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The Vancouver Canucks are a mess, so what gives?

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Jim Benning did about the best he could with the mess he made.

He didn't just tidy up the broken glass and spilled food items he himself had flung across the aisle in his near-decade in charge, but this summer he left the situation cleaner and sparklier than he found it. Magically erasing so many of his mistakes and eliminating aspects believed to be holding the organization back in a summer spent building what appeared to be a competitive roster while in the process mixing in two reasonably priced extensions for the team's marquee players, there was reason to be optimistic about Vancouver and its chances of competing in the Pacific Division.

Unfortunately, it turns out that prettying things up doesn't mask fundamental flaws.

The Canucks have underperformed so far in the 2021-22 season. (Getty)
Elias Pettersson and the Canucks have underperformed so far in the 2021-22 season. (Getty)

After 16 games, the Vancouver Canucks are in complete disarray. They fell to 5-9-2 on the season following a three-games-in-four-nights run in which they lost to three teams in the Western Conference postseason hunt by a combined score of 19-6. 

They have three regulation wins to this point, beating only the Seattle Kraken, Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks, who happen to have a combined eight regulation wins in 43 games. 

Vancouver has the sixth-worst points percentage in the entire NHL, and the fifth-worst goal differential overall. 

It's as bad of a start as any in the NHL, and it's hard to make sense of how things went so horribly wrong.

Of course, the easy answer is Benning. 

For as solid as his offseason was, he couldn't stash every issue away in Arizona after all. Among the most impactful detriments still, the depths of the Vancouver lineup have been absolutely torched, with fourth liners and bottom-pairing defenders like Juho Lammikko, Justin Dowling, Justin Bailey, Tyler Motte, Kyle Burroughs, Jack Rathbone, Brad Hunt, and Madison Bowey each contributing disproportionately to a significant on-ice deficit.

It sounds ridiculous to assign blame at the margins, but if the depths of the lineup could come even close to breaking even, Vancouver would be in a far better spot. 

Remarkably, though, and in spite of all the issues, some of Benning's most criticized moves haven't hurt them all that badly. 

Tyler Myers and Oliver Ekman-Larsson have managed to keep their heads above water to this point, claiming only one of three total individual 50-plus percent expected goals percentages at five-on-five, while sharing over 155 minutes of five-on-five ice. The same can't quite be said though for Tucker Poolman, who has been a liability despite sharing the ice more often than not with Vancouver's best defender, Quinn Hughes.  

Still the Canucks' top four has performed better than the club's overall record would indicate.

What's most concerning, and perhaps most emblematic of the team's torturous start, is the performance of the players who helped to mask the issues in previous seasons.

Elias Pettersson, in particular, has been awful in his first season since signing a player-friendly three-year extension worth just short of $7.5 million over the summer. 

Stuck on two assists in over 222 minutes at five-on-five this season, Pettersson is one of, if not the most underperforming star players in the entire NHL. 

Nearly nothing positive has come from Pettersson's five-on-five minutes, with the Canucks being out-scored 9-5 with him on the ice under that condition. Naturally, the performance of Pettersson's linemates has suffered along with it, and Brock Boeser has been most representative of that with only two five-on-five points in the bank so far.

What's especially troubling about Pettersson's performance in particular is that it's a carryover from last season, and a certain departure from the rookie and sophomore seasons that he used to gain league-wide accolades and serious earning potential. 

In this season and last, Pettersson has 16 five-on-five points in 42 games and over 564 minutes. There are 292 players league-wide who have counted more over that span, and when adjusting for efficiency or rate, 145 players league-wide — including the likes of Mathieu Joseph, Mikael Granlund, and William Carrier — have been more productive.

How can Pettersson return to peak form? (Getty)
How can Pettersson return to peak form? (Getty)

This is after Pettersson produced at a top-20 rate in 2019-20.

Pettersson's, and by association his linemates', production falling off a cliff is as strong a reason as any for the Canucks' struggles, and the place they find themselves through 20 percent of the schedule. 

Simply put, no longer are the team's issues being masked over by elite offensive play.

The million-dollar is question is, why? Why is it that Pettersson has fallen?

It's not a talent issue for him or his linemates, this much we know for sure. It's not that it's become completely stagnant, as Pettersson has had different looks with new linemates. And though Pettersson has signed his second contract, this shouldn't be an incentive issue given the opportunities ahead.

Surely we are beyond lingering issues associated with previous injuries, or conditioning concerns after missing most of camp, right?

So what other realistic explanation is there for the obvious, and to this point fatal, disconnect — which Pettersson is most representative of — than Travis Green and the coaching staff?

Something here isn't simpatico. And though it's convenient to look behind the bench, and to temporarily absolve players performing on guaranteed contracts and believe that there's nothing a general manager could do in this moment, it's clear something needs to be adjusted. 

What's least disruptive that manages to carry with it the possibility of bringing change, or a shift in mood and behaviour at least, is moving on from one coaching staff and introducing another. 

Maybe that's what gets Pettersson's game — and the Canucks — back on track. 

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