Mikael Samuelsson, strangling a leg.

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.

 

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21 comments

  1. Thalia
    September 1, 2011

    I’m so glad Sammy’s back! I’m sure he’ll have a great season now that he’s been fixed up. :)

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  2. J21
    September 1, 2011

    Good writeup. Intuitively, I feel that for the exact same money, if Samuelsson had had the same statistical season in his first year with the Canucks that he had last year, fans would have been pretty happy with the signing. A 50-point UFA! Whoo!

    Expectations are a funny thing.

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  3. JM
    September 1, 2011

    I think you meant “conversion rate”, but if not, it’s nice to know they’re communicating more out there with Samuelsson on the ice :)

    Great article though, and I agree that his role on the team isn’t widely understood, and could have been pivotal in the final if he were healthy.

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    • Harrison Mooney
      September 1, 2011

      Ha! Thanks for pointing this out. My friggin’ new computer has this thing where it replaces words if they’re misspelled rather than just underlining them in red. It’s a huge pain in the ass and I need to figure out how to turn it off.

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  4. anon
    September 1, 2011

    Has Wagner stopped posting? I noticed the last eight were by Puck Daddy’s newest associate editor. Professional jealousy is ugly — it’s what killed Simon & Garfunkle. I’ll let you two decide who’s who.

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    • Daniel Wagner
      September 1, 2011

      So I don’t post something for 5 days and it’s a story? Nice to know I’ve been missed.

      In reality, I’m in the midst of quitting from my job at one of our busiest times of the year. I’ll have a post or two up soon on the camp invitees, then next week I’ll have quit my job and will have more time for blogging.

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    • Harrison Mooney
      September 1, 2011

      Dibs on Garfunkel! He had way better hair.

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  5. Nero
    September 1, 2011

    Personally for me his many brutal defensive screw-ups and giveaways in his own zone that kinda lowered my standards for me. I understand his offensive value, but those giveaways were absolutely terrible.

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  6. Johnny b Goode
    September 1, 2011

    Nero has a good point. I remember Samuelsson’s unconventional decision-making to be great north of centre ice, but often disastrous on the breakout. He creates chances by going against the flow of play, but it resulted in about as many broken plays as opportunities.

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  7. John Andress
    September 1, 2011

    Great post. I have admired Mikael Samuelsson since his arrival and hope that he has a bounce back season following his injuries. His importance to this team is self-evident and he personifies the Red Wing values that GMMG seems to be trying to re-create in the Canucks organization. I look for aa great seaon from Mikael and the Canucks.

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  8. ricardinho
    September 1, 2011

    big ups Poochie

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  9. Noodle
    September 1, 2011

    Good post. I’ll own up to being one of those that forgot why FU Sweden is so valuable to the team. 09-10 seems like such a long time ago. Hopefully his versatility can help us in the early weeks while we try and cover the Kesler and Raymond shaped holes on the second line.

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  10. ricardinho
    September 1, 2011

    one slight oversight, should read

    While fans were baffled by the Canucks’ bulisness on this issue, Newell Brown explained that……

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  11. TubaNat
    September 1, 2011

    I just love the opening picture, reminds me of the scene at the end of Fargo:

    http://images.wikia.com/wikiality/images/f/fc/FargoStormareWoodChipper.jpg

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  12. Zach Morris
    September 1, 2011

    http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/nhl/blog/puck_daddy/post/Hockey-Guilty-Pleasures-Harrison-Mooney-edition?urn=nhl-wp11637#remaining-content

    Congrats on your new gig!
    Does this mean you’ll be leaving PITB?! D:

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    • Daniel Wagner
      September 1, 2011

      Harrison isn’t going anywhere. Well, he’s going places, but in more of a metaphorical sense. He’s joined the PD team, but he and I are still running PITB for all your Canucks blogging needs.

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      • Harrison Mooney
        September 1, 2011

        This is correct.

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      • J21
        September 2, 2011

        Rift!

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  13. The Bookie
    September 2, 2011

    Oh, I’m late to the party!

    Can we please do a Mikael Samuelsson Strangling A ______ thing, pretty please?

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    • Harrison Mooney
      September 2, 2011

      I would never, never, never, turn down a good photoshop.

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  14. Eric Blacha
    September 2, 2011

    Thanks for writing this. No one seemed to care when he went down, but this shows how important he is.

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