Mikael Samuelsson easily dispensed with the low expectations he rode in on after signing a three-year, $2.75 million deal to come to Vancouver. He tallied a career-high 30 goals and 53 points in his first year as a Canuck, not to mention another 7 in 6 games in the first round of the 09-10 playoffs. Here was a player projected to bust and bust hard , and he had instead proven to be one of the savviest signings of Mike Gillis’s career as a general manager.
As a result, expectations for Mikael Samuelsson’s second season with the team were sky-high, and this time, he failed to meet them. Even though he reached the 50-point plateau again, registering only three points fewer than the season prior, the 12-goal regression stood out to fans like a sore thumb, and Samuelsson’s season was viewed as a disappointment.
Much of the ill will towards the Swedish winger came from the sudden diminishment of his skating ability last year, and the perception that he had either lost a step or lost motivation. That said, I don’t think we quite understood the abdominal injury he was attempting to play through. Sports hernias are painful muscle tears in the core area that cause severe discomfort to hockey players when skating or battling in corners. If Samuelsson looked a step slow, it’s because he played an entire season with this pain.
Consider that newcomer Byron Bitz didn’t play a single game in 2010-11 because he was sidelined with the same injury. While Samuelsson was still able to play, he simply wasn’t able to play at the same level. Bearing in mind that he still almost put up the same point totals, there’s cause to be a little more impressed than most were with his season.
By the playoffs, fans had gotten so used to a plodding Mikael Samuelsson that they had forgotten how important a healthy Samuelsson was to the team’s success. In game 5 of the Canucks’ series with the Nashville Predators, when a puck battle with Nick Spaling exacerbated the tear, the sight of Samuelsson sprawled on the ice was met with a collective shrug.
When Iain MacIntyre suggested two days ago that a healthy Samuelsson could have made the difference in the Final, it seemed like an almost novel opinion. Most people had pointed to Mason Raymond and Dan Hamhuis as the great losses but, when you think of what cost the Canucks — a lack of composure and an ability to get pucks past Tim Thomas, especially on the powerplay — composed, experienced, powerplay-quarterbacking, trigger-happy Samuelsson was a pretty substantial loss.
People don’t quite understand the role Mikael Samuelsson plays for the Canucks. He’s a wild card, and while the phrase “wild card” often conjures up the image of something unpredictable and unstable, that’s not the picture I’m trying to paint. Granted, Samuelsson is markedly unpredictable; he shoots or holds when others would pass, and passes or holds when others would shoot. But, when I say “wild card”, I mean in the Crazy Eights sense where, without one, you’re going to have a Hell of a time winning a round. As constructed, the Canucks rely heavily on Mikael Samuelsson to make the team complete. Samuelsson is perhaps the most versatile player the Canucks employ. At even-strength, he can play anywhere from the first to the fourth line, and he can generate offense regardless of where he is.
Alain Vigneault, who has gone on record as saying that he works primarily in pairs, capitalizes on Samuelsson’s versatility in a big way. From Daniel and Henrik to Kesler and Raymond to Malhotra and Torres, Vigneault built his top three units last season around three duos, then used a stable of alternates (Samuelsson and Hansen, usually, Alex Burrows occasionally) to flesh out the lines. If the duos began to falter, it was often the alternate that got shuffled somewhere else, just to change things up. The Sedins are the best example of this, as a string of bad shifts with Alex Burrows often necessitated a quick turn or two with Mikael Samuelsson.
In order for a system like this to work, you have to have a few quality alternates — guys that won’t take it personally or complain when shuttled around the lineup with impunity, and guys that will mesh strongly with whomever they’re deployed. In this sense, Samuelsson is vital. He scored 13 even-strength goals last season: 3 on the first line, 5 on the second line, 2 on the third line, and 3 on the fourth line. Contrast him with a player like Raffi Torres, who really only had success when playing with Manny Malhotra. It’s impossible to roll three or four lines without guys like Samuelsson.
But Samuelsson isn’t just a valuable piece at even-strength. He’s also incredibly helpful on special teams. When Alex Edler went down last season with a back injury, Samuelsson was promoted to the top unit, and he didn’t disappoint. When Alex Edler returned to the lineup, Samuelsson remained on the powerplay. While fans were baffled by the Canucks’ bullishness on this issue, Newell Brown explained that the unit actually had a higher conversion rate with Samuelsson. Now, with Christian Ehrhoff departed to Buffalo, Edler and Samuelsson will likely find themselves sharing the back end this season.
And while Samuelsson doesn’t kill penalties, he does allow Alex Burrows — the Canucks’ best penalty killer — to do exactly that without forcing the Sedins to miss a shift while Burrows catches his breath. After almost every penalty, Daniel and Henrik come over the boards with Mikael Samuelsson, fresh as a daisy, often successfully wresting the momentum away from their opponents in the process. This is an important shift, and without Samuelsson, it doesn’t happen. It didn’t happen during the Final, either, as Alain Vigneault ran out of wingers for the second line proper, let alone alternates for the Sedins.
Finally, there’s the mental aspect. Physically incapable of violence though Samuelsson may be, he’s also a huge part of the Canucks’ mental toughness. When the Swede was declared done for the season, Kevin Bieksa told a humorous story about Samuelsson’s insistence, upon arriving from Detroit, that the team play more composed. “Mikael Samuelsson was the first person to say, ‘Let’s go whistle to whistle. Let’s stay off the refs,’” Bieksa said. “At first we kind of teased him. ‘Whistle to whistle…? We’re not a whistle to whistle team.’” Considering how the Canucks’ abandoned this advice and wound up back on the refs’ bad side in the Final, one wonders if they missed Samuelsson’s leadership as much as his play.
Samuelsson has now fully recovered from the surgical procedure he underwent to repair the tear. When asked by Iain MacIntyre how he felt now, Samuelsson said he felt stiff. “Every time you step on the ice after summer, you feel stiff,” Samuelsson said. “And that’s what I feel now. It doesn’t feel different from the other years. That’s a good sign. I actually feel stronger in the area I had surgery on.” Stiffness we can work with. Severe abdominal pain? Not so much.
Canuck fans should have been excited by MacIntyre’s report, but I don’t think we quite remember anymore what Mikael Samuelsson actually is for this team. Here’s hoping a healthy season from the feisty Swede will jog our memories.
Tags: featured, Mikael McShooterson, perspective, Samuelsson