Is the Vancouver Canucks' defensive depth chart for next season starting to come into focus?
Jack Rathbone and Travis Hamonic both had big nights on Thursday as the Vancouver Canucks snapped their six-game losing streak with a 6-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
Yes, Connor McDavid assisted on all three Edmonton goals. He's now at 96 points, so I'm not ruling out the possibility that he hits the century mark on Hockey Night in Canada this Saturday, as the Canucks and Oilers wrap up their four-game series.
But McDavid was foiled by Thatcher Demko on a third-period penalty shot.
Even starting with a 4-0 cushion, Demko still deserves big credit for the win. He faced 42 shots, including a total of six from McDavid, to earn his first win since March 19. It's taken him some time to put his Covid experience behind him, but he's starting to look like his old self — and will get a few more games to regain some confidence before hanging up his pads for the summer.
At the other end of the ice, I wonder how concerned Oilers brass is about the fact that their playoff success lies in the hands of 39-year-old Mike Smith? He has been fantastic this year and boasts a .925 save percentage for the season. But Mikko Koskinen offered up a big reminder that he may not be the most reliable backup when he was pulled in the first period on Thursday — after giving up four goals on the first four shots he faced, and throwing a stick-breaking temper tantrum as he left the ice.
That being said — while Koskinen hasn't been playing often, Thursday's game was his first loss since March 30. And I know Oilers fans don't want to be reminded, but it was Koskinen who ended up carrying the load during the playoff bubble last spring, after Smith gave up five goals in a period-and-a-bit of Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks. His team never really recovered.
Anyway. These are not issues that Canucks fans need to worry about.
Instead, we can focus on Jack Rathbone, who made the score 2-0 at the 4:43 mark of the first period with his first career NHL goal in just his second game.
"It was kind of a gift with the puck laying there in the slot," Rathbone said after the game
. "That's the dream, just to be able to walk down Main Street, and I was lucky enough it went in."
At 12:56, Rathbone's ice time stayed pretty consistent with his debut on Tuesday. His goal came on his only shot of the game, but he also delivered three hits in what turned out to be a pretty physical affair — showing signs that despite his smaller stature, he won't shy away from that aspect of the game.
Of course, the key for every rookie is showing that they can continue to perform at a high level on a consistent basis. The early returns for Rathbone look good so far; I'm wondering if he's already climbing ahead of Olli Juolevi on the depth chart on the left side?
If Alex Edler isn't re-signed, is there room for both of them next season? Are you ready for a super-young left side of Hughes/Rathbone/Juolevi, with all the experience on the right in Hamonic/Myers/Schmidt?
Once again, despite everything the Canucks have been through this year, Hamonic sounded like a player who wants to stick around — assuming Travis Green is also coming back.
"As a team we haven't had the success that we've wanted this season," he said postgame
. "But when I take a look at myself personally and how much I've enjoyed playing this year, especially under Greener, he's a really good coach in my opinion."
Hamonic's memorable night included a Gordie Howe Hat Trick — his first goal of the year to make it 3-0 in the first, an assist on Nils Hoglander's game-opening goal just 31 seconds into the game, and a fight with Alex Chiasson in the second period.
That's the player I was stumping for years ago, when word first surfaced that Hamonic was looking to leave the New York Islanders for a spot on a team in Western Canada. It took awhile, but it's finally all coming together.
I'm sure Hamonic's not planning to re-sign for his bargain-basement $1 million ticket again next season, but I hope the sides can find a number that works this summer that will keep him around over the longer term.
Hamonic wasn't the only one to drop the mitts on Thursday. Credit, also, to Zack MacEwen for standing in with tough-as-nails Darnell Nurse after a game-long back-and-forth between the two.
With the win, the Canucks maintain their Tragic Number of three for now. But sitting 14 points behind Montreal, with eight games to go, the margin for error has now shrunk to almost nothing.
The Canucks remain 29th overall in actual points; 25th in points percentage.
And while it was distracting that the gold-medal game in the U18 World Championship was going on at the exact same time as the Canucks game on Thursday, I enjoyed the overstimulation of hockey awesomeness as I tried to follow both games at the same time, on separate screens.
If you missed it, Canada prevailed over Russia by a score of 5-3 in an exciting game that featured another star turn by North Vancouver 15-year-old Connor Bedard. He was also denied on a penalty shot on Thursday, but scored shortly afterward and added an assist to finish with 14 points in the tournament — tied for second overall with Canadian captain Shane Wright, a 2022 draft prospect.
On the Russian side, 16-year-old Matvei Michkov added his 12th goal in seven games, finishing with a tournament-leading 16 points but landing two goals short of the all-time goals record held by Alex Ovechkin and Cole Caufield.
Michkov was named tournament MVP by the media. The rest of the All-Star Team was made up of Bedard and defenseman Brandt Clarke from Canada, Samu Tuomaala and Aleksi Heimosalmi from Finland, and Russian goaltender Sergei Ivanov. The IIHF's Directorate selected Canada's Benjamin Gaudreau as the top netminder.
The bronze medal went to Sweden, after an 8-0 shellacking of Finland.
Sweden's top scorers, Isak Rosen and Fabian Lysell, are both eligible for this summer's draft, as are Clarke, Tuomaala, Heimosalmi and Russian captain Nikita Chibrikov, who finished fourth in tournament scoring with 13 points.
Canada's top-scoring draft-eligible players were a pair of OHL forwards who, like Clarke, spent time this year in European men's leagues. Mason McTavish and Francesco Pinelli both finished with 11 points.
Because it runs at the same time as the CHL playoffs, the U18 tournament is not usually a strong one for Canada. With greater player availability this year, this is the first Canadian gold since 2013.
But in a year where most players' seasons were cobbled together and included plenty of uncertainty, I'm super-impressed by how the Canadian team came together under coach Dave Barr. Lots of talent, lots of heart, and the staff behind the scenes did a good job of keeping them healthy. They were an easy group to root for.