August 10, 2020

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Willes' Musings: To be the man, Canucks have to beat the man

Alex Edler hauls down Ryan O'Reilly of the St. Louis Blues at Rogers Arena on November 5, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by Rich Lam /Getty Images

Alex Edler hauls down Ryan O'Reilly of the St. Louis Blues at Rogers Arena on November 5, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by Rich Lam /Getty Images

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To celebrate our release from mini-lockdown in Edmonton, we offer a special NHL playoff version of the Monday morning musings and meditations on the world of sports:

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The Vancouver Canucks celebrate their 5-4 win on a goal by Chris Tanev 11 seconds into overtime to defeat the Minnesota Wild at Rogers Place Friday. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images

• The faithful want to believe the Canucks’ first post-season series win in nine years is a case of a good young team announcing itself to the hockey world and not a product of random arithmetic chance.

You could make the case either way, especially when the unprecedented circumstances of the qualifying round are taken into account. But if you’ve charted the development of the Canucks under general manager Jim Benning, this is also the first tangible evidence that The Plan is taking shape, that the pieces are in place and will grow into something substantial over the next few years.

Benning, of course, has been subjected to an uncomfortable level of second-guessing in his six years on the job. Much of it has been deserved: most notably the illogical contracts given veteran players and a series of sideways trades. But some of it wasn’t: trades for Tanner Pearson and J.T. Miller look pretty good now.

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Still, in looking at the 3-1 series win over the Minnesota Wild, even Benning’s harshest critics have to acknowledge his work in building this team. The Plan, loosely stated, was to integrate young players into the lineup while surrounding them with sturdy veterans, and those young players led the way against the Wild.

Rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes led all Canucks scorers with six points in the four games. Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson were tied for second with, ta da, Chris Tanev, with four points. Brock Boeser scored two goals and played a robust, playoff-style game. Of the four, only Horvat had prior NHL post-season experience. It consisted of six games played five years ago. Horvat, 25, is also the oldest of the core four.

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But the contribution of the much-maligned veteran support staff was almost as important. Brandon Sutter, a favourite whipping boy, played his best hockey in five seasons as a Canuck. Loui Eriksson came down from the press box and stepped into a crucial matchup role with Horvat and Pearson while solidifying the penalty kill. Tanev was a difference-maker on the blue-line and scored the golden goal that sent the Canucks to the next round.

Throw in Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel, and the veterans supplied an underpinning of grit and maturity that rubbed off on the kids.

Now, the last week didn’t erase the previous four years. Neither did it justify some of the contracts Benning has handed out. But, in the short-term, it changed the narrative around the Canucks, a narrative that has hung around this franchise like a black cloud.

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As for the long-term, we’ll see where this ends. It likely won’t stop the second-guessing of Benning. But it might slow it down a bit.

Olli Juolevi skates during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets in late July. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images

• Olli Juolevi played his first NHL game in the series-clincher Friday night and while he wasn’t exactly overworked, he didn’t look out-of-place. Juolevi’s champions have maintained he’s a top-four defenceman whose developmental arc has been slowed by injuries and is not, in fact, a bust.

If he is that top-four blueliner, it changes a lot of things for the Canucks.

The Carolina Hurricanes are an up-and-coming team.

• A couple of years ago you could look at the NHL standings and identify a dozen teams who had committed to rebuilding with youth. A lot of those teams are still at it. But others are starting to separate themselves from those stuck in an eternal rebuild.

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In the east, Philadelphia has the look of an emerging power and Carolina isn’t far behind. In the west, Colorado has arrived while Chicago, which was starting to look a little mouldy, has put together an intriguing group of young guns.

As of this writing, the Canucks slot in there somewhere. Philly and Colorado are farther along in their development but, based on what we’ve seen this post-season, the Canucks deserve to be mentioned with the NHL’s good young teams.

Tyler Pitlick of the Philadelphia Flyers takes a shot on goal as Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Kevin Shattenkirk defend during the first period in an Eastern Conference Round Robin game during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff at Scotiabank Arena on August 08, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo /Getty Images

• The Flyers, coached by old friend Alain Vigneault, and the Canadiens, coached by Claude Julien, meet in the next round of the playoffs. Those with a keen memory may recall the two former minor-league teammates met in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final when Vigneault coached the Canucks and Julien ran the Bruins.

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I will never understand the media faction in Vancouver that tried to run Vigneault out-of-town. He remains the best coach in franchise history.

Members of the Vancouver Canucks watch a game between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues during the Western Conference qualifications at Rogers Place. Photo by Perry Nelson /USA TODAY Sports

• And finally, for a long time Sunday it looked like the Canucks were on a collision course with the Dallas Stars, which, given the history between the two owners, would have added a delicious layer to the matchup.

Again, those with a keen memory will recall Tom Gaglardi, now the Stars’ owner, and his partner, Ryan Beedie, sued Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini over the sale of the team in 2004. That lawsuit stretched over five years and was eventually heard in the Supreme Court of Canada, which dismissed the appeal of Gaglardi and Beedie.

Gaglardi bought the Stars in 2011. He and Aquilini aren’t friends.

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The Stars’ shootout win over the Blues on Sunday, however, means the Canucks will face St. Louis in the next round, prompting some to suggest this isn’t a good matchup for the locals.

To this we respond, who is?

The Blues are the defending Stanley Cup champs for a reason. They’re deep, experienced, big and skilled. This year they sat atop the Western Conference at the pause despite missing Vladimir Tarasenko, their most dangerous forward, for all but 10 games.

If the Canucks want to find out how far they’ve come as a team, they’ve got the perfect opponent. In the immortal words of noted philosopher Ric Flair, to be the man you’ve got to beat the man.

Looking forward to this one.

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