Canucks to focus on youth as they face Stars

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Reality has set in for the Vancouver Canucks, so they are going to give their kids a chance.

Youth will be the theme on Thursday as the Canucks (28-32-7), who appear destined to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs, give more playing time to young players against another struggling team, the Dallas Stars (27-32-9), at Rogers Arena.

“In this last little stretch of games, we’ve got to take a look at some of these young kids and see where they’re at,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told Postmedia earlier this week.

The plan differs from the Canucks’ goal at the start of this National Hockey League season, when Benning expressed a desire to “rebuild on the fly” and still compete. Benning said coach Willie Desjardins, who has done a masterful job of developing young players but is often perceived as a win-now bench boss, is okay with the decision.

“I talk to Willie on a day-to-day basis and we talk about (giving young players more ice time),” Benning told Postmedia. “Up to this point, his focus was to try and compete hard every night and win enough games to challenge for one of those last playoff spots.

“Now that reality has set in, he’s going to be on board with getting our young kids more ice time.”

The reality is that the Canucks have lost four straight games and plummeted below the playoff bar after getting near it. The team has not played as well since veteran wingers Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen were jettisoned just before the March 1 trade deadline. Only one player arrived in the deal — Nikolay Goldobin from San Jose in the Hansen deal. But Goldobin took ill and has played only three games for Vancouver.

He is not due to return to action until Saturday’s game in Edmonton. Jonathan Dahlen, the prized prospect acquired for Burrows from Ottawa, has continued to play in Sweden and still needs to be signed to an NHL contract.

The hope is that putting younger players out more often will help the Canucks play a faster game. In their past two games, they struggled to handle the speed of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who blanked them 3-0, and Boston Bruins, who overcame a 3-2 second-period deficit and doubled Vancouver 6-3 on the strength of Brad Marchand’s third-period hat trick.

Captain Henrik Sedin continued to lament his club’s difficulty making quick passes.

“We’re not making the right plays all the time,” he said. “It’s cost us a couple games. When we play fast, we can play with a lot of teams.”

One young player who has benefited from a lot of ice time lately, when healthy, is winger Markus Granlund. He scored twice against Boston and now has three goals and an assist in his past four games.

“It’s good to see him get rewarded,” said Desjardins. “He’s played hard all year.”

Desjardins, who believes the Canucks are good enough to make the playoffs when they play the right way, confirmed Wednesday that he is on board with the plan to play younger players. But Desjardins said that young players will still have to play hard to maintain extra ice time. He pointed to the example of second-year defenseman Nikita Tryamkin, who won a regular roster spot through extra conditioning and hard work after struggling early this season.

Still, most of Vancouver’s young players have struggled to produce goals, so wins will be hard to come by. The question now is: Will veterans suffer from a lack of motivation with the Canucks seemingly miles away from a post-season berth?

“I don’t think it should be tough,” said Desjardins. “They’re a proud group, and I think it has to hurt to lose every night. You just can’t accept losing.”

Meanwhile, the Stars are also trying to regroup after a pair of embarrassing losses.The Stars were humiliated 7-1 in Edmonton on Tuesday after suffering a 5-1 drubbing in San Jose on Sunday.

“I thought we kind of hit rock bottom (against San Jose), but we got deeper (Tuesday),” forward Tyler told The Dallas Morning News.

The Stars sit a point below the Canucks in the Western Conference standing and, as with Vancouver, there is considerable speculation surrounding the future of coaches and players. The Stars have used both goaltenders, nominal starter Kari Lehtonen and backup Antti Niemi, in a league-high 13 games this season, due to poor play.

Coach Lindy Ruff told The Dallas Morning News that Tuesday’s game in Edmonton might have been his worst since he joined the team. While the issue of more playing time for young players has also come up, he called on veterans to perform better.

“We need a lot more out of the leaders of our team,” Ruff told The Dallas Morning News. “They’re the guys who can make the difference at this time. They’re the guys that the responsibility lies on.”

Forward Patrick Sharp told the newspaper that he is embarrassed by the way he and his teammates have been playing lately. Seguin indicated that a new reality is also setting in with the Stars during the stretch drive of the regular season.

“We’re going to have to find some pride here, play for each other more and work harder,” Seguin told The Dallas Morning News. “Or it’s going to be a long couple of weeks.”