s ability to inspire offensive heavyweights, given his success motivating talented forward units in both Washington and with the Anaheim Ducks, where he compiled eight division titles in as many full seasons.
But it’s the Canuck defence that will need the most improvement to entertain any hope of a deep playoff run, despite the potential for a repeat of goalie Thatcher Demko’s postseason heroics two seasons ago.
Terrible special-teams play has improved but still needs tweaking, and defenceman Quinn Hughes’s vast offensive upside is only starting to be offset by a complementary reduction in occasional bonehead errors.
Boudreau’s remarkable successes with the penalty kill in Anaheim and the power play in Washington give reason for optimism in those areas.
And he has already improved both goals against and for, areas where Vancouver was flirting with the league’s basement.
Continued upgrading by Vancouver stars Hughes, Elias Pettersson, Demko, and Brock Boeser this season—after somewhat of a tarnished first half—will set them up nicely for a run into the postseason. Pettersson, Boeser, and captain Bo Horvat, in particular, showed immediate improvement after Boudreau’s arrival.
Young wingers Vasili Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander show great promise, and vets Horvat, J. T. Miller, and the banging Conor Garland are leading the team’s forwards in scoring at Christmas.
But the Canucks’, and Boudreau’s, first sip from Lord Stanley’s chalice is probably still at least a couple of years away.