The 2022 World Junior Championship is concluded, but there is one more comment on Jonathan Lekkerimaki before we call the competition a wrap. Rick Dhaliwal spoke with Swedish coach Tomas Monten about Lekkerimaki’s competition.
I’m not sure what to make of this. Did he lately “fall” ill with mononucleosis? Or did he experience it last fall? In any case, it can be a terrible condition that drains energy and can last weeks. That would almost probably be damaging to a high-level athlete.
The particulars are probably unimportant. The news is simply another reminder that Lekkerimaki still has a long way to go before making his NHL debut, and there will always be surprises. Another European U20 competition begins this week as part of the buildup to the World Juniors in Halifax and Moncton in December. Two Canucks prospects will play for Sweden at the Four Nations Cup.
Closer to home, we get our first glance of Ilya Mikheyev (No. 65) and Andrei Kuzmenko (No. 96) in club colors on the ice at the Scotia Barn through the Canucks’ social media (which will always be 8 Rinks to me).
The influence of these two players is perhaps the most important story to follow as we enter the new season. If Kuzmenko can provide an offensive lift to the top six and Mikheyev can improve the penalty kill, the Canucks might benefit significantly.
J.T. Miller was quick to blame the Canucks’ dismal start last season on the penalty kill, which was not only inept, but also functioning at Murphy’s Law levels of bad luck in a recent interview with John Scott on the ‘Dropping the Gloves’ podcast.
Our team defense was in the top three or five virtually the whole year,” he remarked. “I’m not sure how we got up where we did. But, with Travis on board, we were really leading the league in 5-on-5 team defense at one time. Goals against were quite low. Because of our penalty kill, we were losing every game 3-2.
Of course, he’s exaggerating, but his thesis stands. And I was struck by his ability to pinpoint the concerns from that terrible period so precisely. When Travis Green and Jim Benning were dismissed on December 5, 2021, the Canucks were 8-15-2. Eight of the defeats were by a single goal, including the two in overtime. So, almost half. And in five of those losses, the Canucks let up one goal on the penalty kill, two goals in seven, and three goals in one.
They only lost four times when they did not allow the other team’s power play to score. When they triumphed, they were also digging themselves out of holes. They only had seven games out of 25 where the penalty kill was successful.
At the time of the firings, the Canucks’ goals against averaged 3.16 goals per game, ranking them 23rd in the NHL. But Miller is dead on about team defense. On December 5, they were tied with Washington for the fourth-best goals-against-per-60 in the league at 5-on-5, at 1.94, with Carolina and Tampa Bay only a hair better in second and third place, at 1.93, respectively.
However, they were 29th in 5-on-5 scoring, averaging only 1.84 goals per game. So they were losing a little ground at evens. And they couldn’t make up the difference on special teams.
By the end of the season, the Canucks were surrendering 2.14 goals per game at 5-on-5. However, with the uptick in scoring around the league, they have risen to second position overall, trailing only Calgary. And their 5-on-5 scoring increased to 2.34 goals per game, keeping them tied for 24th overall with Los Angeles, but with a positive differential of 0.2 goals per game at evens.
The distinction was much more pronounced on special teams. Prior to Green’s termination, Vancouver was 22nd in the league on the power play, with 17.4%, while the penalty kill was just 64.6% successful.