With a spirited victory in Denver, the Vancouver Canucks eclipsed the 20-game mark.
The win, which hinged on third-period goals from Ethan Bear and Sheldon Dries and the stellar play of Spencer Martin, wasn’t exactly how the club would’ve drawn it up prior to the season. Nevertheless, when you beat the defending Stanley Cup champions on the road, you take it.
Vancouver’s win over Denver elevated their point percentage to a measly .425 through the first quarter of the campaign. That’s robust draft lottery odds territory. It’s a far cry from where the organization’s (and the public’s) expectations were set for this team going into this season.
So where has it gone wrong for Vancouver? Which players have still performed well, in spite of the club’s miserable start, and who has been part of the club’s problems in the early going?
We figured we’d best answer those questions and hand out player grades now that the club has eclipsed the 20-game milestone.
Note: Grades are handed out relative to a player’s expectations. If Player X has a better grade than Player Y it doesn’t mean X has been more valuable than Y.
Elias Pettersson: A
2022-23 statistics: 20 GP, 10-14-24
Elias Pettersson has given the Canucks everything they could have hoped for in this breakout season. He owns the team lead with 24 points in 20 games, on pace to eclipse the point-per-game mark for the first time in his career. Most impressively, he’s taken that offensive step while simultaneously evolving into a two-way ace.
Pettersson is without a doubt the Canucks’ best two-way forward. He reads lanes and picks off passes like it’s nothing. He disrupts plays with his backchecks and wins battles with perfectly timed stick lifts. Pettersson’s underlying numbers are strong and Vancouver’s outscored opponents 20-10 with him deployed at five-on-five.
What Pettersson can create offensively off the rush is also totally unique. Every other Canucks line feels like it’s in an endless cycle of dump and chase.
Pettersson has been the Canucks’ MVP and it’s not even close.
Bo Horvat: B+
2022-23 statistics: 20 GP, 16-6-22
Bo Horvat has been red hot since the moment the puck dropped on the 2022-23 campaign.
The club’s captain is entering a crucial contract year and is currently poised to hit unrestricted free agency, unless an extension can get done before July 1, this offseason. Rather than be distracted by that challenge, Horvat is conducting himself with class and laying waste to opposition netminders.
Horvat’s opportunistic finishing, both at five-on-five and in the bumper spot on the power play, looks like it’s hard-earned. He’s put in the work, experimented with a whippier stick flex and it’s paying off. He’s well on his way to authoring a career year offensively.
In addition to the Cy Young-like statistical line, Horvat is regularly playing tough matchups for Vancouver and is being leaned on heavily to win faceoffs in all situations. Horvat is winning 58 percent of his faceoffs, which is doubly impressive because he’s taken over 30 additional draws relative to Sasha Barkov, who has taken the second most faceoffs among all NHL forwards.
The only facet of Horvat’s game that’s prevented us from grading him with an A or A-plus is that his five-on-five impact has been, at best, neutral. The club is narrowly outscoring the opposition with Horvat on the ice at five-on-five through 20 games, but that’s mostly based on fortunate percentages at both ends of the rink. No Canucks forward that’s appeared in at least 15 games so far this season has been on the ice for a higher rate of shots or expected goals against than Horvat.
In other words, as good as Horvat’s finishing game is, his positive on-ice goal differential at even strength isn’t likely to last unless Vancouver’s star centreman starts driving play more effectively than he has through the first 20 games.
J.T. Miller: C
2022-23 statistics: 20 GP, 19-9-19
On the surface, J.T. Miller’s 10 goals and 19 points in 20 games seem like solid production. He definitely won’t replicate the 99-point season he authored last season but a 41-goal, 77-point pace is gaudy. An outsider may look at those numbers and conclude he’s having another strong season.
The problem is that he’s been an empty calorie producer, performing like a power-play specialist. Miller’s erased his offensive value with defensive woes as the Canucks have been outscored 16-9 with him on the ice at five-on-five. Many of those goals against have been plays where Miller’s lack of awareness in picking up defensive assignments in front of the net or managing the puck directly caused the breakdown.
Miller’s two-way struggles forced Bruce Boudreau to move him to the wing. That makes sense because he’s better suited to the flank, but that could leave the Canucks vulnerable at centre long-term if Bo Horvat, a pending UFA, moves on.
Only six of Miller’s 19 points have come at five-on-five despite leading the team in even-strength ice time.
It obviously hasn’t been all bad. Miller’s done an excellent job running the Canucks’ power play which ranks fifth in the NHL. He’s the straw that stirs the drink on the man advantage with his playmaking.
Andrei Kuzmenko: A
2022-23 statistics: 19 GP, 8-8-16
First-year forward Andrei Kuzmenko has been a spectacular find for the Canucks through the first quarter of this season.
Signed as a heavily recruited free agent out of the KHL this offseason, Kuzmenko has performed better than anyone could’ve reasonably expected in his first handful of NHL games. He’s a genuine driver through the neutral zone, has been a dynamic force at the net front on the power play, he sees the ice superbly and has an especially dangerous wrist shot when he’s able to find the time and space to uncork it.
Most importantly, Kuzmenko has found immediate chemistry on a line with Pettersson, and while Pettersson is clearly the one driving things, Kuzmenko has been far more than a passenger. His east-west playmaking and ability to see the ice has made Pettersson more dangerous, which is high praise.
Brock Boeser: C
2022-23 statistics: 14 GP, 2-11-13
Brock Boeser is in a similar boat as Miller in that his point totals are a misleading reflection of his actual play. The goal scoring has been lacking and more alarmingly, he’s been crushed defensively. Boeser’s worked hard over the years to become better at winning battles and rounding out his defensive game, but it’s been a nightmare start in that sense.
He’s been ineffective on the forecheck which had become a staple of his game. He’s been burned on defensive assignments such as Alex Pietrangelo’s game-winning goal earlier this week against the Golden Knights. Vancouver’s been outscored 18-10 with Boeser at five-on-five and the underlying two-way numbers are just as ugly.
Boeser is at least producing as he’s notching five-on-five points at the highest rate of all Canucks forwards not named Pettersson. We’ve seen his playmaking shine and it’s encouraging to see him rack up points despite not playing with Pettersson and receiving fewer minutes on the top power-play unit. He isn’t scoring enough though and his two-way form isn’t close to being good enough.
Ilya Mikheyev: B
2022-23 statistics: 17 GP, 5-6-11
After missing time with an injury sustained in the first game of the preseason, Ilya Mikheyev has found his way into Vancouver’s top-six forward group and is riding shotgun with Pettersson and Kuzmenko on a forward line that has been far and away Vancouver’s most dynamic trio.
To our eyes, however, it doesn’t look like Mikheyev has quite the same preposterous level of burst as he’s had in previous seasons. One wonders if he’s still somewhat inhibited by that injury.
Despite that, Mikheyev has been useful and productive. He’s scoring at a 20-goal-per-82-game pace and his line with Pettersson has been on fire since his return to the lineup.
Some of Mikheyev’s offensive production is likely to dry up a bit as his sample expands. He’s currently carrying a 15.5 percent on-ice shooting clip at even strength and a personal shooting clip well above 14 percent at even strength. An extended run of fortunate bounces are likely obscuring what Mikheyev is actually contributing offensively on that line, and it doesn’t always look like he’s the most natural complement to the sort of possession game that Pettersson and Kuzmenko are capable of playing.
Over the latter three-quarters of the season, it seems likely that Mikheyev’s production will slow down. Meanwhile, perhaps as a result of injury, Mikheyev’s impact as a play driver has been somewhat muted, even as his effectiveness on the penalty kill has been evident and absolutely crucial for a team that remains hapless at four-on-five.
Conor Garland: C+
2022-23 statistics: 19 GP, 3-6-9
Conor Garland was an elite even-strength force for the Canucks last season. He led the Canucks with 47 five-on-five points, which tied him for 28th among all NHL forwards. Garland’s five-on-five goal differential was team-best; the Canucks outscored opponents by a whopping 22 goals with the slippery, undersized winger on the ice.
That’s what we’ve come to expect from Garland. He has very little to offer on special teams but you can depend on him to be a five-on-five monster.
The results this season, however, have been pedestrian. He’s struggled to find chemistry on a consistent line. His abstract playing style was an awkward fit compared to the direct, simple north-south game Horvat and Miller employ when that trio was constructed, for example. Garland scored 17 goals and 37 primary points (primary points are when you remove secondary assists) at five-on-five in 2021-22. He has just one goal and three primary points at five-on-five this season.
Garland’s offensive production has dipped but he’s still interestingly won some of his matchups. Garland has helped his lines score more goals than they’ve allowed (8-6), in part because he doesn’t make the defensive mistakes that many of the club’s other top-nine forwards like Miller, Boeser, Horvat, Kuzmenko and Nils Höglander are susceptible to.
The Canucks need a lot more even-strength offence out of Garland but on a team that can’t keep the puck out of its net, he’s one of the few forwards who hasn’t been caught up in the defensive mess.
Sheldon Dries: B+
2022-23 statistics: 9 GP, 2-3-5
Boudreau’s decision to shift Miller to wing, coupled with some forward injuries, opened the door for Sheldon Dries. When you lean on an AHL call-up to be your stopgap 3C, you’d usually expect disastrous results. Dries, however, has admirably held his own.
The undersized, speedy utility forward has chipped in with two goals and five points in nine games. He’s been underwater in terms of his two-way results, but the numbers are right in line with the rest of his bottom-six peers. Dries has been tagged for a bunch of goals against but he’s had a lot of bounces go against him — Canucks goalies have somehow stopped just 83.7 percent of shots during his five-on-five minutes.
Dries has been a serviceable bottom-six addition and you can’t ask for much more out of a minor-league call-up.
Tanner Pearson: D
2022-23 statistics: 14 GP, 1-4-5
Tanner Pearson used to be a model example as a player who nailed all the little details and rarely made a mistake. He’d be streaky offensively but nobody could question his two-way reliability.
That’s why it’s been so jarring to see Pearson revert to bad habits. He’s the last person you’d expect to have discipline issues and yet he’s taken eight minor penalties, including many needless ones in the offensive zone. Pearson had sparkling two-way numbers in 2021-22 but the Canucks have been outshot and outchanced by wide margins and ultimately outscored 13-6 with him on the ice at five-on-five this season.
On top of that, he’s taken a step back offensively with just one goal in 14 games before going down with injury. It’s hard to view him as anything more than a fourth-line quality player right now.
Nils Åman: B
2022-23 statistics: 20 GP, 1-3-4
Åman has impressed as a lanky, quick rookie defensive centre in his first taste of NHL action.
The unsigned Colorado Avalanche draft pick joined the Canucks organization this summer and has quickly ingratiated himself with Boudreau, playing top-six competition on a regular basis and appearing in all 20 Canucks games to this point in the season.
Åman looks the part of an everyday NHL bottom-six centreman and has been genuinely effective as a defensive piece. Unfortunately there’s been very little offense to speak of with Åman on the ice at five-on-five, and while that fourth line is solid defensively, they’re spending the vast majority of their shifts in their own end of the rink.
As Åman develops into a more reliable faceoff guy and, potentially, a reliable penalty killer, he could provide real value as a cost-controlled, young bottom-six forward. You can see that potential.
For now, however, Åman is off to a good start and nothing more. He’s clearly earned the coaches’ trust and been solid, which is commendable, but he’s providing little else at this stage of his young NHL career.
Dakota Joshua: B
2022-23 statistics: 20 GP, 3-1-4
Dakota Joshua inked a multi-year, one-way contract (meaning he’d be paid an NHL salary even in the minors) with the Canucks in the summer. It was a significant commitment for a player who hadn’t yet established himself as a full-time NHLer and signaled that management had strong conviction that he could be an everyday contributor.
Joshua’s turned out to be a pleasant addition to the fourth line. He ranks second on the Canucks with 40 hits and has used his energy and strength to become one of the club’s more effective forecheckers. That’s been his avenue for creating chaos in front of the net, which has resulted in three goals. His line has limited defensive damage with an even five-on-five goal differential and has gained Boudreau’s trust to play some secondary matchup minutes as well.
Any fourth line that doesn’t get scored on, provides an energy boost and can be trusted to play regular shifts is doing a good job and that’s exactly what Joshua has helped accomplish.
Vasili Podkolzin: C+
2022-23 statistics: 16 GP, 0-3-3
Many were hoping for Podkolzin to break out after thriving in a bigger role to close out last season. We’ve instead seen him run into a sophomore slump, still searching for his first goal of the season, but we don’t think he’s played as poorly as the bottom line would suggest.
Podkolzin looked confident at the start of the season. His playmaking was dangerous and he looked more dynamic with the puck. He didn’t get any early bounces though. In the season opener against the Oilers, for example, he set up at least two or three Grade-A chances in the slot for Horvat. Horvat, one of the hottest goal scorers in the league, somehow missed all of them. Later, he had a dynamic game with Pettersson and Kuzmenko and it was a similar story where the trio carried play but couldn’t convert.
If he had a little bit of better luck early on, he might still have the opportunity and confidence he started the season with.
With no production in those types of situations, Podkolzin was eventually demoted to the bottom six. From there, he’s played with a bunch of different linemates, been in and out of the lineup and has lost some of the early offensive spark he had.
It’s disappointing not to see better numbers, but we’re not worried about Podkolzin.
Nils Höglander: C+
2022-23 statistics: 15 GP, 1-2-3
Nils Höglander’s usage in the early going has been all over the map. One day he’s in the press box as a healthy scratch, the next he’s on the top line. One day he’s playing with Joshua and Åman on the fourth line, the next he’s flanking Miller and Horvat.
The inconsistent usage is baffling, particularly given how difficult it is to try and figure out exactly why Höglander is on which line on which day. Clearly, his ability to build trust and understanding with Boudreau is very much a work in progress.
Despite Höglander’s odd usage and lack of boxcar statistical production, when he’s been on the ice he’s looked consistently quick and disruptive. He’s also on a short list of Vancouver forwards whose work rate always seems to be sky high.
At some point it would behoove the Canucks to give him an extended run with predictable linemates, if only to see what he can do before the club gives him a significant raise on his second contract this summer.
Jack Studnicka: B-
2022-23 statistics: 7 GP, 1-1-2
Acquired from the Boston Bruins in a late October trade, Jack Studnicka acquitted himself well in a small handful of contests before getting injured.
The long, disruptive fourth-line winger found quick chemistry on a line with Åman and Joshua, and managed to produce some against-the-grain offence in that role.
Studnicka’s foot speed might prevent him from being a centreman or a top-six forward, but in his short cup of coffee with the Canucks so far, he’s looked like an everyday player with the snarl and tenacity to be helpful.
Curtis Lazar: C+
2022-23 statistics: 10 GP, 1-1-2
Curtis Lazar has brought some energy and dependability while playing disciplined, physical hockey as both a centre and a winger in his first 10 games as a Canuck.
Injuries have limited how often Lazar has been in the lineup through the first quarter of the season, but he’s mostly been solid. The only real knock against Lazar is that he’s contributed to the club’s porous penalty kill, and doesn’t seem like an answer to address the club’s continued four-on-five woes.
Quinn Hughes: B
2022-23 statistics: 16 GP, 0-18-18
Limited by injury and illness at training camp and overused in the early portion of the season, we haven’t really seen the best version of Quinn Hughes just yet this season.
The fourth-year defender remains one of the league’s best passing defenders and an incredibly elusive presence from the back end, but until the past couple of games, he didn’t look quite right. It’s not that he wasn’t still good, it’s just that we have sky-high expectations for Hughes, and he simply didn’t seem to be at his best.
Against Vegas and Colorado over the past week, however, Hughes has looked a bit more like the play-driving dynamo we’re used to. Hopefully that continues, both for the Canucks’ sake and because it’s incredibly fun to watch Hughes play hockey when he’s on.
Hughes’ two-way impact has been somewhat muted this season. The club isn’t necessarily surrendering a higher volume of chances with Hughes on the ice than they were last season, however they just aren’t generating as much as we’ve customarily seen them generate with Hughes on the ice at five-on-five. Far more problematic than Hughes’ five-on-five defensive play has been his penalty-killing contributions. Though Hughes is hardly the club’s biggest problem there, his play at four-on-five hasn’t looked like part of the solution either.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson: D
2022-23 statistics: 20 GP, 1-8-9
The boxcar numbers look respectable. The on-ice data isn’t harsher on Oliver Ekman-Larsson than it is on any other Canucks defender, outside of Hughes’ pair with Luke Schenn. If you’re paying close attention, however, you know that Ekman-Larsson hasn’t played up to the standard he set in his first Canucks season. It hasn’t even been close.
Through the first quarter of the season, Ekman-Larsson has looked just a second late all over the ice. It’s not just a foot speed thing, although retrievals have been an issue, it’s the accumulation of bobbled pucks in the offensive zone, being unavailable to support the club’s attack in transition, the lost 50-50 puck battles, the poor reads in the defensive zone.
Ekman-Larsson played one of his best games of the season in Colorado on Wednesday. Hopefully that’s the start of a turnaround. Vancouver needs him to be an awful lot better if this club is going to get back into the thick of the playoff race.
Luke Schenn: B+
2022-23 statistics: 20 GP, 2-6-8
After years of toiling as a journeyman No. 6/7 defender, Luke Schenn had arguably the best season of his career in 2021-22. It was fair to wonder if Schenn could replicate that impact at 33, but that’s exactly what he’s done.
Schenn has continued to effectively caddy Hughes in the top four. He’s been reliable defensively, assertive physically and has even chipped in with eight points in 20 games. He knows how to pick his spots with pinches to proactively kill plays, is sturdy defending the front of the net and has just enough poise with the puck to not drag Hughes down in a significant way.
Schenn’s toughness, professionalism and leadership are all qualities that this roster doesn’t have enough of. Contenders should be lining up to add a piece like him to their roster at the deadline.
Ethan Bear: B
2022-23 statistics: 11 GP, 2-2-4
Ethan Bear has a combination of defensive intelligence and raw puck-moving ability that makes him capable of playing a contemporary sort of transition game. It’s a style that very few other Canucks defenders can manage.
That alone has made Bear extremely useful through 11 games with the Canucks, even if he’s been a bit too turnover prone and careless in keying the club’s transition game.
Tyler Myers: D
2022-23 statistics: 17 GP, 0-4-4
After a resurgent 2021-22 campaign, Tyler Myers’ play has regressed significantly.
In fairness, the environment around him has been worse. Ekman-Larsson was arguably playing his worst hockey as a Canuck when the two were paired together and Myers spent more of his recent time with Riley Stillman, who’s had his fair share of struggles. None of that helps but it doesn’t excuse the lacklustre play we’ve seen from the tall veteran right-handed defender.
Myers’ five-on-five shot share is dead last among Canucks defenders who’ve played at least 100 minutes and so is his rough 40.3 percent expected goal share. He’s surrendered too much off the rush with his passive in-zone defensive play and there’s very little happening offensively, with just four points in 17 games.
Myers’ cap hit is seven times greater than Schenn’s and yet it’s Schenn who has by far been the superior right-shot defender.
Kyle Burroughs: B+
2022-23 statistics: 11 GP, 1-0-1
Despite being a welterweight, Kyle Burroughs skates about the ice with ill intent. He plays tough, he’s reliable defensively and he’s fast enough to survive in transition, even if he’s not a dynamic puck mover.
Pigeonholed by the organization into the role of a depth defender, whenever Burroughs is an option late in close games, Boudreau turns to him with regularity. That should speak volumes. Burroughs should be an everyday player on this team, given the club’s other options on the back end.
Riley Stillman: C-
2022-23 statistics: 11 GP, 0-1-1
Riley Stillman had some early games with the club where he made a quiet, effective impact as a steady third-pair presence, but his game has trended downhill lately. It’s often said that a bottom-pair defenceman’s playing well when you can’t notice him and Stillman, unfortunately, has been noticeable for the wrong reasons lately.
Stillman’s positioning and defensive reads have been problematic. He’s been caught in situations where he’s chasing the wrong player or not picking up the right assignment. Vancouver’s leaked shots and high-danger chances when Stillman’s been on the ice and it’s led to mistakes in pivotal moments. He’s been far less consistent and reliable than a comparable peer like Kyle Burroughs.
Jack Rathbone: F
2022-23 statistics: 6 GP, 0-1-1
Jack Rathbone hasn’t even looked close to being an everyday quality NHL player. He’s looked worse than he did when he made the team out of camp last season.
Rathbone needs to be an efficient puck mover to bring NHL value. Instead, he’s turned pucks over in his own end and has consistently missed the mark on passes which have led to numerous icings. That disappointing inability to transport the puck explains why the Canucks have been consistently hemmed in their own end when he’s played.
He just isn’t a player the Canucks can trust right now. There are too many mistakes, defensive question marks and not enough offence to justify the risk.
Thatcher Demko: D
2022-23 statistics: 2-9-2, .883 SV%
There were many risk factors that could have gone wrong for the Canucks this season, but I don’t think anyone had Thatcher Demko on that list.
Demko solidified himself as one of hockey’s best netminders last season but he’s been decisively below average, even after accounting for the club’s porous defensive environment.
Demko’s .883 save percentage ranks 54th out of 61 goalies who’ve played at least six games. Pucks are going through him in ways they never have and even when he does make saves, he’s often looking behind him. It looked like Demko’s game was getting back on track after a strong performance against the Kings and an excellent first two periods against Vegas, but he unraveled in the third period.
Spencer Martin: B+
2022-23 statistics: 5-1-1, .901 SV%
Spencer Martin continues to turn heads, stop pucks and pick up points.
The journeyman netminder has found a home in Vancouver as a backup goaltender, and the club clearly intends — based on their goalie usage over the past few weeks — to ride Martin’s hot hand for as long as it lasts. There certainly seems to be a real opportunity in the weeks ahead for Martin to carve out an even higher workload within this Canucks goalie platoon.
Behind a permissive defensive team, Martin probably hasn’t outplayed Demko by as wide a margin as the numbers suggest. There are so many variable factors that go into more surface-area data points like save percentage and wins and losses.
Martin’s accomplishment this season has really been to build off of his revelatory look last season, and demonstrate that he’s capable of handling a regular workload at the NHL level. That’s a boon for the Canucks, and it’s going to keep Martin around in this league for a very long time should it continue.
(Top photo: Joshua Bessex / Getty Images)