The Canucks finished their season-opening three-game homestand on Wednesday night with a 3-2 shootout win over the visiting Calgary Flames. This “victory” occurred after blowing a two-goal lead against the visitors from the other side of the Rockies, which is exactly what happened last Sunday as well against the young guns from Edmonton. On Wednesday night, Cory Schneider backstopped the Canucks to a win in the shootout, and goals from Alex Burrows and Zack Kassian, the latter an absolute masterpiece, were enough to get the Canucks the extra point.
These games were big improvements over the season-opening debacle at Rogers Arena, when the Anaheim Ducks rolled into town and chased starter Schneider enroute to an embarrassing 7-3 loss.
What can we glean from the Canucks’ opening homestand?
THE SEASON IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Given the circumstances around this season, I wasn’t expecting much from the Canucks over the first 10 games. There are a number of factors at play here: the long layoff for most of the team; key players out with injuries; other key players returning to health just prior to the season; the shortened training camp; the lack of a preseason; the ongoing Luongo situation; and the fact that very few Canucks chose to play overseas. All of these factors add up to the fact that frankly, the team has a LOT of rust – and it shows.
The defense has looked slow and indecisive with the puck. Kevin Bieksa, who at the best of times plays with an air of nonchalance, hasn’t made decisions with the puck as sharply as he normally does. Dan Hamhuis, typically a rock defensively, had a rough opening weekend as well. Newly minted $5 million man, Alex Edler, has struggled to adapt to playing on the right side in his new pairing with offseason free-agent signing Jason Garrison. The bottom pairing of rookie Chris Tanev and Keith Ballard has actually been reasonably dependable in limited minutes, which may be attributable to the fact that Tanev was playing top-pairing minutes in the AHL.
Up front, things have been more shaky. The team has struggled offensively, both at even strength and on the power play. That said, the Sedin twins are still producing points, with six points between them in the three games. However, they have struggled to dominate their opposition with the regularity we have become accustomed to over the past number of years.
After the top line, the forwards have been bit of a mess. The loss of Ryan Kesler and David Booth to injury has decimated what would normally be the team’s second line, which prompted the team to debut rookie centre Jordan Schroeder against the Flames (and who had a relatively strong night). The team has scored only seven goals in its three games, with forwards only accounting for four.
More concerning is the team’s defensive play, which I would rate as going from abhorrent to passable over these first three games. Defensive zone coverage was a major problem in the Anaheim game, resulting in a number of Grade A scoring chances against, most of which wound up in the net.
This all said, none of these issues are overly concerning. The team needs some time to gel and come together. Of the players on the roster, only six played any significant hockey prior to the end of the lockout – one of the lowest totals in the league. In my view, this team is still playing preseason hockey, getting the cobwebs out of their equipment. Once they get into better game shape, both mentally and physically, they should be able to return to playing a more familiar style of hockey, especially once their injured players return. Until that time, expect the team to tread water in the standing.
There have been a couple of bright spots in the season thus far. One must be nothing less than encouraged by the apparent development of Zack Kassian. Kassian was one of the Canucks who has played all season, playing on the top line in Chicago. Reports on Kassian out of the AHL club centered around a lack of consistency, but based on his play thus far in the NHL, Kassian is ready to contribute at this level. He has scored twice in the three games, has been put on the top line alongside the Sedin twins, beat Edmonton tough guy Ben Eager in a fight, has provided a physical presence that has often been lacking, and scored an absolute stunner of a goal to win the shootout against the Flames (I believe Miikka Kiprusoff is still retrieving his equipment from the corner).
Another player who spent the lockout playing hockey was fourth-liner Dale Weise. Weise is oft-maligned in social media, however, I see Weise as a young, physical player who can skate (which makes him effective on the forecheck) and who has exhibited a good work ethic. Weise spent the lockout in the lower-tier Dutch hockey league, where he tallied 48 points in only 19 games. Weise has carried the confidence that comes with scoring at an almost 2.5 points per game clip back to Vancouver, and it shows. Weise was one of the team’s best forwards in the Edmonton game and had a couple great chances in the Calgary game as well. Hopefully Alain Vigneault continues to give Weise an opportunity to show what he is capable of, because I think he’s got a lot more to give than he was able to show in his 6 minutes per night last season.
AREAS OF CONCERN – IF THESE DON’T IMPROVE, THIS WILL BE A LONG SEASON
While the team needs some time to come together, and there have been a couple of bright spots, there are a few concerning trends that need to be righted in order for this team to reach its potential.
Firstly, the Canucks’ special teams have generally been atrocious. While the power play is 3 for 13 (23% – good enough to be best in the league over the course of a season), it really has failed to deliver in a couple of key moments – score tied, third period, in each of the games against Edmonton and Calgary. Last season, this was a trend that began approximately 40% of the way into the season, after which the Canucks’ power play converted at a pedestrian 14.5% rate. Garrison, a weapon who was acquired in part due to his cannon of a point-shot, hasn’t been utilized well thus far. Bottom line: the Canucks need to get their power play going if they are going to see success.
The penalty kill is also an area of concern. The team has been in the upper echelon of the league in recent years in killing penalties. So far this year, the team has given up 5 goals on 12 penalty kills. Again, this is small sample size, and most of the damage was done in the first game against Anaheim, but this is an area of concern moving forward.
The biggest area of concern, however, is an intangible – just the appearance of a laissez-faire, nonchalant attitude. This team has won so much in the past few seasons, it seems that a malaise has set into the team. In my view, this began with the Stanley Cup Final loss to Boston; and while the team started last season well, the second half (and through their playoff ouster against the eventual Cup champs) was abysmal. At the time, it was put down to mental and physical drain after the long Cup run the previous season. One goal games, games won in overtime or a shootout, games won only through the team’s strength of goaltending, a lack of secondary scoring, and a general air of indifference on a nightly basis typified the team’s performances.
In my last blog of 2012, I wrote the following:
“The spectacular nature in which the Canucks lost this game, and the series, was a fitting end to their season. For most of the year, the team played with a certain air of indifference, presumably saving themselves for the playoffs. However, once the playoffs arrived, they were not up to the task, especially when their backs were against the wall…”
What’s concerning is that the team, thus far, appears to be playing with the same aura as it had during the second half last year. This Canucks team never used to blow two-goal leads, especially at home. It sounds funny to describe a team that finished the regular season with the most points in the league this way, but it was almost as if they knew they didn’t have to try their best in order to win, so they didn’t bother. And when the playoffs came, they clearly couldn’t turn it up until it was too late.
So, this is what we’re left with: Can the 2013 edition of the Vancouver Canucks get their “mojo” back? Can they return to playing with the flair and panache that we know they have inside of them? Can they beat teams by more than one goal, in regulation time, on a regular basis? It’s all up to the players in the dressing room.
To borrow the words of Dennis Green: Are they what we think they are? The great thing about sports is that eventually, over time, we will find out.