The Vancouver Canucks begin a three-game homestand against Canadian rivals Winnipeg Jets on Sunday, in a crucial game for both teams.
The Canucks (13-13-3) are desperately trying to recover from another poor start to a season and get back into playoff contention while the Jets (19-9-1) have their sights set on top spot of the Central Division, currently held by the Dallas Stars.
The Canucks fired Travis Green and appointed experienced Bruce Boudreau following an 8-15-2 beginning to last season.
Under Boudreau, the Canucks improved in every measurable way but despite going 32-15-10 under the 67-year-old, they couldn’t recover and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by five points.
Frustratingly for a franchise which has made the playoffs just one in seven seasons, the momentum under Boudreau didn’t carry over and they find themselves back in the same situation as a year ago.
Going 7-3-0 in their last 10 games, the Canucks have again significantly improved as the season has moved along and they currently sit just three points from a Wild Card spot.
Criticism of Boudreau and the Canucks’ style of play remains, though, not least from President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford who doesn’t see their current way of playing as sustainable for long-term success.
His concerns are evidenced even by the Canucks’ most basic numbers, scoring 3.45 average goals per-game (ninth in the NHL) but conceding 3.83 per-game (30th of 32 teams).
Similarly, their powerplay is firing at an excellent 26.7% (seventh) but their penalty-kill has been a constant let down and is currently third worse in the league at 68.5%.
The Jets also had a season to forget last year as long-term coach Paul Maurice stepped down mid-season and they finished with three fewer points that the Canucks and outside of the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
Seeking stability, they turned to veteran coach Rick Bowness in the off-season, and he has exceeded all expectations and given the franchise a much-needed re-start.
No longer are questions being raised about the team’s dynamics and dressing room culture, or whether core players are invested into the project.
Well renowned for his people skills, Bowness’ personality has not only proven popular with the players, but he has also instilled a balanced structure which has seen the team thrive and made him a candidate to win the Jack Adams coach of the year award.
The Jets have scored 3.31 average goals per-game (12th), up from 3.07 last season and their 2.62 average goals against (fifth) is much improved from 3.13.
Also better are their special teams with the powerplay scoring at 22.3% (16th) from 17.8% and their penalty-kill at 82.3% (fifth), up from 78.9%.
The contract of Vancouver’s top-scorer and Captain Bo Horvat expires at the end of this season and with a new agreement unlikely, the Canucks look set to trade him before the March deadline to get something back for him.
To his credit, the 27-year-old hasn’t let the uncertainty affect him and has scored 21 goals in 29 games (fifth in the league) which is just ten shy of his career best set over 70 games in 2021/22.
Horvat’s scoring form and his high market value means Vancouver will struggle to fit him into their salary cap, especially after signing J.T. Miller to seven-year, $56million contract in the off-season.
Given their early season struggles again, the Canucks management are also likely to be questioning their commitment to the same core of starts who have continually failed to deliver the expected success.
Similar questions were being asked about the Jets’ core last season, but under Bowness, Pierre-Luc Dubois (14 goals, 16 assists), Mark Scheifele (18 goals, eight assists) and Blake Wheeler (nine goals, 17 assists) are rejuvenated, and Kyle Connor (12 goals, 20 assists) has continued his 47-goal form of last season.
Additionally, netminder Connor Hellebuyck has re-found his Vezina Trophy winning form, and defenceman Josh Morrissey is mounting a Norris Trophy campaign as the NHL’s best defenceman with a team leading 33 points (five goals, 28 assists).
Like Vancouver, Winnipeg are in strong recent form (7-3-0) and their road record is a respectable one of 8-4-1.
The Canucks are 5-7-1 at home, something they must quickly put right if they are to do what they couldn’t last season and make the playoffs after a miserable start.