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Debunking myths

Hockey punditry, as an enterprise, is not exactly the domain of intelligent discussion. 

Nonetheless, what you do expect from a pundit, especially an ex-player, is some kind of keen insight about the game.

Unfortunately, pundits have been largely bereft of such insight when it comes to assessing the Vancouver Canucks. 

Since the decline of the heady days of the ‘Westcoast Express’ it seems almost axiomatic that the problemwith the Canucks is a lack of offensive production.  Turn on Hockey Night in Canada, the NHL on TSN, the Score, and Rogers Sportsnet, listen to the Team 1040, or read the papers.  The same message abounds: the Canucks can’t score; and, by extension, the team relies exclusively on Roberto Luongo for success.

While this oft-repeated claim certainly held weight in previous seasons, it no longer does in 2008/2009.  At this point, 28 games into the season, the Canucks are eighth overall in the NHL in team scoring, with an average of 3.04 goals per game. 

Put simply, the Canucks problem is not scoring goals.  (I certainly have my own view about what, precisely, the Canucks most glaring problem is.)   

The time for pundits to acknowledge this is well past due.

The beat goes on

My reaction to the 5-4 shootout loss to Colorado tonight is succinctly captured with the sentiments expressed in this post.

Once again, the Canucks had the opportunity to bury an opponent.  Up 4-3 late in the third period, Jannik Hansen took an exquisite stretch pass from Alex Edler for a breakaway on Peter Budaj.  Unfortunately for the Canucks, Hansen shot the puck well wide of the net.

Mere minutes later (with 2:48 remaining), Avalanche defenceman Daniel Tjarnqvist scored an ugly goal on Cory Schneider to tie the game, effectively sending it to Overtime.

Say what you like about the two bad goals from Tjarnqvist and Ryan Smyth on Schneider, the game was there for the taking.  Had Hansen scored, the two points would have been all but secured.

Opportunities lost

An inauspicious 0-2 start to the Canucks seven-game road trip is not the only cause for growing concern among some Canucks fans.  More disconcerting, perhaps, is the Canucks’ frustrating inability to put teams to the sword when the opportunity arises.

Last Thursday, at home against the Flames, the Canucks squandered a two-man advantage in the second period.  At that point, the Canucks were up 2-1 and could have easily made it 3-1.  Instead, the Flames were ignited and went on to win the game 4-3.

Last night, on the road against Columbus, the Canucks were up 2-1 in the third period when Daniel Sedin was gifted with a clear-cut breakaway courtesy of an exquisite stretch pass from brother Henrik.  Daniel proceeded to fire the puck directly into the pads of Blue Jackets goalie, Steve Mason.  The Blue Jackets then answered back with two goals in the final 11 minutes to win the game, 3-2.

A lot of pundits like to wax ecstatic about the Canucks supposedly anemic offence (the Canucks are actually 10th overall in team scoring) and, correspondingly, their dependence on spectacular goaltending from Roberto Luongo. 

The fact of the matter, though, is that in the eyes of an every game observer the Canucks most glaring deficiency is a lack of killer instinct.  Quite simply, the Canucks are exceedingly profligate when it comes to burying chances to put teams away.

The rise and fall of Alexander Edler?

At around this point last year, media in Vancouver were trumpeting the rise to prominence of Alexander Edler. 

Most lauded his putative status as a gem unearthed by Canucks European scout Thomas Gradin.  Nearly all extolled his virtues as a much needed mobile, puck-moving defenceman.

In early October, Edler was rewarded for the promise he showed last season with a new, four-year contract worth around $3.25 million per season, which is due to kick in next season.  A move, I might add, that I applauded at the time.

At the risk of being perceived as capricious with my analysis, given that less than two months have gone by,  I think it’s worth pointing out that Edler has been tremendously disappointing this season.

Before proceeding further, I want to make clear that the impetus for this post is most certainly not last night’s third period gaffe by Edler that led to the game-winning goal by Curtis Glencross.  Sure, it was a terrible play.  But any hockey fan worth his/her salt knows that young defencemen are, above all, prone to such lapses in judgment.

Truth be told, I have become increasingly sceptical of Edler as the season has carried on.  Moreover, I think that the evidence of a decline in his play near the end of last season has become even more remarkable after the first quarter of this one.

Edler’s mobility is undoubtedly impressive.  He is blessed with remarkable size for someone with his skating ability.  And he can certainly shoot the puck.

Edler’s primary and glaring deficiency is hockey sense.  Seldom is there another Canucks defenceman who makes as many head-scratching decisions, particularly in his own end of the rink, as Edler does. 

For a defenceman, this is a problem that can be especially acute from the standpoint of your average armchair analyst.  Of course, it is not a unique one among NHL defencemen.  Except that those who are particularly prone to poor decisions in their own end of the rink tend to mitigate this with significant offensive production. 

Edler, though, has one goal and six assists, seven points in 21 games.  This puts him at about 73rd overall among NHL defencemen.  Not altogether impotent, I’ll admit, but also not entirely considerable in terms of potency.  Put another way, no one is going to mistake Edler for Mike Green, Brian Campbell or even Joe Corvo.  To put the point more starkly, perhaps, his production-to-date lags behind teammate Willie Mitchell.

For Edler to be an effective defenceman in the NHL, he either needs to be a lot more productive or to shore up his defensive zone play considerably.

Gimme some Juice

bieksa_b1

TSN is confirming speculation that Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa will return to the lineup tonight against Calgary.

‘Juice’ hasn’t played since he was injured two weeks ago against Nashville.

Prior to the injury, Bieksa led Canucks defencemen in scoring and was arguably playing his best hockey since 2006/2007.

Big red

Apropos of my previous post on the matter, I expect Cory Schneider to play either tonight or Saturday in the home-and-home series against Calgary.

If I had to bet, I gather that Alain Vigneault would prefer Schneider to play his first game on the road (if for no other reason than to mitigate the local scrutiny).  If that is correct, Schneider is likely to play on Saturday night at the Saddledome Library.

Truth be told, I hold out some concern that Curtis Sanford’s excellent play in Roberto Luongo’s absence might invite consideration that he should get a long run of games in while he can.  Once Luongo returns healthy, Sanford will inevitably return to seeing the ice from behind his teammates on the bench. 

Whatever the merits of playing Sanford, I fear that if the Canucks don’t seize this opportunity to evaluate Schneider meaningfully at the NHL level (i.e. over a period of games and not spot-duty) the decision-making process surrounding what to do once Luongo makes his decision about whether to stay in Vancouver will be woefully inadequate.  In other words, the Canucks simply won’t know what they have on their hands (in terms of either a movable asset or a starting goalie).

It is imperative that the Canucks think long-term in the present circumstances. 

However, this should not be mistaken as sacrificing the immediate future.  To begin with, I find it dubious to assume that Schneider would offer a significant downgrade from Sanford.  Moreover, it is entirely possible for Schneider to get a few games in and if he falters replace him with Sanford. 

Ultimately, the Canucks coaching staff and management has to appreciate that they have a highly regarded prospect with an impressive record of achievement waiting in the wings. 

Making Schneider sit on the bench when a workhorse like Luongo is out for an extended period would be detrimental to both Schneider’s development and the organization’s talent management.

The implications of the injury at the Igloo

First off, my apologies to anyone who actually reads this blog on a regular basis for the recent inactivity at Vancouver Viewpoint.  A busy week at work combined with an even busier week after work resulted in me not being around the computer much.

With that said, let’s get down to brass tacks.  The injury to Roberto Luongo in yesterday’s otherwise impressive 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Less than five minutes into the game, Luongo went down to make a routine save and seemed to injure his groin when he kicked out his left leg.  Whatever the case, it was clear he was in a lot of pain.

And Canucks fans let out a collective gasp of worry.

cory-moose-revisedWhile neither the extent nor the duration of the injury is clear at this point, the Canucks did recall Cory Schneider from Manitoba.  That means Luongo will be out of commission for at least the next game against the Detroit Red Wings.

Let’s assume, for the sake of a thought experiment, that Luongo is out for a few games.  There are two ways for Canucks fans to look at the situation and two ways for the Canucks coaching staff to deal with it.

From the fan’s perspective, the Luongo injury could be viewed as either an unmitigated disaster and crippling blow to the team’s fortunes or an opportunity to assess the progress of the team’s blue chip-prospect.  (As an aside, Schneider has played tremendously in Manitoba, going back to about the mid-point of last season.)

As for the coaching staff, either backup Curtis Sanford is given the opportunity to get a run of games in or Schneider is provided with an opportunity to prove his mettle in the NHL.

The way I see it, if Luongo is going to miss any more than three games, Schneider needs to play as many games as possible.  Though it is obviously not what Sanford would want (nor what he thinks he deserves, under the circumstances), the Canucks need to see what Schneider can do at this level.  He has excelled at every level he has played (college, international hockey, and the American Hockey League) so there is not much more he can prove.  More importantly, the Canucks face a situation where Luongo is due to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season.  If he does not re-sign before the start of next season, it could be an indication that he has intentions to leave.  And, if that is indeed the case, the Canucks will be turning to Schneider to be the number one.  If he does re-sign long-term, then Schneider would have to be moved.  Evidence of capability at the NHL level (coupled with his sterling play at all other levels) would make Schneider a highly valuable asset in any trade.

So, the injury situation may not be as bad as it might seem, after all.  Opportunity knocks, as they say.