With the all-star break on the horizon and most of the Canucks earning a deserved week off, it seems a good time to weigh in on the season to date on a player-by-player basis:
Roberto Luongo - What better place to start than with the “franchise” goalie? After his predictable sluggish start, he has rounded into predictable dominant form. Particularly, after the Boston slight, he’s often been the best Canuck on the ice. Of course, nothing matters until playoff time, when Roberto becomes a box of chocolates.
Cory Schneider - Schneider continues to demonstrate that he’s not only an NHL caliber starting goalie, but likely the best goalie in this market. On that basis, he provides the Canucks with a serious insurance policy come playoff time should the jittery Luongo misplace his groove. Mike Gillis will not and should not deal him at the trading deadline.
Henrik Sedin - There’s nothing of note here. Move along. Seriously, other than a two week slump starting with the Boston game, Henrik has done what we’ve come to expect, but under appreciate. Last night’s game against Edmonton seemed to indicate that the slump is about to end.
Ryan Kesler - The first half indicated, if we didn’t already know, just how stubborn and belligerent Kesler can be. While teammates like David Booth took their sweet time to recover from injuries, even Kesler has admitted that he came back a little too soon to start the season. Which leaves us to wonder why? Here’s a guy in the prime of his career, who has suffered two very significant injuries already and does not seem able to withstand the physical pounding he exposes himself to during a long season and playoff run. Someone (and, apparently, it’s not likely to be Alain Vigneault) needs to convince this kid that winning the war is more important than simply surviving it.
Cody Hodgson - Quite likely the biggest story this season has been Hodgson’s emergence. Not since 1992, when the Canucks had Petr Nedved (scoring 36 even strength goals) anchoring the third line, has the team had this kind of three line scoring depth. In many respects, it presents an interesting dilemma for the Canucks come playoff time where the third line is typically relied upon for grittier defensive play - clearly not the forte of Hodgson’s game. Last season, the Canucks moved away from a third line anchored by Kyle Wellwood to one featuring face off whiz Manny Malhotra and punishing Raffi Torres. Now they have moved back the other way. At any rate, we’d like to see Hodgson get more ice time down the stretch taking some of the burden off of Henrik and Kesler, who both have had difficulty enduring a long playoff grind. This would also force Hodgson to play against other teams’ top pairings and shutdown lines, a further test of his mettle.
Maxim Lapierre - With Hodsgon’s emergence, both Lapierre and Malhotra are getting a little less ice time than they would like, but it’s not hampered Lapierre’s play. He brings his pestiness every night making life more than annoying for the opposition. He’s shown a decent scoring touch when the opportunities have presented themselves. Leads the forwards in hits despite limited ice time with more than double anyone else not named Dale Weise.
Manny Malhotra - A few weeks ago, Sports Illustrated released the results of a poll of NHL players conducted to determine the “most overrated” player. Both Kesler and Luongo appeared very high on the list. This may sound like sacrilege to some, but we’d like to add Malhotra’s name to the list. Yes, he wins face-offs. And is a decent skater. But before or after the near crippling eye injury, he brings nothing else. Before arriving in Vancouver, he bounced from team to team and was mostly known as an underachieving former first round draft pick. But in Vancouver, he has a near cult following. We don’t get it. At any rate, he’s been eclipsed by both Hodgson and, to a lesser extent, Lapierre on the depth chart. So perhaps all is well after all…
Andrew Ebbett - The Canucks’ off season acquisition of the skilled and small Ebbett seemed curious. In the end, he was exactly as advertised skill wise but couldn’t survive the Boston rematch and is now lost for the season. And with the emergence of Hodgson has likely played his last game in a Canuck uniform.
Daniel Sedin - Predictably, see Henrik’s comment. Whether they ever deliver a Cup or not, we likely won’t fully appreciate their brilliance until they are long gone.
Alex Burrows - On a pure effort basis, likely the most consistent Canuck this season. Try + Twins = 35 goals. For almost anyone. So says Anson Carter.
Chris Higgins - If not for a recurring mysterious infection, he might have been the Canucks’ best player in the first half. Nine of his ten goals are at even strength. Take that, Ryan Kesler. And kudos to Mike Gillis for acquiring Higgins for near nothing and re-signing him for little money.
Mason Raymond - Raymond has proven that he’s fully recovered from the near career ending cheap shot he suffered in last year’s Stanley Cup Final. What he has not proven is that he’ll ever return to the 25 goal form of two seasons ago. In the mix of remarkably similar forwards (Burrows, Hansen, Booth and himself), he should represent the most likely trade bait.
Jannik Hansen - Yes, you did hear it here first. We predicted that Hansen would score 20 goals in the NHL back when he was scoring 9 goals per season. We further predicted that if he had Alex Burrows quality ice time, he’d score the same as Burrows. He has 13 goals already this season (12 at even strength - take that, Ryan Kesler), playing mostly on the emerging third line. We did not predict, however, that the corners would become a no-fly zone. “The Honey Badger” has been noticeably cowardly this year. That’s what scoring will do to you.
David Booth - After a sketchy start, he’s shown some reasonably consistent flashes and has bounced back well from an injury (considering he nursed it for a few extra weeks, we shouldn’t be surprised). We still don’t think he’s a “power forward”. The Canucks instead are seemingly overloaded with forwards who can skate and score, but none that will physically punish the opposition.
Aaron Volpatti - We liked what we saw until he got what many Canuck fourth line players of the past couple of seasons seem to get, a busted up shoulder.
Dale Weise - Weise stole the fourth line “enforcer” job from Victor Oreskovich because he’s actually prepared to drop the mitts (Shawn Thornton excepted) and he can skate. With Weise and Lapierre, the Canucks have a fourth line that can keep the pace and consistently annoy the opposition.
Kevin Bieksa - Bieksa has been typically streaky. Along with the rest of the defense, you get the feeling that this year’s crew is saving something for later.
Alexander Edler - Now at age 25, it seems the inconsistent Edler is not going to be Niklas Lidstrom nor Scott Stevens. Oh well, at least he’s not Michel Petit.
Dan Hamhuis - His play is consistently understated, easily the leader in plus minus amongst Canuck defenders. We’re not exactly sure what he’s doing on the power play though.
Keith Ballard - Someone needs to explain how the fastest player on the Canucks has a paltry seven points this season (and hasn’t scored since the opening game of the season). Granted, he still doesn’t get much respect (and hence ice time) from Coach Vigneault, this seems incredibly paradoxical. Ballard has finally realized that the fastest way out of the Vigneault dog box is to drop the gloves, exactly what your fastest player should be doing.
Sami Salo - Salo tells you all you need to know about the Vancouver defense. Despite being the oldest (by seven years) and brittlest, he represents their best all round defender. Critics of the Canucks have pointed to the lack of a true number one defenseman. And they are correct. And it is often what separates good teams from Stanley Cup champions.
Andrew Alberts - He represents an essential depth defenseman, a guy you can roll out when the going gets tough and park on the bench when the tempo is too fast. After a horrible beginning in Vancouver, he’s rightfully found a home here.
Aaron Rome - Rome, with his early season scoring outburst, has likely had his Jeff Cowan like 15 minutes of fame. But he’s another essential depth defenseman whose play has been surprisingly versatile.
Alexander Sulzer - He’s posted an amazing plus 6 rating in only 12 games and has actually drawn in ahead of a healthy Keith Ballard on a few occasions. It’s likely too small of a sample size to draw any reasonable conclusion, but so far looks like a decent Mike Gillis pick-up.
For the Canucks, things have played out in a predictable fashion - a slow start after the playoff hangover, followed by stretches of dominance, and a general tendency to get up for the stronger teams while laying back against doormats - hardly a troubling development given what happened last season.
The Canucks have two clear areas for improvement though neither are easily accomplished. We’ve touched on both the lack of physically imposing players up front and the lack of a true number one shutdown defenseman with the former being more easily remedied. With an abundance of skillful and fleet forwards, there is ample trade bait. And the fact remains, whether Mike Gillis bothers to accept it or not, that the playoffs are a different game entirely - power play chances are not nearly as easy to come by and the war is often won by physically wearing down your opponent. The Canucks will likely have to overpay for what they need to better ensure a chance at the ultimate prize. But the time is now to pay that price.