Archive for January, 2008

Break it down for me, fella

The Canucks head in to the all-star break sitting uncomfortably in 7th place in the Western Conference.

With 57 points, the Canucks are only one point ahead of 9th place Columbus and, for that matter, only three points ahead of 11th place Phoenix. That said, the Canucks are only two points behind Northwest division leaders Minnesota, who stand in 3rd. In other words, over the course of the rest of the season we might easily find the Canucks poised to win consecutive Northwest division titles or in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.

As I said, uncomfortable.

A summary of the season so far:

Positives

  • The Sedins are poised to maintain, and likely improve upon, last season’s impressive offensive output. Daniel and Henrik are undoubtedly the bonafide offensive stars of this team.
  • Taylor Pyatt has been terrific this year, particularly before he had his mouth obliterated by a puck.
  • Alexander Edler leads NHL rookies with a + 15 rating and plays night-in, night-out like a veteran NHL defenceman.
  • Robert Luongo, despite some inconsistency, is so good that his inconsistent play generally exceeds the best play of most other NHL goaltenders.
  • Ryan Kesler has solidified his status as the shut down man among the forwards and a player the opposition would rather not play against.
  • Alex Burrows has stopped taking asinine penalties on a nightly basis. He has even chipped in with some timely goals, suggesting he actually does know how to put the puck in the net.
  • Mason Raymond, although not scoring as much as he might like, has provided fans with at least some excitement when he plays. 

Negatives

  • Markus Naslund, despite some ephemeral flashes of brilliance, appears a spent force. At $6 million/year, he is the NHL’s most expensive checker.
  • Matt Cooke has finally convinced any remaining doubters that he is a tremendously limited player who contributes little more than occasional annoyance of other teams’ players.
  • Brendan Morrison still cashes a paycheque exceeding $3 million per year. (The fact this albatross of a contract expires this season could be spun as a positive, I suppose.)
  • Dave Nonis continues to refuse to part with some of the Canucks’ vastly overrated and superfluous prospects (ahem, Cory Schneider) in order to secure some decent secondary scoring.
  • Notwithstanding the previous point, Alain Vigneault would probably play any scorer obtained by Nonis with Byron Ritchie and Rick Rypien.
  • Sami Salo, once again, can’t stay healthy. More disconcerting: when he has played, he looks decidedly average.
  • Mike Weaver and Brad Isbister play with disturbing regularity on this team.

32 games to go. I admit it, I am nervous.

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Wild nights that DON’T involve scoring

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A visit from the Minnesota Wild should be sufficient to imbue terror in the mind of any hockey fan. Horrible visions of 2-1, or 1-0 hockey games with 25 shots (total) abound.

This is no ordinary meeting with the Wild, however. The Canucks face their division rivals in the midst of their worst stretch of hockey since the beginning of the season.

In the last six games, the ‘Nucks are 1-4-1. During this period of lacklustre play, they have slipped from a more or less lengthy perch atop the Northwest division. As it stands this morning, the Canucks are, in fact, in a tie for eighth place with tonight’s opponents.

The problems have been documented ad nauseum, on this blog, other Canucks blogs, and in the Vancouver media. There is no need for me to recount them here. Suffice it to say, the Canucks are down a goal or two early on far too often for a team that is not scoring enough to win games even when Roberto Luongo plays well.

The key tonight, then, is simple: preparation. The Canucks have to come out with a sense of urgency, get a goal or two, and then focus their energies on containing the Wild’s, er, modest offence.

If the Canucks do not come out more prepared than they have been in the last three games in particular, they are going to lose. And, with losses mounting and teams on the playoff bubble like Columbus and St. Louis well positioned to make a push, the incipient discontent in Vancouver might just rise to the surface.

Statement: unsatisfactory

In a game the Canucks probably needed to make a statement in, after losing three of their last four games, the message was frustratingly unequivocal: the Canucks, these days, are almost entirely dependent on the Sedins to generate the offence and for Robert Luongo to stand on his head long enough for them to put a few goals on the board.

Against the top teams in the conference this is evidently not going to be good enough, as last night’s shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings illustrates.

An unsatisfactory statement, for any Canucks fan with aspirations for a long playoff run this spring.

Priority #1 for GM Dave Nonis must be the acquisition of a second line offensive threat, if only to diversify the production a little.

Even 47 saves from your goaltender is not going to win you hockey games every night.

Canucks vs. Blue Jackets. Riveting stuff.

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Truthfully, the Canucks’ visit to Columbus to play the Blue Jackets tonight is hard-pressed to inspire much excitement, even among the most ardent Canucks fans.

Under head coach Ken Hitchcock, Columbus is undoubtedly a better team, provided we use point totals and wins-and-losses records as our barometer of success. While still not a playoff team, the Blue Jackets are much closer this season than they have been in recent memory. More to the point, like any Hitchcock team, they are not a team you can ever expect to take two points from easily.

Unfortunately, like any Hitchcock team, the purchase price of success is exciting, offensive hockey. The Jackets are what you would call ‘well coached’, often a veiled euphemism for a team playing under a strict defensive ‘system’, sacrificing offence for impenetrability.

More unfortunately, for the average hockey viewer, the Canucks display and deploy a similar (if less rigorous) defensive system-approach to the game (as any Canucks fan can tell you). Evidently, this is not going to change anytime soon under Alain Vigneault, either.

This is long-winded way of arriving at the point I started with. This game promises to be mind-numbingly boring, if nothing else.

As a Canucks fan I can live with this, provided, of course, that we take the two points. Any neutrals finding themselves watching the game, however, will not be so fortunate, I am afraid.

Speedy forwards who generate offence? No, sir!

When it comes to Alain Vigneault’s performance behind the Canucks’ bench, there is not much to complain about.

The team plays with more grit than it has in many years, it adheres to a system of strict defensive responsibility, the players are held to stringent standards of accountability, Vigneault himself is loathe to make excuses when the game plan goes awry, and, the results (overall team record and Vigneault’s Jack Adams award last season) generally speak volumes about his contribution to the team’s recent success.

That said, there is one aspect of his coaching philosophy I consistently find difficult to fathom. Namely, his unwillingness to be patient with offensively-gifted youngsters.

The most recent evidence of this is the decision to send speedster Mason Raymond back down to Manitoba and to call up gritty Rick Rypien to replace him on the roster.

A couple of comments, for context. First, I understand that Raymond has struggled a bit in recent games, after his explosive performances in his first few games up. Second, I acknowledge that Raymond is lacking in the defensive responsibility department.

Still, the problem, as I see it, is this. The Canucks already have an extensive array of forwards on the roster who are sound defensive players. Burrows, Kesler, Cooke, Ritchie, Linden, etc. What they are woefully short of, however, are forwards who generate a lot of offensive opportunities off of the rush. (For all their offensive talents, the Sedin’s thrive mainly in situations where the puck is already in the opposing teams’ zone.)

Note the emphasis on offensive opportunities; I am suggesting only that it is important for the Canucks to generate more offensive play, not that they necessarily score signficanly more goals. Though, I suspect more will come, in doing so.

Raymond is an example of the type of player the Canucks are sorely lacking; Rypien one they have in relative abundance.

To be sure, Raymond needs to learn to play with more responsibility without the puck and in his own end. But this is something he needs to learn and be taught. Who better for the task than Vigneault? With all due respect to Manitoba Moose coach Scott Arniel, I think the answer is obvious.

Unfortunately, Vigneault has often demonstrated a propensity to be tougher on offensively-gifted players who might, on occasion, make mistakes in play without the puck. He seems to have little time for taking the time to help these players improve in their defensive play.

Whereas, he seems to be much more patient with players who, though offensively-limited, are sound defensive players. (Consider how often players like Burrows, Ritchie, Rypien, Cowan, Cooke, etc. take ridiculous and selfish penlaties yet seldom face the harsh judgement of the coach for doing so.) 

Ultimately, with the Canucks desperately crying out for more offence from their forwards, it makes little sense to me that this decision was made.

Memories

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Tomorrow night’s visit by the New York Islanders evokes fond memories for me.

The first NHL hockey game I ever saw was February 4, 1987 at the Pacific Coliseum. The visitor? The New York Islanders. 

My dad got us tickets through his work and we sat right near the glass in the Canucks home end (row three or four, if I remember correctly). It was the most exciting moment of my young life up to that point. Not only was I able to attend a hockey game, I was able to see the players’ faces, hear the chatter, and acutely experience the speed and physical nature of NHL hockey. (Interestingly enough, I have never sat that close at a game anywhere since.)

The game itself produced something of a rarity in those tough days for Vancouver hockey fans. A lopsided Canucks win (4-1). Against a team only four seasons removed from winning four consecutive Stanley Cups, no less!

Going only by memory, I am pretty sure Tony Tanti scored for the Canucks. I can’t recall who scored any of the other goals in the game, though. I do remember Frank Caprice and Billy Smith being the goalies.

Although the Canucks rarely play the Islanders anymore, let alone host a visit from them, whenever they do it reminds me of one of the best days of my life, even to this day.

I Hart Luongo

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With all necessary caveats in order, I want to take this opportunity (basking in the glow of yet another unbeatable performance) to declare Roberto Luongo as my front-runner for both the Hart Trophy and the Vezina Trophy this season.

Let’s break down the case:

  • Luongo is third in Goals Against Average (1.97) and first if you count only goalies who have played more than 30 games so far;
  • Luongo is third in Save Percentage (.930) and, again, first if you count only goalies who have played more than 30 games so far;
  • Luongo is second in shutouts (6);
  • and, setting aside statistics for a moment, Luongo is the leader of the Canucks. He is one of the first players interviewed by reporters every night, takes losses harder than anyone, and is not afraid to call out either himself or his teammates when necessary. If goalies could be captains, Luongo is probably the only one in the league who would be captain of his team.

In short, Luongo is not only the best goaltender in the league this season, he is also the best and most valuable player in the league, given his combined achievements in a wide variety of statistical categories, his contribution to team success, and his intangible qualities as the leader of his team.

As the link I offer at the outset of this post should indicate, I don’t think it is fair to suggest the Canucks are a ‘bad’ team without Luongo. Any way you slice it, they are not. (Most teams would kill to have players like the Sedin twins or any one/all of the Canucks defenceman, excepting perhaps ‘Ancient’ Aaron Miller.)

Instead, I think it is more accurate to identify the Canucks as one of the best teams in the league in large part due to Luongo.