It’s remarkably easy for Canucks fans to fall into pessimism: 40 years of futility will do that to a fanbase. Optimism goes against the grain in Vancouver. So, instead of being unreasonably optimistic in the same way that Harrison was unreasonably pessimistic yesterday, I am going to be reasonably optimistic, because it seems like Canucks fans need some reasons to look forward to this year instead of pie-in-the-sky dreams of rainbows and unicorns.
Here’s the thing: are the Canucks going to be as good as they were last year? No. They’re going to be marginally worse, thanks to the departure of Christian Ehrhoff and some injuries to start the season. But what does that mean for this season’s Canucks team?
The 2011-12 Canucks are going to be slightly worse than the team that won the Presidents Trophy, led the league in goals, goals allowed, powerplay percentage, and were second in penalty kill percentage. They’re going to be a bit worse than the team that went all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and were stopped by a goaltender having, arguably, the greatest season in NHL history. They’re going to be a fraction worse than the team that had arguably the best regular season in the modern NHL.
Last season, it wasn’t even close: the Canucks were the best team by a landslide. They won the Presidents Trophy by 10 points, winning 5 more games than the next best team. Being a little bit worse than that team means that the Canucks are still very, very good and will be at or near the top of the Western Conference all season.
The Canucks led the NHL in goals last season, with Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler leading the way. The injuries to Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond are certainly regrettable, but with Kesler already cleared for contact in practice, the time missed will be negligible for the Selke winner. Raymond is another story, but the Canucks have a multitude of wingers who can fill his role.
Here’s the list of players who could play on the second line this season: Cody Hodgson, Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, Chris Higgins, and Jannik Hansen, as well as prospects Darren Archibald, Jordan Schroeder, and Bill Sweatt. Most teams would kill to have that kind of skilled depth in their forwards.
Thomas Drance has projected that the Canucks will score 247 goals this season, which is certainly a regression, but one that keeps the Canucks near the top of the league in goals.
As for the Sedins, no one thought that they could repeat the incredible season they had in 2009-10, as Henrik won the Art Ross and Hart trophies. They were right: Daniel won the Art Ross instead and picked up the Ted Lindsay Award. The twins have put together two incredible seasons in a row and it would be foolish of me to doubt them this season. Henrik saw his shooting percentage drop by over 5% from 2009-10 to 2010-11, and he still tallied 19 goals. Even a modest increase in his shooting percentage will bump his goal total up.
As for offense from the blue line, there is room for increased offensive contributions from Alex Edler and Keith Ballard. Edler. The future is bright for Edler in particular, who was on pace for a 50+ point season before his injury last season. Also, Sami Salo will play more than 27 games this season. I’m not saying he’ll be injury free and play all 82 games, but he will be healthy to start the season and his massive shot from the blueline will be a big weapon.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Canucks have added another defensively responsible center to the forward corps in Maxim Lapierre, who was able to play a role similar to Manny Malhotra in the playoffs. When Kesler does return, he will have even less defensive responsibility than he did last season. While he won’t top 41 goals thanks to his injury, he will be used in primarily an offensive role, which should lead to very respectable point totals. And with the addition of Marco Sturm and the potential emergence of Cody Hodgson, he may not have to carry the burden of secondary scoring on his own.
Despite what we might say about Raffi Torres, the departure of Christian Ehrhoff was the only significant change to the Canucks lineup from last season. But his departure is far more significant a loss on the offensive side of the ice than the defensive side. Ehrhoff had the highest offensive zone start percentage of any defenceman on the Canucks last season and was frequently questionable in the defensive zone.
Meanwhile, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis combined to become one of the more formidable defensive duos in the NHL, giving the Canucks a pairing that could be relied on to play against the toughest competition the opposition had to offer, while allowing the other defence pairings to more free rein to contribute offensively.
Both players missed time with injuries, Hamhuis to the first major injury of his entire career. A full healthy season from both of them gives the Canucks an opportunity to actually improve on their league leading fewest goals allowed from last season.
The Canucks third pairing will be Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev to start the year, a pairing that had a lot of success together last season. Add in the impressive depth of Andrew Alberts, Aaron Rome, and Alexander Sulzer, as well as prospects Yann Sauve and Sebastian Erixon and the Canucks have a lot of depth on the back end.
As for the contribution from the forwards, the checking line has added Chris Higgins, a far more reliable and defensively responsible player than Raffi Torres. The trio of Higgins, Malhotra, and Hansen is one of the best checking lines in the NHL. There is no reason that the Canucks will allow more goals than last season.
Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider are the best 1-2 punch in the NHL, though an argument could be made for Boston’s Tim Thomas and Tuuka Rask. Luongo and Schneider won the William Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed last season and individually put up nearly identical numbers. Nearly identical superb numbers.
The two goalies were third and fourth in save percentage last season and second and fifth in goals against average. Even better, they were second and third in even-strength save percentage, which is generally considered to be a more accurate representation of a goaltender’s skill.
Most teams would kill to have one of the best goaltenders in the league. The Canucks have two.
If there’s any concern about the Canucks powerplay, there shouldn’t be. When injuries knocked Edler off the top unit, Samuelsson filled in admirably. In fact, the Canucks powerplay percentage improved. Add in a few more games from Sami Salo and the addition of a legitimate playmaker in Cody Hodgson to the second unit, and the powerplay could potentially be more effective than last season.
Anyone who doubts Alex Burrows’ ability to play on the first unit with the twins doesn’t watch the Canucks play. Burrows has fantastic chemistry with the Sedins and the ability to create havoc in front of the net. While he doesn’t boast the shot of Kesler, he has great offensive instincts and passes the puck extremely well. And while Kesler may take some time to get back in gear once he returns to the lineup, the powerplay will be the one area where that won’t be a concern.
As for the penalty kill, the Canucks have actually improved their penalty killing corps, adding Maxim Lapierre. That means the Canucks have three centers who win faceoffs at better than 50%. They’ll be paired with great defensive players like Burrows, Hansen, Higgins, Sturm, and, once he’s healthy, Raymond.
Add in the Canucks great depth on defence and fantastic goaltending and the Canucks will once again have one of the best penalty kills in the NHL.
Alain Vigneault gets a lot of undeserved hate from Canucks fans who seem to think he plays favourites, doesn’t know how to develop prospects, and doesn’t use his skilled players effectively. But let’s look at the facts. Like Thomas Drance advised us this morning, let’s look at the numbers instead of making a biased judgement based on our point of view.
Under Vigneault’s coaching, the Canucks have won the Northwest Division 4 out of 5 seasons. They’ve finished with 100 or more points in 4 out of 5 seasons. They have consistently had one of the league’s most dangerous powerplays and most effective penalty kills. They’ve won a Presidents’ Trophy. They have gone to the Stanley Cup Final. He’s won a Jack Adams award and been nominated for another.
As crazy as it may seem, Alain Vigneault is a good coach. The results speak for themselves.
As for Mike Gillis, he has shown remarkable patience and good sense, refusing to overpay for free agents and taking calculated risks on players with excellent potential. He has re-signed players to below market value contracts. He is innovative, intelligent, and reasonable and is arguably the best General Manager the Canucks have ever had. There’s a reason he was named the NHL’s General Manager of the Year.
The Canucks are a very good team that will be in the hunt for first place in the Western Conference all season long. Even if they don’t win the Conference, they’ll be a top seed heading into the playoffs. Why?
The main thing to keep in mind is that the Northwest Division is terrible. Really, really terrible. While every team in the division (except for the Canucks) believes they are better than last year, Edmonton still has no defence, Calgary still has no centers, Colorado still has no experience, and Minnesota still has no identity.
While Calgary might squeak into the playoffs this season and Minnesota has the potential to out-perform expectations, they won’t be in the mix to win the division. And while some other teams in the West might be said to have improved, particularly the Sharks and Kings, the Canucks still compare favourably to them.
Finally, with the amount of pessimism flying around BC, the weight of expectation is off the Canucks. Last year, the fans and media were all but anointing the Canucks the Stanley Cup Champions before opening night. Remarkably, they managed to perform extremely well under those kinds of pressures, partly thanks to the effort from coaching and management at keeping the team on an even keel. Without those expectations, the Canucks can simply perform.
With the Stanley Cup Final hangover, the injuries, and the loss of Ehrhoff, a lot of people are dismissing the Canucks, suggesting that they won’t even get out of the first round of the playoffs. Won’t it be a pleasant surprise, then, when they do? Won’t it be thrilling when they go back to the Western Conference Final? Won’t it be incredible when they return to the Stanley Cup Final?
Me, I’m not worried. I’m excited. Hockey is back.
Go Canucks go.Tags: Canucks, featured, Optimism, Season Preview