Vancouver Canucks: Lessons Learned so Far This Season

Joel Prosser@@JoelProsserCorrespondent IFebruary 16, 2013

Vancouver Canucks: Lessons Learned so Far This Season

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    The Vancouver Canucks are 13 games into this lockout-shortened 48-game season, and now seems an appropriate time to judge how the team is doing.

    Thirteen games might seem to be an arbitrary number, but that was how long it took the Canucks to get a semblance of their roster back into game shape and off the injured list.

    With none of their star players playing overseas during the lockout, a brewing goalie controversy and two of their top six forwards in David Booth and Ryan Kesler out with long-term injuries to start the season, expectations weren't high for the Vancouver Canucks, but there have been some surprises along the way.

    Here are 10 observations, positive and negative, on the Canucks so far this season.

Ryan Kesler Is Back

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    Ryan Kesler’s absence is the main reason why I’ve withheld any judgements on the Canucks young season until now.

    Kesler is the Canucks MVP, playing the most minutes of any forward, working the top power play unit with the Sedins and manning the penalty kill as well. Absent Kesler, the entire lineup was in flux.

    Kesler came back hard last night in his first game of the season. He was flying around all game, drawing a penalty on his first shift by beating his defender, then getting involved at the final buzzer in a melee around the Stars net.

    He finished the night with 17:27 in ice time, four shots on net, another shot that hit the post and four hits. In the faceoff circle, Kesler went nine and three, which was sorely needed by the Canucks with Manny Malhotra's injury.

    While he didn't score, this was a far cry from the Kesler we saw at the start of last season, who rushed back from surgery too early and was ineffective more often than not.

    If he can continue to play at this level, this might be a return to the healthy Kesler who put up 41 goals and won the Selke in 2011, then led his team to the Stanley Cup Finals. 

Remember Mason Raymond?

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    Remember Mason Raymond? The speedster is back, and scoring goals.

    After putting up 25 goals and 53 points in the 2009-2010 season, Raymond regressed slightly to a still-respectable 15 goals and 39 points in the 2010-2011 season. A large part of this drop in production was due to the Canucks stacking Kesler and the Sedins on the top power-play unit, leaving Raymond with an assortment of wingers and a lack of ice time on the second power-play unit.

    Then came the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, where Raymond suffered a broken back against the Bruins. He would return after months of rehab to play 55 games last season, but he only put up 10 goals and 20 points.

    At this point, with declining point totals in consecutive years, most Canucks fans wrote Raymond off. Management wasn't sure if he could return to his 2010 form, either. In the offseason, Raymond took a pay cut on a one year deal to try and get his career back on track.

    Forming a successful partnership with fellow speedsters Jordan Schroeder (2 goals, 2 assists) and Jannik Hansen (3 goals, 4 assists), Raymond has put up four goals and eight points in 13 games so far this season. That pace, prorated over a full 82 game schedule, would net Raymond 25 goals and 50 points.

    Raymond's production, along with his linemates, has provided the Canucks with invaluable secondary scoring from the third line, something that was sorely lacking last season and in the playoff loss to the LA Kings.

Keith Ballard Actually Isn't a Bad Player

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    This might come as a surprise to most Canucks fans, but Keith Ballard actually isn't a bad player. In fact, he has been one of the better Canucks defencemen night in and night out so far this season.

    The previous two years in Vancouver after coming over in a trade with Florida might have seemed like a nightmare to Ballard. Injuries, a new system and attempting to do too much made Ballard fairly ineffective in his first year, ending up with the Canucks making him a healthy scratch in the 2011 playoffs and opting for rookie Chris Tanev instead.

    Ballard had a bit of a better year last season, but still was in the doghouse with both Alain Vigneault and the Vancouver fan base. When the compliance buyouts were announced as part of the new CBA, it was widely assumed that Vancouver would use one to rid itself of Ballard's hefty contract.

    But in a bit of redemption, Ballard, along with partner Chris Tanev, has been the steadiest defender on the Canucks this season. He is focusing on doing the little things that don't end up on the scoresheet, but which make defenders effective, and playing within the system, not trying to force the play and getting burned as he often was in previous seasons.

    Ironically, Ballard's increased effectiveness isn't likely to keep him on the Canucks roster past this season, as they have too many blueliners tied up in long-term, expensive contracts. While he may be the odd man out, at least he can contribute this year and earn a trade to a team looking for a top-four defender, rather than suffer the humiliation of being bought out.

The Kids Are Contributing

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    To be successful in a salary cap world, you usually need to have players contributing on entry-level contracts.

    The Canucks haven't had that in recent years, but have largely lucked out by having world-class players, starting with the Sedins, take significant pay cuts to remain in Vancouver, enabling general manager Mike Gillis to build a competitive team.

    This year, however, the Canucks have three players playing significant roles on entry-level contracts.

    Power forward Zack Kassian leads the team in goals with five on the season, and also provides coach Alain Vigneault with an option besides Alex Burrows to play alongside the Sedins. With Kesler returning to the lineup, Kassian seems to be settling in on a line with Kesler and Chris Higgins.

    Kassian is a legitimate heavyweight who can play in the top nine, which is something the Canucks haven't had since Donald Brashear almost a decade ago. When he isn't using them to pummel opponents, Kassian has some slick hands, making some very nice passes to set up linemates with his underrated playmaking ability.

    Jordan Schroeder is a speedster who had all the skill in the world but faced the common refrain that he was too small to play in the NHL. So far this season, he has proven his critics wrong, putting up two goals and two assists along with a plus-three rating while centering the third line.

    And unlike other rookies who put up flashier numbers, such as Cody Hodgson last season, Schroeder isn't being sheltered from tough minutes. Coach Alain Vigneault trusts Schroeder's defensive play enough to play him in any situation. In fact, he played over 100 minutes to start the season without being on the ice for a goal against.

    The third regular for the Canucks on an entry level contract is cool-as-ice defender Chris Tanev. Tanev isn't big. He isn't the most skilled guy, or the fastest guy on the ice. But he is smart, does the little things right, and isn't rattled by anything.

    Settling in on a regular pairing with Ballard, Tanev has been one of the steadiest defenders on a nightly basis for the Canucks, allowing Vigneault the luxury of rolling all three defence pairing regardless of matchups.

Team Toughness

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    Since the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals when the Canucks lost to a very large and physical Bruins team, the common criticism about the Canucks is that they are a small, skilled team that will fold under physical pressure.

    Hit the Sedins enough, and they'll stop putting up points. Turn the tables on world-class agitators Kesler and Burrows, and they'll take penalties instead of scoring goals.

    Regardless of how accurate this criticism is, opponents have employed this strategy for years against the Canucks. A deadly power play is one way to deter opponents from taking liberties, and this is the strategy the Canucks have typically employed, but the other option is to hit back.

    And this year, the Canucks are hitting back.

    The Canucks are currently have 12 fighting majors this season, placing them at third overall in the NHL for fights. They now have a legitimate heavyweight who can actually play in 6'3", 215-pound power forward Zack Kassian.

    Kassian has two fights this year, including taking apart Oiler's tough guy Ben Eager, and his teammates are contributing, too. Dale Weiss and Aaron Volpatti are fulfilling their fourth-line role expectations with four and three fights respectively. Kevin Bieksa has a pair of fights, and even noted agitator Maxim Lapierre has dropped the gloves.

    Fights, of course, aren't the only measure of team toughness. The Canucks also have recorded 309 hits in 13 games, placing them a respectable 14th overall in the NHL in that category.

    Remember how I said that the common criticism of the Canucks wasn't necessarily a valid one?

    Of course any player can get thrown off their game via physical play, but in the 2011 playoffs, it was largely the Canucks doing that to their opponents, not the other way around.

    It became a common theme in the media during the Stanley Cup Finals, but going into the Finals, the Canucks led the NHL in hits and fights amongst playoff teams through the first three rounds.

    This year's edition of the Canucks seems to play like the 2011 team in regards to physicality, although hopefully they have a better end to their season.

Roberto Luongo Isn't Going Anywhere

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    Roberto Luongo isn't going anywhere. At least not anytime soon.

    After losing the starting role to Cory Schneider in the playoffs last season and publicly saying he would waive his no trade clause over the offseason, it seemed certain that Luongo would be dealt as soon as the lockout ended.

    But it turns out there are a few more chapters to be played out in this story.

    General manager Mike Gillis has stated he is looking for a roster player, a good young player or prospect and a high draft pick in exchange for Luongo. Unable to swing a deal in the short week between the lockout ending and the season starting, the Canucks started the season with both Loungo and Schneider on the roster.

    So far, Luongo has been the better goalie, posting outstanding numbers. A 4-0-2 record, 1.45 GAA and 0.943 save percentage have Vancouver fans at least reconsidering running the Olympic gold medal-winning goalie out of town.

    Meanwhile Schneider hasn't been bad—outside of the opening night 7-3 loss to the Ducks where the whole team looked out of sync—but he hasn't outplayed his one-time mentor. Schneider has put up a respectable 4-3-0 record, with a 2.62 GAA and 0.912 save percentage.

    Schneider is in the top 20 for most goalie categories, but Luongo is second in the entire NHL only to Ottawa uber-goalie Craig Anderson for GAA and save percentage.

    Barring another team panicking over their goaltending (Washington? Philadelphia?) and giving Gillis what he wants, expect Luongo and Schneider to both be in Vancouver until the draft.

    The Canucks have this luxury due to the two goalies being friends, rather than toxic rivals, and the contributions of a few players on entry-level contracts allowing enough cap space to keep two expensive goalies.

Special Teams Aren't so Special This Year

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    The Canucks under Alain Vigneault have prided themselves in having excellent special teams the last few seasons.

    This season though, they have been anything but special.

    Currently the Canucks are in the bottom third of the NHL on special teams, the power play is sputtering at 16.4 percent (20th overall) and the penalty kill is weak at 79.6 percent (21st overall).

    During their President's Trophy-winning seasons, the Canucks were significantly better on special teams.

    2010-2011: Power play 24.3% (1st overall), penalty kill 85.6% (3rd overall)

    2011-2012: Power play 19.8% (4th overall), penalty kill 86.0% (6th overall)

    Clearly some room for improvement, but there are some promising signs. Kesler's return will improve the top power-play unit, and have a trickle down effect on the second unit as well. Likewise, having the Selke winner running the penalty kill can only help.

    Jason Garrison was a big offseason acquisition, and is expected to be using his big shot on the power play in place of the departed Sami Salo. It hasn't happened so far this year, but Garrison has been learning the new system, and also the power play has been a bit scrambled without Kesler.

    Vigneault has recently been running a four-forward power-play unit with Edler as the lone defender, but could switch soon to a more traditional unit with the Sedins and Kesler up front and Edler and Garrison manning the points.

Even Strength Play and Secondary Scoring

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    While the special teams are a cause for concern, the Canucks have been much more promising when it comes to five on five situations.

    They have scored 24 goals for at even strength, while only allowing 14 goals against. This 1.71 goals for/goals against ratio is the second best at the NHL currently. During their President's Trophy winning seasons, the Canucks only posted a 1.19 ratio in 2011-2012, and a 1.21 ratio in 2010-2011. 

    Once the special teams start clicking, or at least improve to the point where they are middle of the pack instead of being in the bottom third of the NHL, the Canucks should see their goal totals start soaring if they can also continue with this impressive play at even strength.

    Secondary scoring has also been a surprise for the Canucks so far in this young season. Missing Ryan Kesler and David Booth to start the season, it was expected that the Canucks would struggle offensively. But they have been buoyed by scoring throughout the roster.

    The Sedins top the scoring charts, but the leading goal scorer is Zack Kassian with five goals. Mason Raymond is surprisingly tied with four goals for second in goal scoring with the expected Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows. Nine different forwards have scored, and five of the defencemen have goals to their credit as well.

    And when it comes to the playoffs, and the whistles go away, the Canucks would be better positioned for a lengthy playoff run if they can rely on offence that comes from all situations, not just with a man advantage or from the Sedins.

The Loss of Manny Malhotra

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    The worst blow to the Canucks this season has been the loss of Manny Malhotra.

    Malhotra suffered a horrific eye injury in the spring of 2011 and had to endure multiple operations. It was feared that he might lose sight in the eye altogether, but he endured and valiantly returned to a thunderous standing ovation to start his first game in months during the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.

    After the 2011 playoffs, there were more operations and rehab, and Malhotra played 78 games in the 2011-2012 season. But he was a shadow of the player who was a Selke candidate before his eye injury. Outside of faceoff circle prowess, Malhotra seemed a touch behind the play or a step behind compared to before the injury.

    There was hope that his eye would continue to heal and his impaired vision would improve, but unfortunately that was a forlorn hope. General manager Mike Gillis met with Malhotra prior to the start of this season, and they agreed to give Malhotra another ten games to see if the rest and workouts during the lockout had helped the situation improve.

    It didn't, and Gillis decided to take Malhotra off the active roster for the rest of the year as a safety precaution.

    While Malhotra was still contributing defensively and in the faceoff circle, it was decided that his impaired vision placed him at a much higher risk than other players on the ice. Essentially, the impaired vision in his left eye opened him up for any legal hit to potentially be a career-ending blind-side hit.

    The Canucks lose the top faceoff man in the NHL and valuable member of their penalty kill. Off the ice, Malhotra was well respected by his peers, the fans and the media.

    Looking forward, it appears Malhotra will transition into being a member of the coaching staff, similar to the role he played while recovering from the original eye injury in 2011. Then he worked on coaching the other centers on faceoffs, watching video and the games live and giving a player to player assessment and tips to his teammates.

Exceeding Expectations

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    All in all, the Canucks have wildly exceeded my expectations so far this year.

    I fully expected them to hover around the edge of the playoff picture, playing 0.500 hockey until Kesler and Booth returned and the goalie situation was resolved. Then, once the full roster was available, they would improve and be able to challenge for home ice in the playoffs.

    Instead, the Canucks have run up a 8-3-2 record, good for 18 points and third place in the Western Conference, as well as a commanding lead in the Northwest Division.

    In large part, this is due to the stellar goaltending, improved secondary scoring and five-on-five dominance of the Canucks.

    The other key factor in the Canucks' record is that the Northwest Division is frankly the weakest in the NHL.

    It was expected that the young guns of the Edmonton Oilers would improve enough to challenge for the division title. Likewise, the Minnesota Wild made some very hypocritical signings in free agency, and the hundred million dollar contracts to Zack Parise and Ryan Suter were supposed to make the Wild a playoff team.

    Instead both teams have fallen flat on their faces, joined by the injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche and the delusional Calgary Flames.

    If you took the best players from each of those four teams, you might be able to assemble a roster capable of challenging the Canucks for the divisional crown.

    But as it stands right now, it isn't a contest for the Canucks. Even with Kesler and Booth missing, the Canucks have gone 6-0-1 against other Northwest Division teams. The Canucks record outside the division is closer to what I had expected, at 2-3-1.

    Now that Kesler is back and Booth is close to returning, the Canucks are in a good position to get things back on track when playing teams outside their division and position themselves for a playoff run. There is also an outside shot at a third-straight President's Trophy, although that would require the Blackhawks to lose a game once in a while.