The theme for the Vancouver Canucks 2011-12 campaign is known as “The Heart of a Canuck.”
It focuses on the characteristics that make these players the men they are today, such as integrity, honour, passion, humility and courage.
These sound a lot like the characteristics of any successful person and most successful teams, which is why there hasn’t been much change to the identity of a Canucks team that was one game away from winning the Stanley Cup last season.
Some of the personnel may have changed and certain players are contributing differently this year than last year, but the way this team is constructed is eerily similar to the way it was built for last year's playoff run and that’s exactly how general manager Mike Gillis wants it.
We know about the departure of Christian Ehrhoff last summer and the trade that saw second-line winger Mikael Samuelsson move to the Florida Panthers in exchange for second-line winger David Booth.
While this is old news, it’s still worth mentioning because Booth has proved to be an upgrade over Samuelsson.
Even though he’s taking on the same role as Samuelsson did last year and he’s put up similar numbers, Booth brings more speed and more power to the Canucks' second line than Samuelsson ever did.
We just hope he doesn’t suffer the same fate as Samuelsson did in the 2011 playoffs.
The loss of Ehrhoff was feared by many at the time, but months later, it’s remembered by few.
The replacement of Ehrhoff and his 50 points in 2010-11 has been done by the defense as a committee.
Sami Salo has played exceptionally and has been surprisingly durable this season while Alexander Edler has emerged as an All-Star. The only disappointment on the blue line has been Keith Ballard, but that’s just another reason why the 2011 and 2012 teams are so similar.
If there’s one area where Ehrhoff might be of help, it’s on a Canucks power play that has clearly dried up over the last two months, operating at less than a 10 percent efficiency rate.
It’s hard to believe the departure of Ehrhoff alone is responsible for this, though.
If that were the case, how does it explain the fact the Canucks were easily the best team in the NHL on the power play through the first half of the season?
Ironically enough, one recently acquired Canuck that might help the power play wears the same No. 5 jersey that Ehrhoff wore last season. That’s Marc-Andre Gragnani, of course.
While no one expects him to shoulder the load that Ehrhoff took on last season, Gragnani has a similar style to Ehrhoff and is one of the two newest Canucks that is largely responsible for making the 2012 lineup resemble to the 2011 lineup.
Before the recent trade that brought both Gragnani and Zack Kassian to Vancouver, the Canucks third line may have looked similar on paper, but it was far from it on the ice.
While there’s no denying the talent of young Cody Hodgson, it was clear that Gillis wanted his bottom-six forward group to be tougher to play against and perhaps be better at defending rather than scoring themselves.
Whether or not this strategy will work remains to be seen, but as it stands right now, Samuel Pahlsson is the 2012 version of what Manny Malhotra brought to the team as a strong third line center before his eye injury put him out for most of the 2011 playoffs.
Unfortunately, Malhotra likely will not return to being the player he was before his eye surgery, which is exactly why Gillis acquired Pahlsson in a separate deadline deal.
Zack Kassian will play the 2012 version of Raffi Torres.
The 21-year-old Kassian has a high ceiling in terms of a point producer, but for the time being, he’ll likely be a bottom-six winger that will deliver punishing body checks and intimidate opposing defenders while forechecking, just like Torres did in 2011.
Jannik Hansen rounds out the third line and the combination of Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond will play whatever role Alain Vigneault sees fit for them on a game-to-game basis, although Canuck nation is universally praying that Raymond’s stats improve as the playoffs draw closer.
The fourth line is the only area where the Canucks are significantly different from 2011, and that’s a good thing.
The fact that both Malhotra and an improved Maxim Lapierre are taking faceoffs and contributing admirably on the bottom line gives the Canucks a huge boost on a nightly basis.
By comparison, last season the Canucks generally had a rotating committee of fourth-line forwards that weren’t bringing much of anything to the table, especially after Malhotra went down with his injury and Lapierre was forced to move up to the third line.
Hopefully, the Canucks don’t suffer a similar fate with injuries as they did down the stretch last season, but at least their depth appears to be marginally better up front this time around.
As for the top-line players and the goaltenders, it’s exactly the same.
You know the cast of characters and you should also know that there’s no need to mess with a good thing, even if the Sedin twins are currently in a slump.
As we head down the home stretch in the 2011-12 regular season, the Canucks will need to fight to the bitter end of their schedule if they want to even think about repeating as the President’s Trophy Winners.
However, they’re much more concerned about the playoffs—as they should be.
This is why management has assembled a group of players that best resembles the same team that got to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last season, only with a little more depth and hopefully more of the qualities that embody “The Heart of a Canuck.”
Follow Adam Graham on Twitter: @adam_graham
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