This year’s version of the Vancouver Canucks again looks poised to make the long run to the Stanley Cup Finals. And when one looks at how similar the 2011-12 version of the Canucks is to last year’s team that lost in Game 7 of the Finals to the Boston Bruins, it only makes sense that the Canucks are considered favourites in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Notable departures from last year’s team include Christian Ehrhoff, Raffi Torres, and Mikael Samuelsson. Ehrhoff was the recipient of a 10-year, $40 million contract from the Buffalo Sabres, a deal that is typical of the practice of overpaying for players that have been to the Stanley Cup. Although the Canucks were right not to match the money the Sabres threw at Ehrhoff, losing Ehrhoff was still a considerable blow to the Canucks' blue line. He was the Canucks' most polished and consistent defenseman last season At times this season, particularly in the earlier part of the year, his steady play was clearly missed.
Torres, like Ehrhoff, benefited from last year’s run to the Cup in the form of a 2-year, $3.5 million deal with the Phoenix Coyotes. Torres was a key part of the Canucks' third line last season, initially with Jannik Hansen and Manny Malhotra, and, after the career-threatening eye injury to Malhotra, with Hansen and Maxim Lapierre. That line, and Torres in particular, provided a grit and antagonism that made the Canucks the most hated team in the league last year, but also made them Stanley Cup finalists. It is not coincidental that Torres has been to two Stanley Cup Finals in his career (the first being with Edmonton in 2005-06). He is a prototypical pest in the mold of Esa Tikkanen and his departure from the Canucks is no doubt a loss, although not an overwhelming one.
Samuelsson, who was hindered by a sports hernia injury and played only 11 ineffective games during the Canucks’ run to last year’s Cup, was shipped off to Florida along with Marco Sturm for David Booth and Steven Reinprecht. Although Samuelsson had two effective seasons with the Canucks, at 35 years old, his best years appear to be behind him.
David Booth, the key player in the Samuelsson deal, is the biggest addition to this year’s Canucks team. Booth has shown Canucks fans glimpses of the talent that saw him score 31 goals for the Panthers in the 2008-09 season. He has also shown a frustrating lack of hockey sense that explains his 8.2% shooting percentage in 2010-11. Booth is essentially a speedy winger that doesn’t do much more than put the puck on the net. On a line with Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins, both shoot-first, pass-second players, Booth’s fit is questionable. He does, however, provide scoring depth and certainly replaces the outgoing Samuelsson in that area.
Where the Canucks have improved the most is not in players that have been brought into the organization, but rather in the emergence of talented young stars, Cody Hodgson and Alex Edler.
Hodgson has improved dramatically this year, and has shown an all-round game that, in my mind at least, makes him the fourth best forward on the team (behind the Sedins and Kesler). Unfortunately for Hodgson, he’s also the third best centre on the team, playing less than 13 minutes per game. Hodgson had five goals and four assists in 10 games in January, numbers that will leave coach Alain Vigneault no choice but to give him more ice time. Hodgson was the first star in the Canucks 4-3 win over Boston on January 7, a game in which he scored the game-winning goal on a missile of a slap shot off the underside of the crossbar. Hodgson’s play in the most intense game of the Canucks' season to date (and perhaps their most important game psychologically) had Tim Thomas, and the NHL as a whole, taking notice.
Edler, a first-time All Star this season, has become the Canucks best all-round defenseman. His 34 points at the All Star break leads Canucks defensemen and places him tied for 3rd amongst all NHL defensemen. Edler’s point total also happens to be twice that of Ehrhoff, the man he replaced as the team’s number one D-man.
In goal, the Canucks look as solid as they did last year. Yes, Roberto Luongo got off to another slow start to the season, and yes, Cory Schneider had a remarkable string of five games in November in which he allowed only four goals, but Luongo is clearly the Canucks' starter. Questions remain about his ability to win high-pressure games (and those questions will remain until he wins a Stanley Cup), but with Schneider backing him up, the Canucks have an elite goalie to turn to if Luongo falters.
Aside from minor changes to their depth positions, the Canucks have not made any other changes to their personnel. On paper, this year’s Canucks team compares very evenly to last year’s. But whether or not the team is better on paper, the experience of going to the Stanley Cup Finals should give this year’s team an advantage over last year’s.
This year’s team will certainly not put up the dominating regular season statistics that last year’s did, but it’s clear that that’s perfectly alright with the team. The Canucks have a single-minded goal this season and that goal is the Stanley Cup.
All that’s left for the team to do then is to:
1) acquire a key player or two at the deadline to provide toughness and depth scoring;
2) avoid major injuries; and
3) get the lucky breaks that Stanley Cup teams typically get (see Kevin Bieksa’s series-winning goal against San Jose).
As tough as it might be to do all those things, the Canucks have again given themselves as good a chance as any team to win hockey’s biggest prize.