The wait is finally over.
On Saturday October 9, the Vancouver Canucks and LA Kings will open their 2010-2011 NHL seasons at Rogers Arena. If you can’t start your season against a divisional rival, then kicking off the season against a recent playoff opponent is the next best thing.
Aside from the general euphoria of watching a meaningful hockey game after a long summer, there are several intriguing storylines to follow:
Return of Willie Mitchell
After signing with LA as a free agent, Willie Mitchell makes his Kings debut in the building he called home for the last four years. Mitchell will do his best to shutdown and frustrate the Canucks stars, and so after his initial introduction in the starting lineup, Canucks fans are going to go back to booing the BC native, just as we did when he played for the Minnesota Wild and drove Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund crazy.
If anyone knows how to shutdown the Sedin twins, it would be Willie Mitchell. After playing against them for five years as member of the Wild, and then playing with them for four years as a Canuck, Mitchell has had ample opportunity to study their game, and should attempt to use his long stick and positioning to cut off their cycle game.
The more interesting matchup though would be Willie Mitchell and partner Drew Doughty up against the Canuck’s second line, centered by Ryan Kesler. Both Kesler and Mitchell are fiery guys, and Mitchell’s game plan should be to antagonize Kesler to get him off his game.
I can easily see this leading to a fight, like this classic bout between Mitchell and Jarome Iginla a few years back. Mitchell doesn’t drop the gloves often, but he is willing to go if the other combatant is equally valuable to their team. And there is a bit of history, as the two of them have come to blows during Canucks’ practices.
Aside from a potential fight between Mitchell and Kesler, there will be plenty of opportunity and motivation for other rough stuff during the game. Last year’s playoff series had huge hits, such as when Alex Edler demolished Doughty in front of the Canucks net.
The series also had a pair of fights, a rarity in today’s game where it feels like there aren’t any fights in the playoffs, period. In those fights, Rick Rypien took apart Rich Clune, and Shane O’Brien handled Wayne Simmonds.
Simmonds will be the only one of those four combatants dressing on Saturday night (Rypien is injured, O’Brien was traded to Nashville, and Clune has been sent to the AHL), but there will be several new Canucks looking to make an impression of a physical nature, either with heavy hits or dropping the gloves.
Keep an eye on newcomers Raffi Torres, Manny Malhotra, Guillaume Desbiens, Alex Bolduc, and Peter Schaefer as they try to make a good impression before regulars Burrows and Rypien return from injury later this month. I’m sure the Kings will have their own players who want to engage the Canucks physically as well.
Redemption of Andrew Alberts?
This could have come under the category of Rough Stuff above, but it really needs it’s own section. Last season, Andrew Alberts (6’5” 218 lbs) was picked up by GM Mike Gilllis at the trade deadline to bolster the Canucks defence, most notably because Willie Mitchell was still out with his season ending concussion at the hands of Evgeni Malkin. Yes, I'm still bitter that Malkin didn't get suspended.
Alberts played ok during his 14 regular season games, but during the playoffs he almost singlehandedly gave the Kings a 2-0 series lead.
In Game 1 he took 17 minutes of penalties in the first period, with a minor for interference on his first shift, then taking a major and game misconduct for boarding a few shifts later. Perhaps a little too pumped up by the crowd and playoff atmosphere at GM Place?
In Game 2, he again took a minor penalty on his first shift, but managed to avoid another game misconduct, ending the night with three minor penalties in total.
That was 11 minutes of power play time he handed the Kings during those two games, at a time when the Canucks’ PK was atrocious.
Ignoring calls by Canucks fans to put Alberts in the press box (or perhaps just listening to Kings fans who started an online petition to keep Alberts in the lineup), coach Alain Vigneult kept Alberts in the lineup for the rest of the postseason, and he played well the next 10 games.
Fast forward to this year, and during the preseason, Alberts had looked like the steady player Gillis thought he was trading for rather than that early playoff villain (or hero if you are a Kings fan). Alberts beat out Shane O’brien for a roster spot, and what better night to start his new lease on life with the Canucks than against the team that he almost ended his Canucks’ career playing against?
Chemistry: Sedins + Samuelsson = Goals?
With Alex Burrows still recovering from his shoulder injury (the one that plagued him last year in the playoffs), Mikael Samuelsson has to have one of the most coveted positions in the NHL, lining up alongside Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Last year the trio shredded the Kings’ defence and probably caused Jonathan Quick to have nightmares over some of those goals.
In six games, Samuelsson had seven goals and three assists, Daniel had four goals and five assists, and Henrik slowed off his Art Ross winning pace and only recorded one goal and seven assists. In total, that line produced 12 goals during the series, including all four game winning goals, and the line recorded a total of 27 points.
We’ll have to see if they can score like that against the new look Kings defence featuring the addition of Willie Mitchell, but they have looked dangerous in the preseason.
Which Hansen is going to show up?
Will it be the Jannik Hansen who buzzes around with great speed but to little effect? Or the Jannik Hansen who goes into the traffic areas and isn’t afraid to get into scrums or even drop the gloves?
Hansen got a new contract through salary arbitration this summer, and now he has to live up to it. He has to be that gritty winger to stay on the third line, because he makes too much money to be a fourth liner.
If Hansen can’t be effective, he will be AHL bound when Burrows or Rypien return from injury later this month.
New Look Defensively
With the loss of Mitchell, trading of O’Brien and the annual injury to Sami Salo, plus the additions of Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, the Canucks have all new defense pairings.
Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Christian Ehrhoff
Keith Ballard - Andrew Alberts
Aside from the new players and pairing on defence, Roberto Luongo has changed his game as well. Now attempting to play deeper in his net when the puck is below the circles, Luongo should (in theory) be better positioned to deal with backdoor and goal line plays.
Of course, he has yet to try this new technique against an NHL caliber roster in actual game situations, so we’ll have to see how it works against noted crease crashers Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown.
Will the Refs learn how to call a high sticking penalty?
Just watch this clip in case you forgot this brutal non-call when Kopitar nearly took out Henrik Sedin's eye in Game 1 last year. It speaks for itself as to the quality of referees in the NHL.