Is “Experience” a Worthy Cause to Chase the Playoffs?

By: Brayden Fengler / March 3, 2022  

There’s no doubt that the Canucks have been more exciting to watch, and more successful overall in the back half of their season to date. However, their sluggish start to the year revealed an overall weakness to the team, that although maybe less prominent on select nights, still exists as a problem that the organization has yet to solve.

Their lack of defensive depth and continuing difficulty to kill penalties, among other things, has helped to position this team in one of the worst standings locations in hockey. The Canucks are at risk of either missing the playoffs by a slim margin, only to be rewarded with a mid-first-round draft pick. Or they could potentially sneak into Lord Stanley’s contest by the skin of their teeth, only to have the odds seriously stacked against them.

When the Canucks narrowly squeezed into the bubble playoffs of 2020, the team wasn’t a shoo-in for a Cup run then either. The Canucks had to compete in the “Play-In” mini-tournament, to earn their spot after COVID ended the league’s regular season.

However, even if the team wasn’t touted to win it all, the consensus in the market was that the true value of the playoffs would be getting our young core exposed to the style of play that playoff hockey can bring. The thought being, that their appearance in the 2020 playoffs would prepare the team’s key players for what lies ahead when they return to the playoffs the following year.

Well, as we all know, they did not return to the playoffs the following year, and of course even a year after that, this year, the team still isn’t any more ready for the playoffs than they were when they squeezed themselves in two years prior.

So therein lies a difficult question, even if the Canucks can work hard to make the playoffs this year, what is the value of doing so? If this team still isn’t ready to make a meaningful push for the grand prize then what is the point really? Is “playoff experience” still enough to justify fighting tooth and nail for a wildcard spot? Or should this team forgo that dream and start shipping off some pieces to ensure a playoff miss?

Where Does This Team Sit

Currently the Canucks sit a bit more than a stone’s throw away from the playoffs. Purely from a points perspective, they sit with 58 points after 55 games played at the time of writing this article. Which places them at three spots out of a Wild Card position in the Western Conference playoff race.

That is a deceptive location in the conference for many reasons. The Canucks’ points total puts them only six points behind that of the Pacific Division’s third-place team the Vegas Golden Knights, who currently hold 64 points to their name. However, Vegas has one game in hand over the Canucks, as they have only played 54 games to this point.

The trend of other teams having games in hand on the Canucks, is a common one among almost all the teams currently sitting above them in Western Conference. Divisional leaders, the Calgary Flames, have three games in hand over Vancouver.

The Dallas Stars have two games in hand, and the Nashville Predators and the Edmonton Oilers both have one game in hand, just like the previously mentioned Vegas Golden Knights. The 65 points holding second-place LA Kings currently sit with the same number of games played as the Canucks.

However, as the Canucks play the day that this article is published (March 3rd, 2022), that number will once again change out of the Canucks’ favour. Additionally, after tonight’s game, the Canucks will have played the same number of games as the Anaheim Ducks, 56. The Ducks are currently the only team above the Canucks in the standings that have more games played than Vancouver. 

Vancouver’s position in the standings is not exactly “great”, and the games in hand that their rivals hold over them is not ideal either. Yet despite all this, there has still been an unmistakable whisper of playoff hopes among fans, which has only snowballed since the teams’ coaching/ management changes in December.

The Canucks have a 10-7-3 record over their last 20 games played, and although those numbers could certainly be better, their performances to this half of the season have led some fans to see the possibility of a playoff appearance as more and more likely after each passing week.

Even if other factors indicate that this team isn’t “playoff ready” there is an understandable illusion of readiness, just based on the team’s own marginal improvements.

When a student goes from getting Fs to getting C+s it’s not like they’re now the smartest kid in class, but that level of improvement certainly warrants some level of excitement. Even if the straight-A students continue to get straight A’s, making it unlikely that the class leaderboards are going to change.

The team’s current playoff odds sit at 7% based on Dom Luszczyszyn’s model, found over at The Athletic. The Canucks’ odds were at their lowest in early December, hovering above absolute zero, and their odds were then at their highest in mid to late January, sitting in the low 20th percentile.

The Canucks’ odds haven’t totally tanked since then, but they have been on a steady decline. Some factors for this may include the new coach bump wearing off, The COVID issues that the team faced early in the new year, and the fact that Pettersson, only within the last two weeks is finally returning to form. Regardless of the reasons though, 7% odds are not exactly a number that I’d be betting the house on.

These odds can of course change every day, and if this Canucks team can go on a seven-game winning streak in December, there is no reason why they can’t do it again in March. But again, the odds are certainly not in their favour. 

So Do They Go For It?

One of the benefits of making the brief but sweet playoff run that the team did during the 2020 bubble, was that it gave key players like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes some much-needed playoff experience.

The playoffs are a different beast and although it may seem from the outset like a fool’s errand to even try to make them if your team can’t win it all, there is value in giving young players a taste. Playoff experience can only serve to further improve their regular season play as well, case in point, Thatcher Demko.

Demko, who earned the infamous Bubble Demko moniker while in the bubble playoffs, has since very rapidly become the most valuable piece to this Canucks team. No reasonable person could look at Demko’s time in those playoffs and tell me that those games didn’t do wonders for his development and confidence.

So now that those key players, Petey, Hughes, Demko, have experienced what the playoffs are like, does the team really need to scratch and claw their way to the postseason again, just in the name of experience? Younger players like Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Höglander are the next wave of young stars for this franchise, and yes, they did miss the experience of the team’s last playoff run.

However, as harsh as it may sound, although these two could easily become important parts of the franchise’s future, the experience that Podz and Högs could get in the playoffs is not worth this team missing out on moves that may cause them to miss the playoffs this year, but could bolster their roster for years to come.

There are no silver linings in making the playoffs with this group this year, and yes this is coming from a guy who wrote an article stating that the Canucks would definitely make the playoffs this year. I don’t have to hold myself accountable just yet, there is still time for me to be right, but at this point, I don’t want to be right.

I believed in this team, against more informed voices at the start of the season, but I can see now that my belief was misplaced, I no longer believe they can make it or should make it. The Canucks should be making moves focused on a 2-4 year window, especially with the new management only recently being put behind the wheel. I doubt that the new group’s plans for the future are only going to take this season to implement. 

Play It Safe, Play It Smart

In a previous piece I advocated for the trading of J.T. Miller over Conor Garland and that is exactly what the Canucks should be doing, with an eye for the years beyond this one. Miller’s cheap contract, with reasonable term left, will demand a large return. This especially while Miller is at the height of his abilities and demanding league-wide attention.

The Canucks should be keeping younger, cheap, effective pieces like Conor Garland and also looking to move a piece like Halak, even while already having to pay at least one of his two bonuses. Halak is a solid goalie, and reliable backup in the right situation, if the Canucks can work with him to circumvent his NMC, they shouldn’t hesitate to get what they can for the 36-year-old netminder.

There are more pieces that the Canucks could be moving out in exchange for futures, and that is likely worth its own piece just before the deadline.

The bottom line is Vancouver has assets that can either help them hobble to a near playoff miss or a fruitless playoff appearance, or those same assets could be used to bolster their future, and what they should be doing is bolstering their future.

This organization did not fire Jim Benning, then get turned inside out and rung out like a towel, only for the new management group to pull a Benning move and try to buy patchwork pieces to salvage this season. Canucks fans should only hope that there will finally be more forwarding thinking than that.