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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When Keith Ballard arrived in Vancouver nearly three years ago, the price tag seemed high (a first round pick along with two former first rounders, Michael Grabner and Steve Bernier) and his lengthy remaining contract seemed gaudy. So justifiably, he was expected to be a top four defender; a young man, who five years into his career, had averaged over 20 minutes of ice team per game each and every season.
But through a combination of injuries and nerves, he could never get the confidence of the coaching staff in Vancouver. And it seemed that the volatile defender and his rich contract were to become an albatross in the new post-lockout world.
But fully into his third season in Vancouver, it appears he has finally found his game, or at least, the confidence of his coaches. You will note that Ballard was on the ice for the overtime winning goal last game - an opportunity Alain Vigneault never would have entrusted him with in seasons past.
So while he has yet to produce a single point this season, he is combining with young Chris Tanev to form the Canucks’ most dependable defensive pairing. In his first two seasons here, he was lucky to play 15 minutes per night, and rarely in 9 consecutive games as he has thus far. So far this season, he’s getting well over 17 minutes per outing. And circumstances dictate he should be getting even more.
The Canucks’ power play is struggling mightily this season. Once the most feared team in the league with the man-advantage, this season’s results have been middling, at best, with the points having been manned exclusively by Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Jason Garrison and Kevin Bieksa.
Given the struggles of everyone, except Edler, to contribute with the man advantage, giving the smooth skating Ballard a chance only seems to make sense.
In fact, before he came to Vancouver, he saw considerable power play minutes throughout his first five years in the league. You’d think his quick skating and adventurous play would be an asset to a power play that has become predictable and now ineffective.
We like what we’ve seen this season from Ballard, the default doghouse resident of the Alain Vigneault era. But we’d like to see more of it. Here’s hoping he’ll get the chance…
Six games into their regular season, the Canucks performance to date has been missing the high points. And while a half-dozen games isn’t much, in this shortened season, it’s the same as the ten game mark in a full slate.
In that sense, the season so far is business as usual for this team ever since Alain Vigneault took over. In fact, in the initial ten game increments of those now nearly seven seasons, they’ve never won more than 5 of 10.
Yes, in the stretch of their most significant continued success in franchise history, this team has always been slow out of the gate.
But there a few differences this time around. This season is shorter and thus the impact of a slow start is amplified. Further, this team is older. And in the context of the late starting regular season and now accelerated schedule, this combo could be lethal.
How did the Canucks, now with nine of their regulars over 30 years of age, do the last time they were this old? They missed the playoffs (2007-08).
With an even .500 record this far, there have been some notable under-achievers - particularly the collective play of their top four defencemen. Noted free agent acquisition, Jason Garrison, was brought in to boost the power play, but has yet to register a single point. While Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis have been volatile.
Goal scoring, a problem that reared its head dramatically at the end of last season, continues to be mediocre. The once high-octane offense is scoring at a rate that is one goal less per game than the first place Chicago Black Hawks.
Many pundits had predicted that shootouts would be more prominent in this condensed season. And for the Canucks, that has certainly been the case. And as per usual, in the Alain Vigneault regime, the Canucks have struggled to compete. Whether this will be enough motivation for Coach Vigneault to actually practice the shootout remains to be seen.
The upside though is that the team is getting significant contributions from young players (most notably Zack Kassian and Chris Tanev who both started the season in game shape after playing big minutes on the farm club) so by the time the more experienced players round into form, there should be a notable increase in performance.
And Mason Raymond has found top gear for the time being and remembered where the front of the net is.
Further, this version of the Canucks seems more suited for the rough going with Kassian along with Aaron Volpatti engaging in a number of fisticuffs. There has been a demonstration that this team is less likely to be intimidated.
And, whenever Roberto Luongo finally gets dealt, this team should get just a little bit younger and more offensively skilled. Though with every passing day, it is just as likely that the stubborn Mike Gillis has missed the high water mark for his star keeper’s value.
You will note that we’ve not mentioned the return of Ryan Kesler and David Booth. That’s for good reason. We doubt Kesler will return this season and, if he does, he will be a shadow of his former self. As for David Booth, the Canucks were better with him out of the line-up last season than there were with him in it.
On Friday, the hated Hawks pay a visit to Rogers Arena for a game that will be yet another measuring stick for this year’s squad. The early season encounter between the two typically results in the Canucks getting their lunch fed to them, the wake-up call that finally turns their season around.
If the Canucks have truly begun the Schneider era (even though the incumbent Roberto Luongo is still hanging around), he must be given a demonstrable show of support in a second straight start despite his poor play in last night’s embarrassing opening night defeat.
To do otherwise would put the franchise and this never-ending melodrama right back to square one.
And even if the original plan (before Schneider’s egg-laying) was to start Luongo tonight against the Oilers to keep the young keeper away from back-to-back starts, it’s not like Schneider should be tired after leaving the game 26 minutes in.
This never-ending goalie controversy is beyond old, but let’s attempt to turn the tide and give Schneider another start.
Why the Canucks underpaid for Alex Edler
Before the opening night disaster, the biggest news around Canuck nation was the extension of defender Alex Edler for six years at an annual cap hit of $5 million.
Edler, of course, has proven that he can be equal parts Scott Stevens, ruthless bodychecker, and Bambi, awkwardly scrambling on the ice as if for the first time. His volatility clearly adds risk to any long term deal.
But, by NHL defensemen standards, where players are typically slow to mature, Edler is still very young.
And on that basis, this deal makes sense. The offensive numbers that he has put up so far give him a good chance to be the Canucks all-time leader amongst defenders. And his size, mobility and occasional nastiness could make him the best all around defender ever to lace them up in this market.
Ultimately, at $5 million per season and NHL inflation (the early post-lockout returns indicate that the spending spree continues unabated), it shouldn’t take much stability on Edler’s part to make this money well spent.
Why the Canucks defense is overrated
Many NHL pundits would have you believe that the Canucks defensive corps is among the league’s best. And from a very simple head count notion, that may be correct - there is no shortage of NHL ready plugs to fill the holes.
But the likes of recent pick-ups Cam Barker, who was disastrous on a defenseless Oiler team last season, and Jim Vandermeer, who has most recently spent more ice time as a fourth line forward, hardly even add insurance.
Ultimately, there is always the issue of quality over quantity and that is where the Canucks’ defense will continue to suffer.
Kevin Bieksa has the nasty disposition you want in every defender, but he is undersized for his role and maddeningly (perhaps stupidly) inconsistent.
Dan Hamhuis is a defensive rock (despite being on the ice for 5 goals against last night), but has little offensive upside.
The aforementioned Edler is still searching for consistency and the ability to play to the benefit of his size and strength.
Rounding out the top four is Jason Garrison, a purse swinging big man with a great shot.
Keith Ballard, arguably the Canucks’ most offensively dynamic defender, won’t get himself out of the bottom pairing as long as Alain Vigneault is around.
The remarkably steady Chris Tanev should get more ice this season, but hardly brings a full skill set.
After that are the supposed depth guys. But the point is simple, this franchise continues (42 years in) without a single elite defender.
In the end, the forward crew of this version of the Canucks will struggle to score. The team will need a tremendous contribution from its defense at both ends of the ice. We’re skeptical that this crew can fulfill that responsibility.
While the biggest move of the Canuck off-season has yet to transpire, there has been some recent activity that demands our commentary.
The most impactful move so far was yesterday’s signing of defenseman Jason Garrison. Garrison, a local product with less than three NHL seasons of experience, has struck it rich, signing a six-year deal for nearly $28 million – a lofty pay-day for a player with one notable NHL season to his credit and who was passed over at the entry draft years ago. But the 27-year-old, a late bloomer, has been a quick study at the NHL level, logging over 22 minutes per game in his first two full NHL seasons. And with 16 goals last season, he looks to be more than capable of filling the offensive void left by Sami Salo, who has begun his retirement early alongside former teammate Mattias Ohlund in Tampa Bay. And while we’ll miss Salo, at times the Canucks most complete d-man, he was clearly (and rightfully) looking for a financial home-run instead of another year in Vancouver at a market discount.
But the committment to Garrison smells like the Keith Ballard debacle all over again (a significant financial commitment to a player with some success albeit only in a low pressure hockey backwater). We can only hope that he won’t wilt under the spotlight of playing in his hometown and, most importantly, manages to avoid the doghouse of Alain Vigneault. While Garrison is a big body, he is not known for his physicality, which will put him at odds with Vigneault from the get go. The real oddity here is that Garrison now becomes the Canucks’ highest paid defender. And he won’t have the smooth skating Brian Campbell to partner with, but instead the inconsistent Alex Edler. At this price, it seems impossible that Garrison will be able to meet expectations. But Ballard can keep him company.
Outside of Garrison, there has been no other additions, but plenty of players on the way out. Joining Sami Salo on the way out-of-town are Aaron Rome, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Sami Pahlsson, Victor Oreskovich, Mike Duco and Ryan Parent.
The only real surprises here are possibly Rome, who seemed to be a favourite of Coach Vigneault and Gragnani, who was obtained at the trade deadline and forecasted in the long-term as a possible power play quarterback.
Rome, as a depth defender, was essentially redundant with Andrew Alberts still on the team. But the decision to not retain Gragnani seems bizarre, particularly since the team bent over backwards to give him ice time down the stretch so that he could remain a restricted free agent thus giving themselves first crack at retaining his services. Perhaps the signing of Garrison was anticipated, allowing the team to give up on Gragnani?
We will not at all mourn the loss of the overrated Pahlsson, but only the price paid to get him (two fourth round picks and a minor leaguer) - this deal looks like something a panicky Dave Nonis would have cooked up. And for the time being leaves the Canucks (with Ryan Kesler on the sidelines) with Manny Malhotra and Maxim Lapierre as their second and third line centres. Where have you gone, Cody Hodsgon?
Players that seem to be destined surprisingly to start the season in Vancouver include Mason Raymond, Manny Malhotra and, of course, maybe even Roberto Luongo.
Since Raymond was untradeable at the deadline, the Canucks seem prepared to give him another look, at a reduced price. The return of mister flash and dash and his perimeter puck handling are not what this team needs.
Manny Malhotra suffered through a horrible season and the Canucks are on the hook for another year at a very pricey $2.5 million, but with the loss of Ryan Kesler for at least the early portions of the season, Malhotra will get plenty of opportunity to return to his one-dimensional form.
While the signing of new number one goalie Cory Schneider to a three-year deal should have officially put the end to the Luongo era, it would not surprise us if Bobby Lou starts the season here. After all, Mike Gillis, in case you haven’t noticed, is quite determined to do things as unconventionally as possible. From our perspective, it is in everyone’s best interests to move Luongo sooner rather than later. While it’s conceivable that early season struggles by goaltending starved teams like the Leafs and Lightning could up the ante in the Luongo sweepstakes, the reverse is also true and could leave the Canucks with $9 million tied up in a position where only one guy can play. Ultimately, Roberto is a proven commodity whose value, independent of other team’s needs, will not get any higher. Further, he has been the consummate professional in his time here and should be spared any further indignity in this market.
There is still plenty of time in this off-season for Mike Gillis to upgrade his back-to-back President’s Trophy winning team and despite the log jam in net, there is still plenty of money to spend. And we expect it will be spent. Just ask Jason Garrison.