Grading the Vancouver Canucks' Performance Heading into the New Year
As the 2011 calendar year comes to a close, the Vancouver Canucks sit atop the Northwest Division, which is exactly where they belong.
They are, without question, the class of the division and will likely remain in first place for the remainder of the 2011-12 regular season.
However, the Canucks climb back to the top wasn't easy, due to their mediocre start to the season. The possible Stanley Cup Finals hangover led to a subpar report card back in early November from yours truly.
It's a different story now, though.
As you're about to find out, there's not much to complain about as we grade the Canucks heading into the new year. As long as they continue their strong play from the last six weeks, they should be just fine heading into the playoffs in April.
Even though Henrik and Daniel Sedin are well ahead of the pack when it comes to point production, the Canucks have boasted a fairly balanced attack compared to most NHL teams as we inch closer to the midway point of the season.
Aside from the magic of the Sedin twins, the Canucks second and third lines have been solid, despite the fact that we rarely know who is going to be playing on them from one game to the next due to injuries and other factors.
The pleasant surprises of these forwards include Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre. These three players are on pace to surpass or at least come close to their best offensive seasons and Lapierre has even made a case to move up to the third line at times.
In fact, the only real disappointment among the forwards so far this season has been Manny Malhotra. He just hasn't looked the same since his courageous return to action in the Stanley Cup Finals after he suffered a career-threatening eye injury back in March.
Overall, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives when it comes to the Canucks forward group, which is why it's not surprising that they've scored the second-most goals in the entire NHL through their first 36 games.
Forwards Grade: A-
The Canucks defensive unit has had an up and down season so far, but lately they've looked solid.
A perfect example of the roller coaster ride that the defence has taken us on is Kevin Bieksa. Through the first 16 games of the season, Bieksa had just three points and was minus-nine in the plus-minus category.
Fast forward over the last 20 games and he's now plus-eight and boasts 18 points.
Bieksa still looks out of place at times in his own zone, but it's encouraging for Canucks fans that he isn't getting burned on the pinch as much as he was at the start of the season and he's finally chipping on the power play as well.
The award for best defenseman on the Canucks is a toss up between Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis.
Edler's 25 points in 36 games have him on pace to eclipse Christian Ehrhoff's remarkable 50-point campaign in 2010-11. Hamhuis, on the other hand, is a rock in his own zone. After his slow start to the season, Hamhuis is back skating along side Bieksa and is an impressive plus-14 while playing against the oppositions best forwards on a nightly basis.
Keith Ballard continues to be somewhat of an enigma. He can get caught trying to do too much at times, but it's clear that he's a great skater and has the potential to be very good. Whether or not head coach Alain Vigneault ever gives him that chance is another story, as it's fairly obvious that Ballard is far from Vigneault's favourite player.
Overall, the Canucks defence has performed well above average compared to most NHL teams. They have solid depth and have been able to remain surprisingly healthy so far this season, which is quite the accomplishment considering what they went through last season.
Right now, the Canucks are tied for seventh in goals allowed, which is partly thanks to their defence core and partly thanks to their goaltenders, who I'll discuss next.
Defensemen Grade: B
It took a while to remind the rest of the hockey world, but the Canucks boast perhaps the best one-two goaltending punch in the entire NHL.
After his predictably slow start, Roberto Luongo has looked every bit as good as the goaltender that was nominated for the Vezina trophy both last season and in his first season with the Canucks.
As for Cory Schneider, his wonderful statistics and his incredible run where he allowed just three goals in four games on 139 total shots have helped his case as the best backup in the league.
There is no goalie controversy in Vancouver. Having two outstanding goaltenders to choose from every night doesn't fit the definition of the word controversy.
Overall, the goaltending grade for the Canucks would be as high as possible if it wasn't for Luongo's poor start.
Goaltenders Grade: B+
Since mid-November, the Canucks have played outstanding hockey. They'd receive an A without much hesitation if it wasn't for their slow start to the season.
As long as the team keeps up the good work, though, they'll be rated much higher by the end of the season and they could be at the top of the league standings once again.
Overall Grade: B+
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