Like all members of Canuck Nation, we here at Critically Canuck have suffered a long time. We will not die happily unless the Stanley Cup makes its way to Stanley Park.
Here you'll get the straight goods on our heroes. With both feet on the bandwagon, we will, however, pull no punches. As long time season ticket holders, that's our prerogative.
Expect analytical insight with a strong sense of history. We'll ask the tough questions. And answer them. Enjoy.
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While their teammates seemed to be desperately, but ineffectively, flailing away for much of the opening three games against the Kings, Henrik and Daniel combined for likely the most inspired effort in their careers in last night’s first playoff win.
So while Alex Edler is only working hard at keeping alive the notion that Swedes disappear come playoff time, the Sedins offered an in-your-face rebuttal last night (just ask Dustin Brown). Henrik, fresh from a Brown hit that should have sent him concussed to the sidelines along with his brother, who amazingly returned to a series that he was not supposed to play in, were both equally hearty and arty, all at the same time.
And, of course, Cory Schneider officially stamped Roberto Luongo’s passport for an early exit from Vancouver. And for those that are surprised by this development, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Schneider started most of the big games this season and was not intimidated even slightly. His statistical results during the season placed him among the game’s elite. And Roberto, as if often the case come playoff time, was simply decent in losing efforts in games 1 and 2. The bigger story really should be that Schneider didn’t start these playoffs with the veteran Luongo waiting in the wings should he falter.
With the Sedins reunited and Schneider sparkling, you might think that the Canucks have a chance to run the table against the upstart Kings. But they need more from others for that to happen.
Speaking of, the search party continues for Ryan Kesler. Seriously, at what point do we simply admit that he’s lost a step and will never be the same? More pointedly, Kesler was never a player with great ice vision nor strong playmaking skills. His success was owing to his determination, speed and (last year anyway) world class shot. The determination is still there - if you count diving, embellishing, and screening the goalie, but the lack of production seems to be attributable to the fact he simply isn’t getting the time to unload his shot - no doubt a function of declining acceleration. This doesn’t mean he can’t contribute significantly off the scoresheet, but it highlights the bizarre decision to give away Cody Hodgson when the team is having real trouble generating decent scoring chances.
Which leads us to Jonathan Quick, the supposed hero of this series. But really, while he is playing well, the Canucks have made him look better than that. Peppering an elite NHL keeper with shots from never-never land is a strategy that will send the Canucks packing (and almost has).
One of the Canucks’ specific objectives heading into this season was the development of a fourth line that could be trusted to play come playoff time. And early in the season, it looked like they had found the right combination with Maxim Lapierre centering Dale Weise and Aaron Volpatti. Now, the fourth line features Lapierre with the one-trick pony Manny Malhotra and Zack Kassian (remember him, the goods received for the burgeoning Hodgson). That line was simply embarrassing last night, which is why they were stapled to the bench for most of the game (and the games before that).
Why Hodgson was dealt at the deadline instead of Mason Raymond continues to be a serious Canuck conundrum. It was the peripheral Raymond wearing the goat horns with the drive-by back-check on the Kings opening goal though it was another lazy Alex Edler pinch that started the play.
As a back-to-back President’s Trophy winner (and one that is mostly healthy once again) the Canucks are a decent bet to become one of the few teams to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. But against the stingy Kings, they’ll need results from more than the red-haired trio that carried them to victory last night.
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.
Just because October is over, the Canucks show no signs of shaking their Stanley Cup hangover from last season. And really, who can blame them? In the bigger games of their season, the Canucks have been able to elevate their play. And when they trail to a lousy team (like last night’s tilt with Anaheim), they can still just about rally to salvage a point.
Last season, there was an urgency that permeated the team to never waver from “the process”. This urgency resulted in the franchise’s best ever regular season and a brush with the Stanley Cup.
You certainly get the sense from this year’s team that the urgency is gone, or at least, is reserved for only the most crucial situations. And with the Canucks trailing the division leading (and over achieving) Edmonton Oilers by only three points, there is no time for panic yet.
Though that’s not to say we shouldn’t be offering up some of our fine commentary.
In the “we told you so” department, we have maintained that Jannik Hansen could score like Alex Burrows if given the same chance. And while it’s early yet, young Jannik (ater struggling mightily to start the season) has scored two even strength goals and is plus three after two games replacing Burrows on the top unit. Burrows, for the record, had three even strength goals in 15 games with the Sedins this season.
And in the “we told you so, again” department, Keith Ballard still sucks. He has one lousy point in 17 games of action (the highlight reel goal marker early in the season on a brilliant play by Henrik Sedin). And he’s -11. And while the rest of the defense crew, save Sami Salo and Alex Edler, have suffered mightily, this was supposed to be Keith Ballard’s shot at redemption.
If Dale Tallon’s judgement is this bang on, David Booth looks to be in for a tortuous ride in this town, too. Though it is way too early to pass judgement. Booth is quick enough and seems to have more tolerance for the middle of the ice than the soon-to-healthy speedster Mason Raymond, but his defensive play is shockingly bad. In his last 46 games, he has compiled a -36 rating (including -7 in his brief 9 games here). That is unfathomably poor. Like we said earlier, Ryan Kesler can kiss his Selke award good bye.
And what about Bobby Lou? Who cares about Bobby Lou? Seriously, there is nothing he can do this regular season that will make anybody happy. If he plays 75 games, wins 50 games, posts 10 shutouts and stops 95% of his shots, we’ll all be wondering the same thing. What about the playoffs? So in that sense, the only story here is why he and Schneider aren’t, at the very least, splitting duties until we get there. There’s nothing to be gained for anyone by any other scenario.
In the glass is half full mode, there is the fourth line. Like Canucks’ management, we stressed the need for a fourth unit that had some consistent chemistry as opposed to the revolving door of AHL level talent we saw last season. And in the trio of Maxim Lapierre, Aaron Volpatti and Dale Weise, they’ve found just that. Make no mistake, this trio will not score much and doesn’t feature a legitimate heayweight (that is clearly not part of the Mike Gillis Detroit Red Wing blueprint), but they’ve looked like a momentum changing line on many nights.
And there is Cody Hodgson, who is hardly the boy wonder some might have dreamed of, but has shown good smarts and play making skills. It is not clear what will happen to Hodgson’s ice time when Mason Raymond returns given the organization’s man crush love of Manny Malhotra. Based on the extended recovery time from last season’s injury, we’re prepared to cut Manny some slack on his very poor season, but the continued development of the prize prospect should be more important than getting the face-off whiz into game shape.
In the end, given the competition in their division, the Canucks’ mediocrity can likely continue into December before it’s time to start contemplating the need for significant change.