Canucks notebook: Quinn Hughes’ brilliance, Dakota Joshua’s value, Arturs Silovs’ steadiness

Apr 3, 2024; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Arizona Coyotes right wing Josh Doan (91) reacts after being checked by Vancouver Canucks center Dakota Joshua (81) and defenseman Quinn Hughes (43) in the third period at Mullett Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t convincing, but a bounce-back 2-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes in the second leg of a road back-to-back secured two more points for the Vancouver Canucks, who woke up Wednesday morning with a nearly 80 percent probability of winning the Pacific Division.

Winning the division isn’t the primary goal of any NHL team, obviously, but it is still a rare accomplishment. It’s something this franchise hasn’t accomplished since the constitution of the Pacific Division back in 2013. In the 54 years of (mostly sordid) Canucks history, the franchise has only won their division on nine previous occasions.

Most importantly, winning the Pacific this season has more value than it might usually. This year, a Canucks division title will serve (most likely) to lock two of the biggest threats in the Western Conference — the Vegas Golden Knights and the Edmonton Oilers — into a heavyweight head-to-head first-round matchup, from which only one can emerge in the second round.

There’s still work to be done. The Oilers are seven points back, which seems insurmountable given their difficult and condensed schedule, but they still have two games in hand and a head-to-head matchup remaining. It isn’t over until it’s over.

It’s still a feather in the cap of this surprising hockey team. They may not be playing the most impressive or inspiring hockey down the stretch here, but that recent form should take absolutely nothing away from what’s been a thoroughly remarkable campaign.

Quinn Hughes’ brilliance

Canucks captain Quinn Hughes is putting something of an exclamation mark on a historic campaign that should win him the Norris Trophy.

Vancouver’s most valuable player by a mile this season, Hughes is putting up crooked numbers as the regular season nears its conclusion.

On Wednesday night, while scoring his third goal in two games, Hughes recorded his 70th assist of the season. He’s just the second player in franchise history to reach the 70-assist plateau in a single season, joining Henrik Sedin, as Joey Kenward of Sportsnet 650 noted. He’s also just the third defender in the salary-cap era to reach that mark, joining Erik Karlsson (76) and Roman Josi (73), both of whom only reached 70 assists or more on one occasion each.

As gaudy as the statistics are, it’s not really about the numbers with Hughes. Properly understanding his value on this team requires closer inspection, and attentive viewing.

There are other defenders in the NHL who are close to scoring as many points as Hughes has this season, after all. What exists in Vancouver and in Vancouver only, however, is a blueliner who is the undisputed primary five-on-five driver for an elite team.

Wednesday’s game reinforced Hughes’ preeminence as the Canucks’ most important player. With Hughes on the ice at five-on-five, Vancouver outchanced the Coyotes 12-2, according to Natural Stat Trick. Without Hughes on the ice, Vancouver was actually outchanced 15-11.

Hughes scored the opening goal on the power play and then went out and broke the game open late.

On the decisive late third-period shift on which Conor Garland iced the contest against his former team, Hughes created absolute havoc with his skating, passing and collection of shimmies. Hughes’ work on this shift was absolute magic.

There can be no good faith discussion about which NHL defender has demonstrated the greatest all-around ability at the position in the NHL throughout this season. It’s Hughes with a bullet.

The narrow-wins thing

Over the last five games, the Canucks have dropped contests to the Los Angeles Kings, the Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars, while needing late-game heroics to defeat the cellar-dwelling Anaheim Ducks and Coyotes.

The Canucks are still controlling play ably at five-on-five, as they did throughout Wednesday night’s game and particularly in the second period, but their inability to manufacture goals over the past few weeks (and months) has permitted lesser opponents to hang around consistently.

Consider this statistic: Since the NHL All-Star break, only five teams have scored goals at a lower rate than Vancouver has: Montreal, Anaheim, Seattle, Columbus and Chicago.

As good as the Canucks’ structural defensive game has been, and Vancouver successfully limited the volume of chances the Coyotes generated on Wednesday night even as their breakdowns were significant, their margin for error has been reduced to almost nothing over the past few months.

It’s an stressful style to play, which perhaps explains why Canucks fans have been so frustrated with Vancouver’s recent run of form, even as it has continued to rack up points at the rate of a solid playoff team through a myriad of key absences and other challenges since the All-Star break.

Arturs Silovs’ steadiness

This week, as Thatcher Demko nears his return to the lineup, Canucks third-string netminder Arturs Silovs has given Vancouver two quality starts and four key points with victories over the Ducks and the Coyotes over the past week.

On Wednesday night, more so than in his previous start on Sunday, Silovs was excellent. Some key saves — off of Michael Kesselring late in the second period, and on a furious Coyotes flurry early in the third period — helped Vancouver preserve a key victory.

Coach Rick Tocchet praised his poise after the game, suggesting that Silovs looked like a veteran in the blue paint. He prominently noted Silovs’ stylistic similarity to Demko, which is high praise given that Demko’s technical mastery is widely admired by professional goaltenders and goalie coaches across the NHL.

This hasn’t been the most consistent season for Silovs at the American League level, but across his seven NHL starts at this point, the young Latvian netminder has managed a gaudy .913 save percentage and has cemented his status as the crown jewel of Vancouver’s goalie development pipeline. So what comes next for Silovs, especially given how well Casey DeSmith has acquitted himself in Demko’s absence and given that Demko is quickly nearing a return to action?

Saturday’s upcoming start against the Kings looms as an interesting pivot point for Tocchet and Canucks goaltending coach and director of goaltending Ian Clark’s consideration.

DeSmith is clearly Vancouver’s backup and should be, given his experience and performance throughout this campaign. Come playoff time, if a relief appearance in net is required, DeSmith should get the start. And he will.

It might be interesting to see how Silovs would fare against playoff-calibre competition, however, especially given the club has some interesting decisions to make in net beyond this season.

The salaries and cap hits for backup goaltenders have been subject to significant inflation over the past few years, especially as the model for managing starting goaltender workloads has changed across the league.

Five years ago, eight different NHL starters played 60 games or more. This year, it’s likely that only two starters will eclipse 60 starts on the year.

With the workhorse starter trending toward extinction in the NHL, the value of backup netminders has steadily increased. The median salary for an NHL backup, in fact, is now $1.8 million, and that median NHL backup is literally DeSmith, who happens to be a pending unrestricted free agent.

The Canucks have been very pleased with DeSmith’s performance this season, and there’s a strong possibility they will attempt to extend him before July 1. The cost, however, could potentially prove prohibitive, especially given the dearth of options poised to hit the open market.

As it stands today, there are only 14 NHL goaltenders who’ve played 20 games poised to hit unrestricted free agency this summer. That lack of supply, in addition to significant cap growth and the overall market trends for backups, could easily push the price of the median backup netminder north of $2 million.

Now, given their bevy of key players on expiring contracts, including Filip Hronek and Dakota Joshua (who we’ll get to more shortly), Vancouver will have larger fish to fry and may not be able to afford to prioritize the backup goaltender spot this summer. They should, however, consider it given that Demko will turn 29 years old next season and has still yet to hold down a workhorse starter’s workload while remaining healthy throughout a full campaign.

Silovs, meanwhile, is also on an expiring contract and will be a restricted free agent without arbitration rights this summer. Importantly, Silovs will remain waiver-exempt next season.

Silovs’ steady performance, then, offers up multiple opportunities for Canucks management to consider. That Silovs is looking like a reliable NHL option with perhaps significant upside presents the club with the ability to bring in a $1.5-$2 million veteran backup for Demko next season while having a sturdy third-string netminder down in Abbotsford.

If the Canucks believe Silovs is ready to be an NHL backup, meanwhile, they could save on a backup netminder and invest their cap dollars elsewhere in the roster — most crucially along the blue line, given the presumptive raise Hronek has earned. And if they believe Silovs is ready to be an NHL backup but would be best served seeing 40 games as a starter, his ability to pass through waivers next year could permit them to bring in a lower-end backup with the idea that Silovs would split spot starts in the NHL with his regular duties as the Abbotsford starter.

Whatever path they choose, there would seem to be some value in maximizing the information they can gather on Silovs against higher-level NHL competition before the end of the campaign.

Starting Silovs on Saturday, before Demko returns and the emergency conditions on Silovs’ loan expire, might be an evaluative opportunity that’s too good to miss.

Dakota Joshua’s value

Dakota Joshua played the second-most minutes of any Canucks forward on Wednesday night against the Coyotes, behind only Elias Pettersson.

Since returning to the lineup four games ago following a six-week injury absence, Joshua has averaged over 17 minutes per game.

Joshua was already a useful penalty killer and bottom-six option for Vancouver, so it’s notable that, over the past week, he’s begun to establish himself as an option for an expanded role — both in the top six and on the power play.

The spike in Joshua’s role is worth monitoring, particularly because it’s telling on a couple of key fronts.

First of all, you’ll recall that before the season began, Joshua was criticized publicly by Tocchet for his fitness levels. He hadn’t come into camp in the sort of shape that Tocchet expected, and it impacted his opportunities during the preseason.

Joshua didn’t pout. He took that criticism to heart and went to work. A few weeks later, his attitude and work ethic was being publicly praised by Tocchet. And the rest is history.

Joshua has put together a second consecutive impact season in Vancouver. He’s grown into a permanent role as a top-nine fixture for Vancouver. He’s scored 15 goals, been Vancouver’s stingiest penalty killer and formed a productive partnership with Garland that has elevated both players at five-on-five. Joshua has also been the Canucks’ most pugnacious physical forward and ranks among the NHL’s leaders in hits per game.

Now, after missing six weeks on the shelf with an injury stemming from a fight, Joshua has come back into the lineup and immediately and effectively handled an increased workload. That’s a testament to the work he put in to remain in game shape during his convalescence, including lengthy on-ice sessions with Vancouver skills coach Yogi Svejkovsky, something Canucks management has taken note of and been impressed by.

Now Joshua’s ice time is an interesting window into his maturing professionalism, but it’s also worth noting because the rugged pending unrestricted free agent has built the sort of resume that is going to cause him to be priced at a luxury-item level for a third-line player on his next contract.

Given Joshua’s performance and the overall rarity of his profile — particularly his size and ability to both produce offensively and play a grinding, heavy style of game — his next cap hit is going to be at least three or four times as expensive as his current $800,000 deal.

There are only 23 forwards in the NHL this season over 6-foot-2, 180 pounds with 15 goals scored who signed their current contracts as unrestricted free agents. Joshua is the only player in that cohort who earns under $1 million, and only three of those players earn under $3 million (Sean Monahan, who signed at that level due to injury concerns, and Nick Bjugstad).

Given the appetite teams have to acquire big, competitive forwards who can help a good team win games, Joshua’s next deal could easily get into the range of players like Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nick Paul ($3.15 million over seven years) and New York Islanders forward Pierre Engvall ($3 million over seven years). In fact, there’s a real possibility those valuations represent something of a floor case for Joshua’s next deal.

Now those are big numbers, so out of a sense of curiosity, we pegged Joshua’s value to the Paul contract (plus some inflation to account for some upcoming cap growth this summer) and plugged it into Luszczyszyn’s age curve model to try and assess the risk of placing a bet on Joshua in the mid-$3 million range with term. Interestingly, the model projects Joshua to provide $3.4 million in value over the next few seasons (with his value diminishing as he enters his mid-30s):

But here’s the most interesting thing to note about the above graphic: The model assumes Joshua will continue to play 14 minutes a game going forward. And it rates his value accordingly.

If Joshua is playing an expanded role, however, there’s a real chance the Canucks can sign him to a significant deal with term and net surplus value from that contract, even if his personal shooting percentage regresses from the 20.3 percent clip he’s managed this season.

For what it’s worth, what I’m hearing is that while the Canucks are open to signing some of the players on expiring contracts before the playoffs, they’re not exactly pushing to do so necessarily. We could see them sign a contract or two before the postseason, but those deals will have to be very team-friendly. The more complicated deals — for Hronek and Joshua — are more likely to take some time.

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