March 12 2014 05:20PM
I’ve been locked in an office for two
months reading and writing about health policy, I moved and didn’t have
internet for a while, and I’ve watched one hockey game since January –
Slovakia/Slovenia in the middle of the night on Valentine’s (don’t read into
that) – and even I know things are looking grim with the Canucks.
People point to the Islander’s meltdown, or the 2-11-1 streak, or the struggles of their stars as lynchpin. But this team has been on a collision course with failure for some time. One game shy of hockey’s ultimate prize, this club’s GM has been playing the same series every day since 2011. The loss of Malhotra and Lapierre after trading Hodgson the year previous left this team with major holes at centre. Gruff wingers Kassian, Sestito, and even the comparatively well-behaved Darren Archibald have taken up residence at the bottom-end of a roster with more ‘secondary scoring’ types than primary scorers. Major injuries to Burrows, both Sedins, Mike Santorelli, and Alex Edler on the back end have only made things harder. Oh, and you might have heard about them trading away two elite goaltenders in less than a calendar year.
Those who have seen the Canucks play this season have probably noticed a few other problems. John Tortorella isn’t a strong ‘systems’ guy, and it shows. Under Vigneault, the Canucks transitioned as a five-man unit, with strong skaters and puck movers on the back-end jumping into the play early and often. Under Torts, Canucks fans might have noticed the constant icing calls on missed 120’ passes. The transition game now relies on the equivalent of a lone receiver on a deep-route. Even when things connect, that player has to wait for his teammates to catch up. It’s ugly.
At the same time, the sheen has come off the Maurice Jets just a little after going 2-2-2 since the Olympic break. The Scheifele injury is a major one for a team with existing instability in the lines. But more than that, Maurice put the team in the playoff hunt with the most basic of hockey principles – don’t have three forwards deep, control the neutral zone, stay between the puck and your net. With the extra practice time, we’ve seen some of his wrinkles added to the plan with increased expectations for contact and more active blue liners. Since the break, the Jets are averaging 35 shots against per game and lord knows goaltending isn’t the strong point on this club.
It’s a matchup with playoff implications for both teams. Realistically, with both teams 6 points back of Minnesota and Dallas and having played more games than the teams in front of them, both teams are just looking to get themselves together.
- Ladd – Little – Frolik
- Kane – Jokinen – Setoguchi
- Byfuglien – O’Dell – Wheeler
- Tangradi – Slater – Halischuk
Eric O’Dell was recalled today after John Albert was exactly as effective as anyone can expect in 2:06 of ice time. What the lines will be is open to guess work, but the coach seems to love Big Buf’s physicality on forward. He also likes that he’s a good hockey player from defence, and occasionally spells him with Adam Pardy on that wing when Buf is tired from special teams work on the blue line. In essence, Olympian Blake Wheeler is asked to carry a line now that Michael Frolik has taken his place on the power-vs-power first line.
Rumours have Chris Thorburn returning to the lineup, but I choose to continue to live in a blissful fantasy land where his popcorn eating skills are utilized in the press box.
- Enstrom – Bogosian
- Stuart – Trouba
- Pardy – Ellerby
With the second lowest save percentage in the league over the last three seasons, Ondrej Pavelec hasn’t earned a lot of respect or trust between the pipes from fans. This is not a poor club from the goal line out, despite playing below expectations under the wonky systems of Claude Noel. The numbers show that the team would have made the playoffs in both previous seasons with a league average goaltender and things are shaping up this season to look like another narrow miss on the back of Pav’s career-low .902 sv% as a starter. He will start opposite Eddie Lack, the rookie backup with a .916 sv%.
- Burrows – H. Sedin – Jensen
- Higgins – Kesler – Hansen
- Sestito – Matthias – Booth
- Archibald – Schoeder – Dalpe
Matthias is the key return for Luongo, and goes a long way to replenishing the team’s centre depth. Still, the impact of the injuries are obvious. Jannik Hansen has been playing up the roster with the Burrows and now Santorelli injuries, and is still 11 points back of the ex-Jet walk-on despite playing 8 more games than Santorelli. Torts loves him as a deep-pass option because of his speed, but he doesn’t create a lot of offence.
Meanwhile, Niklas Jensen was terrific in pre-season play, and impressed me at the Young Stars Tournament back in September. His speed and shot were obviously NHL level, and he looked dangerous often. But 28 points in 71 AHL games to date is not encouraging.
Finally, Tom Sestito was a castaway from the Flyers and Blue Jackets. Him on the third line will remind Jets fans of the mid-season experiment with Chris Thorburn, only with more yelling and head-hunting. Oh, and no one saying he’s a great teammate. During the lockout, he played in the British pro league and scored 13 points in 11 games. He has 9 points in 63 games this season. Quite a talent.
- Edler – Bieksa
- Hamhuis – Tanev
- Garrison – Weber
Markstrom is the other tangible return for Luongo, but was exposed in his few games with Florida. In particular I remember Mark Arcobello potting two goals, including a no-look back-hander from the wing and later saying that everyone in the AHL had a book on him. That might be some of the explanation for his .898 NHL sv % so far through 44 games.
Luckily for the Canucks, they have Eddie Lack. Sure, he’s looked shaky since the Luongo trade, but his season numbers are very strong for a rookie and comparable to the departed star.
Rumours continue that the Canucks are going to move Edler, who went from an under-appreciated star under Vigneault to a struggling turnover machine under Torts. Hey, don’t the Jets desperately need a top-4 left-handed defender? I guess we just have to hope he gets put on waivers.
All Too Specific Predictions
Niklas Jensen gets his first goal of his NHL career in this, his 5th game. He breaks open on Mark Stuart with an outside-inside move and goes high blocker on Pavelec. Cheveldayoff is quick to point out that both players battled hard.
That goal is the only one of the game for the Canucks, who give up 4 straight to the larger, faster Jets. The first is a rebound from an Ellerby leaning writer that Gucher pounces on to exit the 1st 1-1. Ladd pots another on the old stationary cycle, followed by a crease-crashing goal for Eric O’Dell who pushes the puck under the goalie while everyone wonders what the rules are for covering a puck. Evander Kane closes things out in the third with a wrister wired from just beside his left foot on an off-pace move to the middle that uses the defender as a screen. Pavelec faces 24 shots and the broadcast crew won’t shut up about him as a difference maker, even though his numbers are closer to Jacob Markstrom’s than Al Montoya’s.