The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight.
In this edition, Rob Zettler, former assistant with the San Jose Sharks, writes about the Vancouver Canucks, the how and why they have become a contender to finish first in the Pacific Division.
The Vancouver Canucks are a fun team to watch and they should be a legitimate threat to other Western Conference contenders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Canucks appear to be taking on the why-not-us mentality, which, give them credit, is the right thing to do in the Pacific Division this season. They're right in the thick of it and they're better now after acquiring forward Tyler Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.
For now, it looks like it's a Toffoli for Brock Boeser swap in the Canucks' lineup because of Boeser's rib cartilage injury that could keep him out until late in the regular season or for the rest of it entirely. But if Boeser can return in the playoffs, the Canucks will be even more legitimate, more dangerous.
Vancouver (32-21-7) is tied with the Vegas Golden Knights for second place in the Pacific Division, one point behind the first-place Edmonton Oilers. The Canucks are still behind the St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and even the Golden Knights in terms of expectations and experience, but they're in the next category of the up-and-comers, and getting Toffoli should send a signal to their team that they're trying to get to the next level.
It's Vancouver's executives, led by general manager Jim Benning, saying, "We're in this, we're in it all the way, and we want to give it a shot." As a player that's what you're asking for, an opportunity. As a coach, you feel that too. You're excited to get a guy that scored 30 goals in the League, who is a legitimate threat, can help you on the power play, can help you 5-on-5, can help you get that goal that's missing.
You get renewed energy as a coach and realize what you've been working on for three quarters of the season is for real. There were a lot of teams looking at Toffoli and interested in him, but it was the Canucks who pulled the trigger to make it happen. That should motivate the whole team.
And the key with the Canucks is they are a team.
They play together and hard. They play the up-tempo, high-pace system coach Travis Green has implemented. They are a model of the teams Green coached in the American Hockey League, never outworked and fun to watch.
Video: ANA@VAN: Pettersson hammers one-timer home for PPG
It obviously starts with forward Elias Pettersson (58 points; 24 goals, 34 assists in 59 games), but full marks to forward J.T. Miller for complementing Pettersson so well.
The Canucks couldn't have thought they'd get near point-per-game production from Miller when they acquired him from the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he leads Vancouver in scoring with 59 points (24 goals, 35 assists) in 60 games, including two goals in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.
Miller is consistently doing things this season that he had before, like hanging onto pucks in the offensive zone, making plays and being a regular presence on the ice.
He has brought a physical presence and a puck possession that has allowed Pettersson to open himself up a little bit and not have to carry the load all the time.
Miller has also played in 61 playoff games, another benefit he'll bring a young team at this time of the season; this is easily the best he has played.
Green and his staff, including assistants Nolan Baumgartner, Newell Brown and Manny Malhotra, deserve credit for letting rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes out of the stable and giving him the freedom to run. Hughes' confidence with the puck and his ability to get up to speed and go from zero to quick in a hurry is impressive. He can do that going straight or laterally and leads all first-year NHL defensemen in scoring with 47 points (eight goals, 39 assists) in 59 games.
They have balance, too.
Pettersson and Bo Horvat could each be No. 1 centers in the NHL. Forward Tanner Pearson is having his best season with 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 60 games; forward Jake Virtanen is too, with 32 points (16 goals, 16 assists).
Boeser is a significant loss, mitigated by the arrival of Toffoli, who is a pure finisher and should benefit from being on a team that has more of a pick-your-poison balance.
Video: STL@VAN: Horvat beats the buzzer for empty-netter
The Kings don't have that this season and that may have hurt Toffoli's production because it made it easier for opponents to key on him. This trade may get him going again because the bottom line is the man can shoot the puck and he's dangerous when he gets around the circles. He's an opportunist. He has proven he can score. He has won the Stanley Cup. He has that experience. And he had an assist in his Vancouver debut on Wednesday after having 34 points (18 goals, 16 assists) in 58 games with Los Angeles.
Vancouver also has quality veterans in their bottom six forward group, including Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter. It would be better if the Canucks had forwards Josh Leivo and Micheal Ferland too, but injuries have cut them out off the equation for the rest of this season.
The Canucks are still legitimate, still a major threat in the Western Conference.
The question earlier in the season was: Can they keep it up? The question now is: Why can't they?
They've come a long way.