When Elias Pettersson scored a rocket of a goal on the very first shot of his career, he set the tone for the entire 2018-19 Canucks season. When he went on to score ten goals in his first ten games, he changed the conversation surrounding himself as a player.
With Pettersson’s hot start, suddenly no one was questioning if he was too small to play in the NHL or whether he could play centre. Instead, he was getting compared to Wayne Gretzky, Pavel Datsyuk, Sidney Crosby, and Alex Ovechkin. The hype got a little bit out of control, but it was also hard to avoid.
Another player who redefined his season with a strong start was Jake Virtanen. Like Pettersson, he scored in the first game of the season, kicking off the #ShotgunJake meme on social media, and kept it going through early November. He had eight goals in his first 20 games, a 33-goal pace over a full 82-game season.
What was the story on Ben Hutton this season? A bounceback year after struggling last season. Much of that story comes from the first half of the season, when he started playing big minutes with Alex Edler injured and putting up points like he did in his first two seasons.
Even Erik Gudbranson made a good first impression, particularly when he had an unexpected five-game point streak in November. That had some Canucks fans suggesting Gudbranson had turned a corner in his career, recapturing the form that had made him a third-overall draft pick.
All that is to say, a player’s early performance can set the tone and define how that player is perceived throughout the rest of the season.
Each of the above-mentioned Canucks saw a drop-off in their play in the second half of the season, whether you’re looking at the eye test or the numbers. That’s not surprising — pretty much the entire team was worse in the second half than in the first — and there are a number of possible reasons why: injuries, fatigue, linemates, opportunity, and opposition are all factors that could play a role.
The biggest drop-off, however, belonged to someone else entirely, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: Nikolay Goldobin.
Here are the splits for the Canucks from the first 41 games and the last 41 games of the 2018-19 season. They’re sorted by the change in points per game between the two halves.
It has to be said, in order to experience a significant drop-off, you need to have been good in the first place. Elias Pettersson had the second-highest drop in points per game, but it’s somewhat relative: he still had 27 points in 36 games, good for second in scoring behind Boeser in the second half of the season.
The same is true of Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser: they were still good in the second half of the season, just not as good as in the first half.
When it comes to those three, the weight of carrying the offensive load seemed to slow them down as the season progressed. Pettersson, in particular, talked about how the compressed schedule of the NHL, with less recovery time between games than in Sweden, had an impact on his play. His conditioning is something he’ll be addressing in the offseason to better prepare him for next year.
The difference between the first and second halves of the year for Goldobin is a little more stark, mainly because he missed just one game in the first half, then was a frequent healthy scratch to end the season. He went from 23 points in 40 games, to just 4 points in 23 games. He lost his prime spot on Pettersson’s wing, the trust of his coach, and his confidence.
Gudbranson’s drop off is also stark, but it’s more that the points in the first half of the season were unexpected. Gudbranson has never been an offensive defenceman — his career high is 13 points with Florida in 2014-15 — so the lack of scoring in the second half was pretty understandable. He did put up a couple points with the Pittsburgh Penguins after the trade, including a playoff goal.
The concern with Virtanen is that the goalscoring disappeared, though he did miss games due to injury. Virtanen was on-pace for a 22-goal season through the first half, then scored just four more goals. It does seem like 20 goals could be a reasonable hope for Virtanen next season, however, particularly if he gets a little more offensive opportunity, but his struggles down the stretch are a concern.
Then we get into the realm of players that basically performed the same in the first and second halves of the season. Loui Eriksson is who he is at this point. Troy Stecher didn’t put up a ton of points all season, but was at least consistent. Alex Edler was the picture of consistency, as he’s been for most of his career.
It was great to see Antoine Roussel continue to perform well late in the season before he got injured, as it had previously been a pattern in his career that his scoring slowed down in the second half. Instead, he kept providing secondary scoring all season and found a home on a line with Horvat.
Most of the other improvers didn’t score much to begin with, but Alex Biega’s unexpected offence was a nice bonus as he got more opportunity with injuries.
Some players aren’t on this list because they didn’t play for the Canucks either before or after the mid-season mark. Tanner Pearson, for example, significantly improved in the second half of the season after struggling with the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
What can we take away from this? As Jim Benning and Travis Green made clear at the end-of-year media availability, the stretch drive isn’t easy, particularly for young players. The Canucks need their youth to take the next step forward, which means carrying that early-season performance through the entire year.
Another aspect to consider is how our perceptions would shift if the two halves were reversed.
If Pettersson started the season the way he finished it, with just two points in his first seven games, there wouldn’t have been as much hype early on and likely a lot more questions about his size and ability to play centre. But if he finished the season with 10 goals in 10 games, the hype would be out of control for next season.
Or take Virtanen: when he scored in the first game, that ignited the #ShotgunJake meme, which was tremendous fun for the rest of the season. If he had just four goals in the first half of the season, the meme might have died before it even really started.
Hutton is a particularly interesting case. If he had put up 6 points instead of 14 points in the first half of the season, would we still be talking about him rejuvenating his game?
It’s something worth considering.