This is not where the Canucks expected to be in December — 9th in the West with a sputtering offence and a lacklustre power play — but things just got a little worse with the news that Alex Burrows will be out indefinitely with a broken jaw. There’s currently lots of ammunition for the Canucks’ detractors and the more cynical members of the Canucks fanbase.
Perhaps a comparison with a team that was even worse off after 29 games might help: the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings. You know, the ones that went on to win the Stanley Cup? The Canucks can look to the 2011-12 Kings both to put their current struggles in context and to draw some inspiration for the rest of the season.
While the Kings made the playoffs as the 8th seed, they were actually a lot better than their record indicated, as illustrated by their playoff run, where they lost just 4 games en route to the Cup. This may have surprised many of the mainstream pundits, but the advanced stats community was touting them as seriously underrated well before the playoffs began.
The Kings’ Fenwick Close — the current most reliable predictor for future success — for the season was 4th in the NHL, indicating that they were far stronger than the typical 8th seed and should have been considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Combine that with a goaltender getting hot at the right time and some good fortune in avoiding injuries and the Kings became a juggernaut in the postseason.
But prior to all of that, the Kings were a struggling team sitting outside the playoffs.
After 29 games, the Kings had a 13-12-4 record, giving them 30 points. That was good enough for 12th place in the Western Conference, behind both the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. The Kings were in the middle of a 5-game losing streak, as well as a streak that saw them fail to score more than 2 goals in 14 straight games. At that point in the season, they had been outscored 87-85.
The Canucks, on the other hand, are currently 14-10-5 with 33 points. They’re currently 9th in the West, with their own 5-game losing streak in the rearview mirror. They have an even goal differential and have seen their fortunes turn around slightly with the man advantage, with power play goals in 5 straight games. They’re in a tough position, certainly, but are in a better position than the Kings were in their Cup-winning season.
That does not mean the Canucks should rest on their laurels or grow complacent, of course. The 2011-12 Kings made two significant moves after their slow start that helped improve their team and position them for the playoffs. They fired head coach Terry Murray and brought in Darryl Sutter in mid-December, and they traded for Jeff Carter before the trade deadline.
These moves took the Kings from a team that was better than their record indicated to one of the best teams in the league. The Kings were a positive possession team under Murray, but improved immensely after Sutter was hired and improved even more after Carter was brought in.
To a certain extent, this provides a model for what the Canucks should do with the rest of this season. Like the 2011-12 Kings, the Canucks are a positive possession team (currently 6th in the NHL in Fenwick Close) that is struggling to score goals and have a mediocre record. The Canucks could look to make similar moves as the season progresses.
They don’t need to make the coaching change that the Kings did, as they are playing well under Tortorella, whereas firing Murray and hiring Sutter seemed to be truly necessary in Los Angeles. But a similar type of wake up call might be necessary. Perhaps even a surprise long-term injury like the one suffered by Burrows might stoke the Canucks’ competitive fires. Tortorella’s tendency to send a struggling player to the press box may also serve the same purpose.
The more interesting change was the addition of Jeff Carter and, simultaneously, the subtraction of Jack Johnson, who went to Columbus in the trade. Johnson is a poor puck possession player, while Carter is a strong two-way forward. More importantly to the Kings at the time, he scores goals, with three 30+ goal campaigns and a 46-goal season under his belt at the time of the trade.
While that was a unique situation for the Kings in that Carter wanted out of Columbus and they could spare Johnson, who was and is severely overrated, I think the Canucks can learn from that trade. While rumours of the Canucks acquiring the likes of Martin Erat or Shawn Matthias have been rumbling, a more significant move seems smarter. Instead of adding a third-line forward to improve depth, adding a top-six forward that forces someone like Jannik Hansen or Chris Higgins down to the third line would be a bigger improvement.
Of course, that pretty much goes without saying. The problem is in the execution. The Canucks have a little over $2 million in cap space currently, though with careful use of long-term injured reserve, they could have more by the trade deadline. There is also the possibility of a team retaining some of the contract in a trade. The issue, then, is finding a willing trade partner.
The key to Carter was that he was a sniper who was also a positive puck possession player and wasn’t just a rental. There are a few players on teams that are likely to miss the playoffs that might fit the bill.
Non-rental targets might be Mike Cammalleri, Evander Kane, who has been the subject of trade rumours recently, or even Michael Grabner, who might be better in his second stint in Vancouver after proving himself in New York. Rentals could include Jaromir Jagr (if the Devils slip down the standings), Thomas Vanek, or Matt Moulson. All of these players have 30+ goal seasons on their resumes.
The Canucks might not trade for any of these players, but if the 2011-12 Kings are any model to go by, this is the type of impact player they should be targeting. Thanks to their early struggles this season, the Canucks may be under pressure to make exactly this kind of impact move.
None of this is to say that the Canucks will win the Stanley Cup if they make a big trade or that there’s nothing to worry about. For people saying the Canucks’ chances are nil or that the team is hopeless, though, even without a trade for a star sniper, the Canucks are not in bad shape. They are just one point back of Phoenix, two back of Minnesota, and three back of Los Angeles. But a significant move or two could put them in position to be a real contender again.