Canucks stock watch: Who’s rising, who’s falling after the All-Star break
Even a dream season will ebb and flow.
The Vancouver Canucks have had the wind at their backs all season long, accumulating more points than any other NHL team through more than 50 games. This team has exceeded all reasonable expectations, answered all doubters, and with a third of the campaign remaining, has already bought aggressively ahead of the deadline and finds itself squarely in the driver’s seat in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference.
Over the past few games, however, the Canucks’ results have sputtered compared to the dizzyingly high standard they’ve set throughout the season. Over Vancouver’s past six games, the shooting percentage has cooled significantly, the goaltending has been good instead of great and it has been outscored at even strength. As a result, Vancouver has won just one game in regulation dating back to Jan. 24.
Quietly, there’s a positive in this. Even if it hasn’t looked pretty, the Canucks have still picked up points in five of six games. They haven’t just survived this relative downturn in fortune, they’ve picked up eight points across six games.
Beneath the surface, Vancouver’s team-level defensive game has gone to another level since the calendar flipped to 2024. That solidity has given them the sort of margin for error really good teams have, and which streakier Canucks teams of the recent past have lacked.
It’s that ability to stay afloat when the puck luck runs against you for a few weeks that tends to differentiate a division winner from a solid playoff team, or a solid playoff team from an also-ran.
So while it’s occasionally looked like the Canucks’ game has listed over the past few weeks, the truth is this stretch of games, accumulating points when the breaks haven’t been in Vancouver’s favour, is every bit as impressive as the wagon act we saw throughout December and early January, even if fans have found it less satisfying to watch.
Let’s break down the last segment of games they have played with a focus on individual contributors. Which Canucks skaters are trending up, and who is seeing their opportunities and impact flag at this crucial point of the campaign?
Hronek has made a terrific offensive impact all year, but he’s looked even more dynamic with the puck lately. He was especially outstanding in his return to Detroit, scoring a point on all three of Vancouver’s goals.
On the Canucks’ first goal, Hronek assertively attacked downhill and loaded up a well-placed howitzer that found Nils Höglander’s stick for a redirection. Later in the second period, Hronek scored the type of gorgeous, deceptive breakaway goal you’d expect from a top-six forward rather than a defenceman.
Filip Hronek scores a breakaway goal against his former team!
🎥: Sportsnet | NHL pic.twitter.com/v35twZ5xZi
— CanucksArmy (@CanucksArmy) February 10, 2024
To cap it off, Hronek made a nice pass from the point to Pius Suter in the high slot. Suter’s shot just missed wide but Elias Pettersson buried the ricochet off the end boards. There’s no way the Canucks get a point against the Red Wings without Hronek’s offensive impact.
Hronek has the most five-on-five assists of all NHL defencemen this season. He’s tied for eighth in defenceman scoring with 39 points in 53 games which is remarkable considering he doesn’t get to pad his stats on the first power-play unit.
It isn’t just the Detroit game where he looked extra noticeable, too. Hronek hit the post in the second period against the Washington Capitals and had a pair of impressive solo puck rushes from the defensive zone all the way into the offensive end against the Boston Bruins. He’s fired 23 shot attempts over four games on this road trip, which is one of the highest marks in the NHL during that span. All of this is more impressive because it’s not like Quinn Hughes has been carrying him over this stretch. If anything, you could argue that while Hughes has played well, he hasn’t quite been as sharp with the puck as we’re accustomed to.
On top of driving offence, Hronek has been on the ice for just one five-on-five goal against in four games since the All-Star break. He and Hughes continue driving strong two-way results as the backbone of this Canucks blue line.
Promoted to the top six to skate on Elias Pettersson’s wing this weekend, Höglander delivered.
The “pint-sized power forward,” as Pettersson has previously described his teammate, scored a pair of key goals in Vancouver’s games this weekend. They were big goals, too. His deflection goal in Detroit sapped the Red Wings’ momentum and began Vancouver’s second-period onslaught. His beautiful backhand rush finish in Washington permitted Vancouver to hang on for a win, despite being outplayed.
Höglander has converted his chances with incredible efficiency this season, making him a rate-scoring ace the Canucks have had the luxury of keeping on the fourth line. There’s always a question of whether or not a bottom-six rate scorer can maintain that form with a bigger role against stiffer competition, but that’s a question Höglander gave a solid preliminary answer to this weekend.
Given his work rate, play-driving ability and offensive skills, however, he’s a solid internal option to add some to the Canucks’ top-six forward group.
Höglander seized the audition he was given this weekend, and given his production, may warrant even more opportunity — especially a look on the club’s second power-play unit — going forward.
It’s remarkable how much Juulsen has improved throughout the season.
Early in the year, particularly in early games against Edmonton and Philadelphia, Juulsen looked extremely limited. He couldn’t handle the puck or complete clean passes under heavy forechecking pressure, often giving it away in extremely dangerous positions. He’d aggressively step up to pinch in the wrong situations which would leave him out of position and result in odd-man rushes against. It simply looked like the pace of NHL play was too fast for him. It was reflected in the early results too, as the Canucks were outscored 6-0 with Juulsen on the ice at five-on-five through the first six weeks of the season.
But now, we’re reaching the point where there’s a sense of calm and comfort knowing that Juulsen is back there on the third pair and penalty kill. The hard-nosed 26-year-old defender is more poised on the breakout, regularly executing the right play. He’s steady as a rock on the penalty kill. He’s physical and has consistently made assertive defensive stops that result in changes of possession.
Juulsen hasn’t been on the ice for a single five-on-five goal against since the All-Star break. He’s made key plays such as his excellent stretch pass to spring Conor Garland for a breakaway goal against Washington and his breakup on a backdoor pass during a Red Wings power play that would have almost surely been a goal against.
Juulsen and the Canucks coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for simplifying his game.
Mikheyev’s lack of production — he has zero goals and just five points in his last 20 contests, despite playing regularly with Pettersson and logging power-play time with the second unit — has caused his usage to fall over the past few weeks. His demotion to the fourth line for Vancouver’s games this weekend in Detroit and Washington put something of a spotlight on that, but in truth, Mikheyev’s five-on-five usage has been in decline for nearly a month now.
In terms of his underlying form, Mikheyev’s results are still OK. Vancouver is controlling play well when he’s on the ice at five-on-five, although it’s been outscored by five goals at even strength over his past 20 games, and his individual shot and scoring chance rates are far healthier than his thin results.
It’s possible Mikheyev is just in shooting percentage hell (his on-ice shooting clip sits south of five over the past 20 games) and will regress positively as the sample expands.
One can hope for the best, but there’s cause for skepticism that Mikheyev’s is an average case, given the severity of the surgical procedure he underwent nearly 12 months ago to repair an ACL tear. It’s an injury that often takes hockey players a while to recover from fully, and at the moment, Mikheyev doesn’t appear to have his usual skating burst.
He still does a lot of subtle things well, especially in terms of his defensive reads and ability to win puck battles, but the bottom line needs to return if he’s going to work his way back up the lineup.
Zadorov will miss one more game as a result of a suspension he received for a borderline hit on Red Wings forward Lucas Raymond over the weekend.
He’ll surely get back into the lineup when he’s eligible to return, but whether he’ll continue to play ahead of Juulsen when Carson Soucy is healthy seems like a fair and open question.
There are elements of Zadorov’s game — the big hits and physicality, his work as a secondary puck-mover — that are unique on this team and that the Canucks need. And for his career, Zadorov has reliably provided his teams with solid defensive impact, although his underlying form hasn’t been nearly as robust since arriving in Vancouver.
Zadorov’s usage has declined precipitously over the past five weeks, however. We’ve actually reached the point where, over the past 10 Canucks games (nine of which Zadorov has appeared in), he’s averaged just 15 seconds more than Juulsen has (over seven appearances) on a per-game basis.
Lafferty appears to have hit a bit of a wall after his excellent first half. It’s been a while since he’s been regularly impactful.
In the first half of the season, Lafferty’s speed, dogged puck pursuit and physical edge were extremely noticeable. He’d drive the net hard and even generate some occasional rush chances. Those ingredients have been missing from his game recently.
Lafferty struggled in the first two games of the road trip against Carolina and Boston. The Canucks were out-attempted 23-8 and outchanced 9-1 during Lafferty’s five-on-five shifts. It was the wrong time for him to go cold as Phil Di Giuseppe’s return from injury has resulted in Lafferty sitting as a healthy scratch for the last two games. It’s notable that Lafferty was chosen as the odd man out over another option like Nils Åman. After all, Lafferty played centre early in the season while Åman was toiling away in Abbotsford.
Why has Åman stayed in the lineup ahead of Lafferty? Åman’s impact on the penalty kill is a difference-maker. The 24-year-old Swedish centre ranks third among Canucks forwards in short-handed minutes since the All-Star break. He hasn’t surrendered a single goal against over 7:12 on the PK. Lafferty, on the other hand, doesn’t play a regular penalty-killing role. He doesn’t have the sharpest two-way details and defensive IQ at five-on-five either. He’s not a liability by any means, but he doesn’t always make the right play with the puck on the defensive half-wall or can occasionally be a fraction slow at reading defensive assignments.
Quietly, Lafferty’s minutes have been tapering off for a while. He averaged just 10:29 in the last eight games before the break compared to his season average of 12:22.
Overall, Lafferty has had a strong season with the Canucks and should earn his way back to being one of their top 12 forwards (especially since Di Giuseppe has been relatively quiet since drawing back into the lineup). We’re not worried about Lafferty big picture. He’s the type of player who needs to be operating at max speed and energy to be consistently impactful, so hopefully this time off can be rocket fuel.
(Photo of Filip Hronek: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)