There is an age-old expression in sports – the best defence is a good offence.
It’s probably something Vancouver Canucks President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford thought of this summer as he looked to improve his team to the point where it would qualify for the NHL playoffs for only the second time in the last six years.
Rutherford was blunt in assessing his blue line corps at the end of last season, claiming that “our exits from our defensive zone are not good, probably one of the worst in the league.”
Clearly re-tooling the back end was on off-season priority for the Canucks front office but the hockey club was unable to make the bold moves necessary to provide a significant upgrade. Instead, Riley Stillman was the only d-man on the opening night roster in Edmonton that wasn’t with the organization last year. Stillman, for your information, can best be described as a depth defenceman.
Could there be improvement from within?
Some would hope that Jack Rathbone could make some strides this season and become a regular contributor or perhaps a healthy Tucker Poolman could eclipse his career-high of 57 games. A bounce back season from Oliver Ekman-Larsson would go a long way but that would be big ask for a 31-year-old who seems to be on the downside of the mountain. His 29-point total last year was his worst since his rookie season.
But even if all of the aforementioned questions were to be answered in a positive manner, it still wouldn’t move the needle to the point where Rutherford would want it.
So unable to revamp the back end via trade or free agency and the prospects of improving from within not good, Rutherford went to Plan B and upgraded his forward group - hoping that more production up front would ease some of the pressure on the blueline.
Rutherford signed highly sought after KHL free agent Andrei Kuzmenko, who earned a top-six forward spot and power play time coming out of training camp. He also signed Ilya Mikheyev from Toronto, hoping that he would be solid addition to the top six but unfortunately Mikheyev has begun the season on IR.
What Rutherford also probably recognized is that the Canucks have to be a tougher team to play against. Yes, depth pieces such as Curtis Lazar and Dakota Joshua were acquired to help in that regard but it doesn’t start there.
It starts with your best players. It’s something Rutherford witnessed during his time in Pittsburgh with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and in Carolina with Eric Staal and Rod Brind’Amour.
The Canucks core group has to be a nastier piece of business to play against on a nightly basis and it’s something that even Elias Pettersson recognized telling Ben Kuzma of The Province “my main focus has always been to get stronger with the puck — I’m still getting knocked over sometimes — but just so I can play better hockey. I trained hard all summer to prepare myself.”
It’s team that’s close to taking the next step but if you were to believe the folks in Las Vegas, expect more of what you saw last year. The Canucks finished the 2021-2022 season with 92 points - the sportsbooks have the over/under on their point total this year at 92.5.
Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.