What if?

I’ll tell you what would have happened if he had stayed at home; we might have won another game.  In fact, we should have SENT him home.

Well, another season come and gone, with little to show, ultimately.  It sticks in my craw that we bow out in the same fashion, to the same team, as we did last year.  But in retrospect, is the season a complete bust?  Well, no.  It was actually quite a successful season, one that saw the first Canuck ever to win the Art Ross, and get nominated for the Hart and the Pearson (sorry, Ted Lindsay, I’m totally not used to the trophy being named after you, nor do I understand why it’s being named after you, nor do I understand why the NHL has to screw with the one damn thing they have going for them – tradition).  We saw our goalie win gold, just not the silver we wanted as well.  We saw two guys – Alex Burrows and Michael Samuelsson – get turned into 30+ goal scorers by the twins.  We saw two players, Raycroft and Wellwood, achieve some small level of vindication.  We saw Shane O’Brien join the All Fat team (and we saw inaugural member Keith Tkachuk retire), a stain that follows you for the rest of your career (just ask Wellwood).  We saw some of our young guys take some steps forwards, and some of our old guys take leaps backwards.

As I wrote on my Facebook, we were done in by a problem that’s been a question mark all year long: our defence.  Just a few short years ago, our defence and it’s depth were to be envied across the league.  Then Ohlund walked.  And Mitchell got hurt (on a dirty hit from behind from Geno Malkin that went unpenalized, forget un-suspended – no one seems to be talking about that, because its way more convenient to focus on guys like Matt Cooke).  And you just don’t lose 2 top pairing guys like that and feel no effect at all.  If you add in the spectacular decline of Kevin Bieksa, and the even more oft injured Sami Salo, we were basically playing with Shane O’Brien (who might one day be a player you can rely on if he can keep his head out of his ass, his hand off of the pizza, and his foot out of his mouth), Christian Ehrhoff (who was a revelation this year – what a pickup) and Alex Edler (who turned in a steady, solid effort night in and night out).  Oh, don’t let me forget the bunch of studs we had playing 2nd pairing minutes who are, at best, press box guys.  Alberts, Rome, Baumgartner, Nycholat – these guys should barely hold a big league card, let alone play 20 minutes a night.

Everyone seems to want to pin this on Luongo, and, while I understand where the sentiment comes from, its hardly fair.  Did he struggle?  At times, mightily.  But he was heroic in some games, and made enough stops at enough of the right times for the Canucks to win.  I sure hope he has a good checklist of things to work on this offseason.  I just hope that among them are:

  • Dealing with traffic in front of the net and in the crease
  • Rebound control
  • Figuring out how to stop the puck while getting run by Orlando Pace on skates

If this shows anything, it’s that in the new NHL, goalies mean less than they did just 6 years ago.  The prevailing wisdom now is instead of paying one great goalie a large sum of money, pay two good goalies lesser sums of money, and ride whichever is hotter.  All the new rules that help goal scoring have made it impossible for goalies to dominate the game like they did in the late 90s/ early 00s.  Look at the teams left in the playoffs: Chicago, San Jose, Pittsburg, Montreal, Boston, Philly.  If we ignore Philly (who doesn’t have a goalie, period), you’ve got only 2 teams with a legit number one tag, SJ and Pittsburg.  Look at the good teams that have bowed out: NJ, Vancouver, Colorado, Phoenix, Buffalo – all these teams had a clear number one goalie who, in the end, for one reason or another, lost the series.    All you have to do is look at the Red Wings – a team usually ahead of the curve when it comes to player trends and development – and look at the system they’ve used since the Hasek days.  Ken Holland was even once quoted as saying (and I paraphrase) that if you can’t get one of the top 5 goalies in the league, there’s not much a difference between #6 and #20 – why pay for #6 if #15 is available at half the price?

That being said, I still believe we have a guy who is one of the top 5 in the league.  He struggled at times with his focus and with tapping his reserves of Vintage Luo when we needed it, but I’m willing to give him a little bit of a pass because of the amazing emotional high that he had to come down from after the Olympics.  I think next year, he comes back ready, and hopefully better than he was this year.

Are we proud of Henrik for all of his personal success this season?  Yes.  I’m especially proud, given how many of his detractors he proved wrong this year.  Still, I wouldn’t be a hockey fan if I was satisfied with his regular season performance; where’s the post-season production?  Both he and Daniel were bottled up in the Hawks series, not by physical play – though that certainly got to Daniel – but because they seemed unwilling to cycle with the higher intensity of the playoffs.  In the regular season, their cycle is deadly.  It keeps going until a chance becomes available.  But in the playoffs, the level of interference that’s allowed goes up – despite what Bettman wants you to believe – and the twins weren’t able to keep their cycle moving.  And once a cycle gets static, it’s very easy to defend.

What about guys like Burrows, Raymond, Kesler, Samuelsson, Grabner and Hansen, all of whom I thought made great strides?  Kesler turned into a bonafide defensive center, one of the best in the league.  That he contributed 75 points is a bonus – one that would have had every team in the league ready to over pay him.  Even at $5 MM, I think he’s over valued, as his limited offensive skill set will make that contract pretty tough to swallow in the coming years, when we’re jonesing for a second line center that can dictate some offence.  Raymond was stellar for the first half of the season, showing off the work he put into his shot in the off season.  But he’ll need to continue his improvement, and learn to play a full 82 games, as he was a non-factor for the rest of the season, and for most of the playoffs.  Speaking of non-factors in the playoffs, what happened to Burrows?  A 35 goal man in the regular season, he provided grit and toughness to the Sedin line, and went to the net hard on a nightly basis.  I think I saw him do that once in the post-season, and lo and behold, we scored.  In the playoffs, he specialized at scoring empty net goals.

One could take heart in the play of Grabner and Hansen, both of whom acquit themselves well with limited playing time.  Hansen showed a mix of hustle, grit and skill that could well earn him a regular spot on the 2nd or 3rd line.  Grabner showed off his exemplary speed and puck skill, and his hustle.  If we do lose Mason Raymond this offseason, the impact will be lessened by Michael Grabner.  And what can I say about Samuelsson?  When Gillis signed him, I was skeptical.  Ok, maybe skeptical isn’t the right word – I was aghast.  Why?  For how much?  Are you kidding me?!  But he proved me wrong, at least for the regular season and one series.  Samuelsson was a stalwart on the top two lines, both being defensively responsible and offensively able.  He meshed well with the twins, giving that line a completely different look than when they were paired with Burrows.

Still, with the off season now here, Gillis should be busy.  What do we need?  Here’s how I see it:

  • Two defencemen, a replacement for Willie Mitchell (if he’s still concussed), and a replacement for the corpse of Kevin Bieksa: Mitchell was a complete differencemaker in retrospect.  As soon as we lost him, we lost our ability to play tough and smart in front of our net, and lost a guy that played 25-27 minutes a night.  If he’s done (and I wish him the best), we need another guy like that: makes simple plays with the puck, plays physically, and is not too slow.  Bieksa’s fall off, meanwhile, was spectacular this season.  I’ve never been a fan of the guy, but his ankle tendon laceration combined with his usual stupid play with the puck combined to make him a millstone around our necks this playoffs.  There is a bit of a shortage of young defensive talent on the UFA market this year (Hamhuis, Volchenkov, Martin, maybe Morris, Michalek), and Gillis will have to overpay to get one, let alone 2 of these guys.
  • Resign the kids: guys like Raymond and Hansen need to be resigned, and, given their contributions, they may not come as cheaply as they should.
  • Resign the key vets: decisions need to be made on guys like Johnson and Wellwood.  Wellwood has been much-maligned, and at times, he’s played poorly.  But he was – dare I say – good in the playoffs, providing some creative offence with a willingness to back check.  Is he a great 3rd line center?  No.  Is he good enough to be a 2nd line center?  No.  But he’s a PP specialist, good on the faceoff, and has extraordinary puck skills and vision.  You just always wish he was faster and played harder.  He may come cheap, in which case, he’s worth it.  Johnson was injured most of the year, but provides you with a PK specialist that blocks shots at an absurd rate.  He’s the perfect 4th line center, but is his age and injury tendency worth the risk?  Not sure.  Michael brought to my attention one Zenon Konopka, a man who led the NHL in faceoff percentage and fighting majors, and made ~$500k last season.  He’s available, though replacing Johnson’s work on the PK and defensively will be difficult.
  • Schneider or Raycroft: Andrew Raycroft was actually very good this season.  In his limited work, he put up respectable numbers for a very respectable price.  But Cory Scneider is waiting in the wings, and it would be a shame to see him depart before getting a chance to prove his worth in the NHL.  If Schneider will come cheap, that may give us the 1 – 2 goaltending punch we need.  That’s a big If.  My guess is that he gets signed to an offer sheet, and we get a collection of picks for him.  Best case scenario is a sign and trade – maybe we can get a defenceman that way.
  • Size: Never was our lack of size more apparent than in the Chicago series, where we essentially got pushed around all over the ice.  Chicago’s collection of Neanderthals (Ben Eager, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Adam Burrish, Troy Brouwer) effectively neutralized our top guys and we had no counter-punch.  Its fine if your top two lines are smaller – those are supposed to be your skill guys – but we need to find some bigger players that can play. This is an important distinction.  The NHL is no longer a place where you can just be a giant that can’t skate and doesn’t have any skill.  Look at Byfuglien – huge, skilled, can skate.  He’s the prototype of the new NHL big man.
  • One more top 6 forward: Much respect to Burrows and Samuelsson, but when those guys are leading your team in goal scoring, you’re going to have a problem when defences get tight.  The problem is, neither can create offence on their own.  The biggest difference between guys like the Sedins and guys like Kesler is that if you give the Sedins time and space, they’ll kill you with it.  If you give Kesler time and space, he doesn’t know what to do with it.  Probably just use that really loose and long wrister that’s so easy to see coming, he might as well take a slapper.  We need one more guy who can create chances on his own.  Maybe this guy is Hodgson, maybe its not.  I’m guessing this year, its not.
  • Prospect Defencemen: I’ve seen plenty harp on the fact that our cupboard is bare when it comes to blueline prospects.  But need I remind everyone that we had a good one; his name was Luc Bourdon.  Still, it’s been 2 seasons since Luc passed, and we still have nothing to show.  Its probably time for Gillis to address this glaring hole.

Thanks for a good season, Canucks.  I just wish we were still playing hockey.

Leave a Reply