This is a very difficult question to answer, and I won’t answer that today. Instead, I’ll lay the groundwork for what I’ll be looking for.
Optics aside, the Bruce-era Canucks were a complete disaster on the ice.
I don’t mean that to slight Bruce. He’s an excellent coach that can’t have accumulated over 1000 games and 600 wins by accident.
But the combination of roster and dressing room atmosphere in the first half of the season seemed toxic, just like it was last December when Travis Green was the head coach. There was a tense battle between coach and management that was playing out in public and it’s probably a relief to all involved that it’s over, no matter how messy the divorce was.
I’ve typed (and deleted) a few paragraphs summing up the Bruce era in Vancouver, but I don’t really want to re-litigate that period of franchise history. I’m best served writing a little bit about Rick Tocchet and what the actual on-ice changes to this Canucks team have looked like lately.
You may not have noticed, but these Canucks are winning, and while it’s easy to write off the team’s 8-2 record over the last 10 games as being a PDO-induced farce, that’s not really the lane I intended to drive in when I came back to hockey writing. The Canucks, and maybe this is just bias, look a lot more professional now than they did before. The breakouts are cleaner, JT Miller is looking like a much more complete player, and these plays made by Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes all over the ice seem to actually be leading somewhere.
But, let’s start with the bolded question from above: Are the Canucks a better team? and the answer isn’t immediately clear. Let’s look at some surface-level 5v5 data from Natural Stat Trick. I just looked at the Canucks leaguewide ranks in scoring chances for, against, percentage, as well as goals for, against, and percentage:
Data through games played 2023-03-20
Well, case closed. The Canucks are about as good on offence, way better on defence, and that hasn’t been enough to pull the Canucks from being a bad team to even a merely average one.
I’m kidding, of course. Hockey isn’t ever that simple, and the thing I’ve really struggled with is the bookends. One thing that really bothers me about a lot of mainstream hockey analysis is what we would call arbitrary endpoints. For example, there’s really no reason to say that a player has scored only one goal in his last 12 games. All that tells you is that he scored at least one goal in his 13th-most recent game, otherwise why leave that out? Similarly, while things like “last 10 games” or “last 5 games” may give you some glimpse into a player or team’s recent form, there’s really no reason to discount the 11th-most recent or 6th-most recent game in any of those except for the fact the endpoints are satisfying round numbers.
It was good practice, back in the Leafs research department, to explain why you were using a certain endpoint when bringing up recent form. “We’re looking at the last 18 games here because that was the game that this line was put together” “his healthy scratch was 27 games ago” “he missed a game to covid on November 22” as examples of more tangible endpoints that serve as one bookend as something that could be a tangible change.
Coach firings can have an immediate impact, but the circumstances around the Canucks transitioning from Boudreau to Tocchet makes things really murky. For one, everybody knew it was coming a week before it happened, and the Canucks went 0-4 that week as this sideshow played adjacent to the team. Second, Tocchet took over a team in complete disarray and didn’t even get his second full practice in until two weeks after he was hired.
I’m not entirely sure when the Boudreau era ends and where the Tocchet one begins. It’s also true that, in the first few weeks of Tocchet, while the Canucks were still “learning” the system, they were still losing games. They got trounced in two straight by Detroit during a run they gave up 4+ goals in six consecutive (see, there go those arbitrary endpoints again. You can get away with this when you’re a writer and not an analyst) games.
Using some tracked data, which is unfortunately incomplete (if you missed it: no more game recaps, but more analysis posts like this one) I’ll go through a little bit of what’s happened with the Canucks before and after Tocchet. If you’re a subscriber, thanks for sticking with it and read on. If you aren’t, well, please consider doing so, since making this a financially-viable operation for me will allow me to write about the Canucks in a way that nobody has ever done before, at least in public.
Subscribe to get Canucks analysis you can’t get anywhere else.