It’s become an annual tradition for the Canucks over the past few seasons: as the team falls out of the playoff picture, the media turns to GM Jim Benning for an explanation. Part of that explanation, inevitably, revolves around injuries.
When Ben Kuzma of The Province asked Benning about the Canucks’ recent struggles, particularly their lack of compete level, Benning turned to a familiar refrain.
“A big part of it, and I don’t like using it as an excuse, is injuries,” said Benning. “Take the top two defencemen off any team and it’s tough, because it pushes other guys into minutes and situations they wouldn’t normally play.”
The Canucks have been hit hard by injuries this season, with Bo Horvat and Loui Eriksson the only two players to suit up for all 66 games. Chris Tanev, Jake Virtanen, Sven Baertschi, and Brandon Sutter are all still out of the lineup, with Sutter undergoing surgery this week for a sports hernia that will likely take him out for the rest of the season.
According to NHL Injury Viz, which tracks injuries using the Cap Hit of Injured Players (CHIP) metric, the Canucks have been fifth-most impacted by injuries of all teams in the NHL. Only the Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes, and Ottawa Senators have had players with higher cap hits taken out of the lineup.
While CHIP is an imperfect statistic — the quality of players taken out of the lineup is not necessarily accurately measured by their cap hit — it’s still a useful look at how injuries impact a team. Looking strictly at man-games lost to injury, the Canucks are only slightly above average and not even in the top 10.
Here’s the issue: this is nothing new for the Canucks.
Every season the Canucks seem to deal with devastating injuries that derail the season. The biggest issue for the Canucks is the lack of depth to deal with those injuries when they occur. Jim Benning and the Canucks are well aware of this issue.
At the end of the 2015-16 season, Benning said on TSN 1040, “We haven’t had the depth underneath to kinda sustain those injuries...we didn’t have the depth and that’s on me.”
Heading into the 2016-17 season, Benning said they had addressed their depth issues. “We’ll send people down who are ready for the NHL. We’ll run into injuries, but we’ll call up players who can help us win.”
And yet, at the end of the 2016-17 season, he said, “It’s tough, because we had so many injuries and we didn’t have a lot of depth.”
The depth was supposedly dealt with heading into 2017-18. “We could have potentially 8-10 future NHL players playing in Utica this season,” said Benning. He then later said, “I think this year, when we do have injuries, we’re going to be calling up real players that we want to develop into long-term players. We’re at that point now.”
By the end of the 2017-18 season, however, those real players never seemed to manifest. “We haven’t been able to withstand the injuries with our depth this season,” Benning said. “Next year, we’re going to have six, seven young players who are going to be in Utica. For the first time, we’ll have that depth which can help us, and they’re also good prospects.”
This year, like the years before, was supposed to be different. This time they would have the depth to deal with injuries thanks to more promising young prospects on the Utica Comets. On top of that, their free agent signings would hopefully result in fewer injuries overall, because of their size and their impact on puck possession.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries the last couple of seasons,” Benning said. “If we can add some bigger bodied guys, then hopefully they can withstand the rigours of the season better, so we don’t have any injuries.”
The injuries still came and their depth disappeared. It didn’t help that their top prospect defenceman on the Comets, Olli Juolevi, suffered a season-ending injury, but the only defencemen behind him were depth options like Guillaume Brisebois and Ashton Sautner. At forward, apart from Adam Gaudette briefly bouncing between Utica and Vancouver, the only real prospect that the Canucks called up from the Comets was Zack MacEwen.
For the fourth season in a row, Benning has pointed to injuries as an issue. For the third season in a row, the depth that was promised heading into the season has disappeared when injuries inevitably occur. At some point in the near future, Benning is likely to claim that next season they’ll have enough depth to deal with injuries. Next season will be different.
Will it really be any different? Will the Canucks depth issues be any better next season?
At the end of Kuzma’s article, Benning dropped one last quote about the Canucks’ struggles at the end of the season.
“The last couple of weeks have been a good lesson for our young players,” he said. “This is the time of year where older players are physically and mentally stronger.”
Except, of course, for the older players that have been repeatedly injured at this time of year, like Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, and Brandon Sutter.