Well, thank heaven that’s over. I don’t know about you, but I found the NHL lockout absolutely excruciating. It’s a relief to be able to write about actual hockey-related things on this hockey-related blog.
Speaking of which, there are a whole bunch of hockey-related things that are going to be happening in the next little while. As soon as the NHL’s fancy new CBA gets ratified by the players, training camps will kick off and last for a week or less. Then the season will start. That’s not a lot of time and it’s likely that a metric whackload of stories will happen in a very short span of time.
To get you prepared for all of the craziness that’s about to ensue, here are 6 storylines to watch for at Canucks training camp.
1 | Who the heck is going to centre the second line?
Just how injured is Ryan Kesler? It’s hard to tell, but it seems certain he won’t be ready for the start of the season. That means the Canucks have a conundrum at the core of their second line.
Jordan Schroeder seemed to have the inside track on the job at the start of the season and it’s possible he still does. He is scoring at a slightly higher pace than his previous seasons in the AHL and he has been praised for his attention to the defensive side of the ice. That said, he’s still just 5’9″ and has yet to play a single game in the NHL. It’s frightening to consider the Canucks relying on Schroeder long-term if Kesler is indeed out for as long as his agent thinks he will be.
Another short-term option might be Andrew Ebbett, who has more points with the Wolves than Schroeder. Ebbett has shown tremendous versatility with the Canucks and could fill in temporarily on the second line, but he isn’t a long-term solution, even if he did manage 32 points in 48 games with the Anaheim Ducks in 2008-09. He is solid on faceoffs, however, and would at least be a stop gap until a better solution is found.
There has been talk of Chris Higgins moving over from the wing to play centre on the second line. Higgins was drafted as a centre and has played the position from time-to-time in the NHL. He is defensively responsible and drives possession fairly well, but doesn’t seem like the ideal fit at centre. His style of play just seems to translate better to the wing. That said, if he moves over that opens up a spot on the wing for Zack Kassian, whose playmaking ability might fill in for Higgins’ deficiency in that area.
It’s possible that a free agent might be the best solution, in which case Jason Arnott could fit the bill. While he’s lost a step, he still has a little scoring punch left and could be a good fit on the powerplay.
For a real long shot, how about Jannik Hansen, fresh off a stint at centre for Tappara in Finland?
2 | Wait a second, what about the third line?
Even if Kesler were healthy, the Canucks would still have a hole at centre. When Samme Pahlsson returned to Sweden at the end of last season, the Canucks were left without a third line centre, though they do have several options.
For instance, if Schroeder and Ebbett don’t work out on the second line, the third line might well be a better fit. It’s possible even that Higgins’ skillset would make him a better third-line centre than a second-line centre, with the same being true of Hansen. Arnott could still be signed to centre a tertiary scoring line.
The one to watch, however, is Maxim Lapierre. If Alain Vigneault wants to make his third line a defensively responsible, offensive-enabling checking line, Lapierre looks to be the best option, unless Malhotra can return to his pre-injury form. Lapierre filled that role during the 2011 playoffs, which looms large in fans’ memories. What people tend to forget is that Lapierre struggled on the third line during the regular season that year, eventually getting demoted.
Lapierre teamed with Malhotra and Dale Weise on the fourth line last season to form a strong checking line, starting in the defensive zone more than anyone else in the league, which should earn him enough goodwill from Vigneault to get another shot as the third line centre.
3 | Can Dale Weise settle back into bottom-6 duty after tasting super-stardom?
Speaking of Weise, how well will he adjust from being the saviour of hockey in the Netherlands to playing some of the most thankless minutes in the NHL? Weise was a bit of a punching bag for Canucks fans last season, mainly because he was essentially just a punching bag when he got into fights. But Weise had a respectable season, playing an almost solely defensive role as a rookie. The fact that Vigneault trusted him in that role speaks volumes.
In the Netherlands, however, Weise was an unstoppable offensive force, racking up a whopping 48 points in just 19 games. Being thrust back into a primarily defensive role may be more of a culture shock than travelling to the Netherlands in the first place.
While many NHLers went over to Europe in hopes of being up to game speed by the time the NHL season started, it’s tough to say whether Weise will see the same benefit. Is the level of Dutch hockey enough to give Weise a boost on players who trained on their own or with college teams?
4 | Is Cam Barker the best the Canucks can do for defensive depth?
The rumours began flying yesterday that the Canucks had invited Cam Barker, former third overall pick, to training camp. The prospect terrified me, because Barker is not very good. Despite the pedigree of being selected after Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, Barker just plain isn’t an NHL-caliber defenceman. It could be argued at this point that he’s not even an AHL-caliber defenceman.
How can I say that? Well, the AHL’s Texas Stars cut Barker after a 25-game tryout back in December.
The Canucks do need defensive depth, however, after losing both Sami Salo and Aaron Rome in the off-season, as well as Marc-Andre Gragnani, though no one is shedding too many tears about him. Jason Garrison was signed in place of Salo, but the Canucks are in need of reliable 7th and 8th defencemen in case of injury.
Andrew Alberts is a solid depth option, but things get thin after that. Derek Joslin is suspect in the defensive zone, Kevin Connauton isn’t well-suited to a depth role, and the Canucks seem unsure about Yann Sauve.
But the Canucks have to be able to do better than Cam Barker, right? Right? Please?
5 | How long will Roberto Luongo be a Vancouver Canuck?
Roberto Luongo will be reporting to Canucks training camp, because that’s what you do when you play for the Canucks and, as it happens, he still does. How long that will last is anyone’s guess. There are those who say that the Canucks already have a trade in place with the Toronto Maple Leafs and are just waiting for the CBA to be ratified. Others say the same about the Florida Panthers. Still others, including Gillis himself, have suggested that Luongo won’t get traded at all and that the Canucks could roll out a tandem of Luongo and Cory Schneider throughout the season.
Dedicated Bulies will recall I brought up this point back in October: a compressed schedule with more back-to-back games raises the possibility of more fatigue and a greater risk for injury, meaning having two superb goaltenders to share the load might be the best option.
Of course, the assets that Luongo could bring back in a trade could also be helpful, filling the holes at centre and/or defence mentioned above. Will Luongo still be a Canuck by the end of training camp?
The other wrinkle is that Eddie Lack is out with an injury, meaning he isn’t an option to back up Schneider if Luongo does get traded. This means the Canucks would need to acquire a reliable backup, either through free agency, the Luongo trade itself, or another, separate trade. The list of goaltenders still available through free agency offers slim pickings, with Ty Conklin, Marty Turco, and Brent Johnson being the best options of a mediocre bunch.
6 | Can the Canucks’ junior prospects make the team?
It’s still unclear what prospects will be showing up for the Canucks training camp. The Canucks only called up 5 players from the Chicago Wolves, leaving many prospects with their AHL farm team. Alexandre Grenier might come to camp after his contract was terminated in Austria, but is more likely to head straight to Chicago.
Nicklas Jensen is staying in Sweden for the rest of the season. NCAA prospects Ben Hutton, Patrick McNally, Jeremy Price, Matt Beattie, Joseph LaBate, and Wesley Myron won’t be able to leave their teams mid-season.
That really leaves just two other prospects who might make the trip: Brendan Gaunce and Frank Corrado. Both are long shots to make the Canucks this season, but both could potentially fill a need.
We’ve covered Corrado’s rise to prominence in some detail and he has a couple things going for him that make him a dark horse for a spot on the Canucks’ blue line, the main one being that he’s a right-handed shot, of which the Canucks have precious few. He could potentially be eased into a bottom-pairing role this season, alleviating the need for another depth defenceman. Is it worth using a year of his contract to do so? That’s a tougher question. Probably not, especially in a short year, and since he was just acquired by the Kitchener Rangers at the OHL trade deadline, the sense seems to be that he’ll be playing out his final year of junior.
Gaunce is an interesting case as well. The Canucks’ first round pick from 2012 already has NHL size at 6’2″ and 210+ lbs. and he has a reputation for solid two-way play. Gaunce currently leads the Belleville Bulls in scoring despite missing 8 games with an injury and the Canucks have holes at the centre ice position. It’s a little much to suggest that he could battle for a spot on the second line, but is the third line out of the question?
Probably, but man is it ever fun to speculate about this kind of stuff again.Tags: Cam Barker, the conundrum at the core, Training Camp