Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows celebrate as gently as possible.
Vancouver hockey fans rarely reach a consensus on anything, but I think we all agree that the Canucks looked unmotivated and disinterested on Monday night in Minnesota.
It was the Canucks’ 7th loss in 10 games, leading the cynics — who see everything as a conspiracy (including the rhetoric of any suspected non-cynics) — to freak. Some called for Alain Vigneault’s head once again, claiming the team had tuned him out, that his time here was done, and that the team should fire their coach 10 games from the postseason.
Level-headed thinking is not the strong suit of this pocket of Canuck nation.
But these folks have a point: if we’re assuming that Alain Vigneault is trying to wring the best and most hard-working performances out of his team — a reasonable assumption — he’s failing miserably these days. After the loss to the Wild, Canucks Army observed that, while the Canucks had 33 shots on goal, they only had 9 scoring chances. Against one of the NHL’s thinnest defense corps, it’s difficult to be that offensively inept. It’s as though the Canucks were actively trying to remain on the perimeter.
But maybe they were. Do you know what players are less likely to sustain on the perimeter? Season-ending injuries. (Unless Johnny Boychuk’s around, amirite?)
Let’s be clear about something: the Canucks are going to finish second in the West. According to Sportsclubstats.com, the team has a 91% chance of wind up there, and an 8% chance of finishing first. (That should mean a 1% chance of finishing anywhere else, but considering these numbers have been rounded down, that chance is actually closer to zero.) In short, were Vancouver to put everything they had into the final 10 games, they would likely accomplish nothing, apart from thinning the reserves of healthy bodies available for a first-round matchup against the 7th seed.
The team is fully aware of how meaningless these games are. As Mike Gillis suggested two weeks ago, the Canucks are considering resting their players down the stretch. Purposefully icing an inferior lineup is, of course, one of those things you do when you don’t give a crap about winning.
Some have argued that the Canucks should be working to chase down the Blues, who have a fabulous record at home, but Vancouver will only see St. Louis if both teams make it through two gruelling rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. That’s hardly a guarantee. The top two seeds have met in a Conference Final just 5 out of 20 times in the last 10 years. Plus, even if it happens, among the many lessons the Canucks learned in last year’s playoffs, especially the Stanley Cup Final, having healthy bodies beats having home ice advantage.
But that’s not to say the Canucks are throwing games, because they’re not. The team is still going out in pursuit of a win, they’re just not willing to sacrifice their bodies to do it.
Canuck forwards had a grand total of zero blocked shots against the Wild. Considering Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis appear to have been accidentally hit by three pucks apiece, a game in which no forwards get in the way of a shot from the opposition should raise an eyebrow. Considering it’s the second time in three games that this has occurred — it happened versus Phoenix as well — it’s worth looking at.
Frankly, after David Backes nearly broke his foot blocking a shot against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and after Chris Higgins did break his foot blocking a shot last postseason versus the Nashville Predators, and after Ryan Johnson broke his feet about fifty times during his tenure in Vancouver, you can see why the team might be unwilling to block shots right now. All season long, the Canucks have gone out of their way to stockpile depth players for the playoffs. It seems pretty stupid to start dipping into the reserves before the games even matter, doesn’t it? That’s like eating the canned goods in the fallout shelter.
It’s not just blocked shots, though. The Canucks are shying away from contact wherever possible. We saw Ryan Kesler dodge a shoulder-to-shoulder hit with Cal Clutterbuck on Monday, for instance. But it was an odd sight. Kesler was the one coming in with speed; that was his hit. Have you ever — seriously, ever in your life — seen Kesler bail on a check? Apart from his ongoing ab-off with Chris Higgins, this guy has zero regard for his body.
The Canucks are merely running out the string, making sure that everyone’s healthy and getting the players comfortable with the different player combinations they’ll have to resort to once everyone’s not.
(Obviously, without a quote here, all of this is pure speculation, but that is, of course, how the Canucks would prefer to keep it. No one within the organization is going to go on the record as saying the team has placed avoidance of injury ahead of winning hockey games on the priority scale. But I can tell you that someone told me off the record. So there’s that.)
That’s the other thing. Rest easy, torch-wieling mob on your way to Mason Raymond’s house: the line juggling that Alain Vigneault is doing is indicative of nothing. He’s not an idiot. He knows full well that Ryan Kesler’s best linemates are Chris Higgins and David Booth. But he needs to get Raymond going now while it doesn’t matter all that much that he’s not. And can he count on having all three members of the American Express line making it through the playoffs intact? Of course not, which is why now is a good time to try out the alternate line combinations he’ll no doubt have to resort to in April and, hopefully, May and June.
The same can be said for the blueline. We all remember the Stanley Cup Final and the complete disarray the pairings found themselves in after Dan Hamhuis got hurt. Kevin Bieksa hardly played with anyone else in 2011, and it showed. He looked out of sorts with Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts, he looked lost with Alex Edler, and he looked hopelessly lost with Keith Ballard. If Hamhuis gets injured again, even for a game, the Canucks can’t risk one of their top defenders playing the whole game from the woods.
Now, I’ve disagreed with some of the Canucks’ outside-the-box thinking in the past. I maintain, for instance, that making roster decisions based on contract flexibility rather than merit is unfair, and I didn’t like the way the Canucks took advantage of player try-out contracts to beat the veteran minimum in the preseason. I’m even on the fence about this move — effectively encouraging the players to play lazy hockey for an entire month seems like a good way to instil negative habits.
But, while these schemes are sketchy, there’s no arguing that they’re wise strategies if the primary goal is to ensure that the team has fresher players and more of them come April.
I wouldn’t get too concerned about the way the Canucks are playing. You may think they don’t look ready for the playoffs, but the fact that they’re still healthy says otherwise.Tags: being reasonable, Canucks, fire everyone, fire vigneault, Flip the pool, i have sources okay, mailing it in, there are some stupid people in the Canucks fanbase, Wild Speculation