Vancouver Canucks: Early-Season Report Card
Coming off a Game 7 Stanley Cup Finals loss is no easy task, and the Vancouver Canucks have clearly displayed that early on in the 2011-12 season. With a tough start recovering from their "Stanley Cup hangover," the Canucks have finally started to get on a roll, and as of Monday, have won seven of their past eight games.
By no means has the early part of the season been good for the Canucks. They have performed well under expectations, and fans are calling for goaltender Roberto Luongo's head. The Canucks are beginning to improve and gain momentum as they chase Minnesota for the Northwest Division lead, but in the end it could be their slow start that costs them down the stretch.
Special Teams: A
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The Vancouver Canucks' top-ranked power play from a year ago had some early struggles in October, but it is now back on track. The Canucks' PP is a league-best 26.1 percent, four percentage points above the next best team. Of the Canucks' 83 goals this season, they have 29 of them on the power play.
On the other side of the man-advantage, the Canucks' penalty kill has operated at 85.3 percent on 102 times shorthanded. This has them at No. 7 in the league and with just 15 power play goals allowed, they are among the best in the league on the penalty kill.
Special teams is a big contributor to a team's success throughout a season, and the Canucks' special teams play of late has them in a good position within their division thus far in 2011-12.
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Through 26 games this season, Canucks goaltenders Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo have a combined goals against of 2.52 per game, a far cry from their league-leading average of 2.20 last season.
Roberto Luongo has spent more time in a backup role than he ever has previously in his career, and Cory Schneider seems on the verge of stealing the reins of the team from Luongo. In no way should the team's lack of performance lay solely on the play of the goaltenders, as early on in the season they have not received a tremendous amount of offensive support, but goalies are always on the hot seat in Vancouver.
Luongo, who has played the second-most amount of games since the lockout, is slowly getting his legs back under him, and Schneider—arguably the best backup in the NHL—will continue to play solid behind Lu. The Canucks are on an upward swing, and the goaltending should improve as the season goes on.
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The departure of Christian Ehrhoff to the Buffalo Sabres in the offseason has clearly hurt the Canucks' defense this season. Collectively, the Canucks' backend is a dismal plus-five through the first 26 games of the season.
Led by the minus-six of Keith Ballard and minus-two of Kevin Bieksa, two D-men counted on for their offensive prowess, the Canucks' mistakes defensively this season have cost them victories. If you are going to place blame anywhere, place it here.
Too often have the Canucks been caught pinching down low, and too often they have allowed odd-man rushes. Defensive lapses have also led to shorthanded opportunities, and those opportunities have been taken advantage off so far this season by the opposition.
Not all is lost for the Canucks' D-core this season, however. Sami Salo has returned with vengeance and has stepped into the point on the power play vacated by Ehrhoff. In doing so, Salo has five goals on the year, with three coming with the man-advantage.
The Canucks will need continued offense from their defense if they want to continue on with their winning ways, and the defense seems to be waking from their slumber right about now.
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The Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins proved in last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs that the winning formula includes the ability to run four lines that can play at a high level at any point of a game. The coach has to be able to believe that his players will perform to their highest ability whenever they are on the ice.
That formula is not lost with this edition of the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks had a tough start to the season with their forward group with the flop signing of Marco Sturm and poor play of one Mikael Samuelsson, but November saw themselves begin to gel and gain chemistry with one another again.
The addition of David Booth to the Canucks' second line is clearly beginning to pay off, as the winger has three goals in his last five games and is slowly climbing out of the minus column. The Sedins and Burrows have been chipping in all season, as they always do, and Daniel finds him in the top 10 point-getters in the league at this stage of the season. The second line aka The "American Express" has been scoring largely with Chris Higgins as the surprise on that line, and they have been responsible on both ends of the ice.
We all knew the Canucks could be strong offensively again, but it is the play of the third and fourth lines that has impressed most this season. Max Lapierre and Jannik Hansen have been very impressive this season and are arguably the Canucks' most consistent players so far this season. With the return of Mason Raymond to the lineup, the third line got more dangerous and has helped boost the grade of the forwards through the early part of the season.
After a rough beginning, the Canucks' forwards have really begun to pick it up early on.
Overall Grade: B+
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Early on this season, the Canucks do not appear to be the same team as the one that made it within one win of the Stanley Cup a year ago, but that does not mean they are not as capable. Through 26 games, the Canucks are sporting a 15-10-1 record and are within striking distance of the Minnesota Wild for the Northwest Division lead.
After a dismal start to the season that saw the Canucks hover around the bottom of the Western Conference, their play really picked up in November, and that has continued into December. In true Canucks fashion, they had a terrible October and a tremendous November, and they have seemed to pass by their losing ways in their return to victory.
The Canucks still have plenty to improve on, but as the season has worn on, they have significantly been improving. Winning seven of their last eight games, and having a balanced December schedule, there is no reason why the Canucks shouldn't be able to rocket to the top of their division.
The early season woes of the Canucks seem to have dissipated, their legs seem to have returned and the Stanley Cup hangover is gone. They will need to play at the high level we have seen lately to continue their winning ways, but there aren't many doubts of their capabilities to win and reach the expectations that were set for them before this season.
John Bain is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist.
Follow him on Twitter: @JohnBainSports