The Vancouver Province newspaper is trolling Jets fans on twitter today in a manner that fits the Canucks’ personality so perfectly. I’m sure if you mention politely that it’s probably a bit below them, they’ll take a dive and file for libel, so watch yourselves Jets fans.
In all seriousness, the Canucks have corrected a number of their early season struggles, and Tortorella has ended a lot of the ‘game within the game’ buffoonery the Canucks were once known for around the league. In the case of Kesler, Torts has convinced him to play hockey again and the result is that he’s back on track to be a 35 goal scorer. Now the two teams have a great deal in common, including a massive drop-off in talent from the top half of their respective rosters to the bottom half, such that structure and goaltending are the primary differences.
Having a second line behind the generational talents of Hank and Dan Sedin has meant a lot to the club, but their December success has had a lot to do with percentages. The team has gone 8-1-1 on the back of a stunning goals against number, plummeting from 2.46 goals against per game in November to a ridiculous 1.60 in ten December games. Only LA is ahead of them this month with a rate of 1.3 goals against. That number has drawn league wide attention for goaltenders Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones, but somehow Luongo’s .943 (and Lack’s .958) December save percentage has gone without much fanfare. Poor Luongo and his flat, flat tires.
Fewer goals against have actually coincided with more shots against this month, as injuries to struggling stalwart Alex Edler and former Sedin-magic-benecificary Alex Burrows have weakened an already shallow roster. Still, the wins keep coming and the situation has led many Canucks fans (AKA my beer league hockey team) to annoint Chris Tanev a top flight defender and proclaim the -12 Alex Edler unnecessary or even detrimental on the roster.
Burrows has had his own struggles, as Torts has moved him around the lineup in the fashion Jets fans know best as ‘the Burmistrov treatment.’ He does well in one spot, so the coach sees fit to put him in every other spot in the lineup until he throws his hands up in frustration. A few more weeks of success and those two players may become available for the right price.
Most interestingly (to me), is that the change in coach has led to a massively different style of play. The Canucks use a 114′ spread in their offensive transition (goal line to far blue line), and defenders are expected to move the puck most of that distance. The result is that they use dump- and chip-in’s more than I remember in past years. As well, the puck carrier is not often the player with speed as they enter the zone. Instead, it’s the second and third forwards who hit the line with speed and an early zone pass is used to reverse field and/or force high-low plays against the defenders.
The Jets don’t manage the neutral zone well, and their often aggressive forecheck leaves them vulnerable to this particular transition play. At least, more so than many teams. I expect to see a lot of 3 on 2’s against the Jets, and for the Jokinen line to be eaten alive as Olli Jokinen’s neutral zone awareness is as close to zero as any NHL hockey player can be. In contrast, Little and Ladd, as well as Frolik and Tangradi, are tremendous at picking off those long passes, and this game will turn on the discipline of the Canucks to ladder up the boards and chip-in when facing the Jets’ best defending groups.
From the other perspective, the Jets will need to limit the time of the Canuck defenders to make those long plays, and in doing, create offensive opportunities from low in the zone by out-numbering on the puck.
- Ladd – Little – Wheeler
- Kane – Scheifele – Frolik
- Thorburn – Jokinen – Setoguchi
- Wright – O’Dell – Tangradi
I have to admit that I was very impressed with James Wright as a teammate in the last contest. Claude Noel has given O’Dell a very poor opportunity at the end of the roster for his NHL debut, but Wright kept trying to feed him the puck to get him chances. Good for Wright for recognizing how special this is for O’Dell, as well as the fact that O’Dell is a terrific scoring forward at the AHL level and needs a chance to show that he can do it in the majors. So, James Wright for coach? Boy, this season is getting weird.
The Jokinen line was the only substantial negative from the Florida game. They were on for the majority of the Panthers’ even strength shots in spite of playing less than a third of the Jets’ minutes. The Thorburn experiment ran out of steam some time ago, and since that fateful game in New York when the line was launched, Thorburn has one point and is -5. O’Dell is left handed and looks capable in few minutes, Tangradi and Thorburn are both playing their off-wings, and Wright was a better centre than left winger earlier in the year. That Noel is so stubborn in the face of the common sense of this lineup is funny so long as the team keeps winning.
Evander Kane had one of his best games of the year against Florida. He was an absolute bully, picking on Scottie Upshall, getting under the skin of multiple Panthers, putting points on the board, and putting his shoulder into every Florida crest he could find. He creates a ton of space with his size and speed, and it’s nice to see him with Frolik who can help him defensively, and Scheifele who can change the pace of the offence. Scheifele has a 5 game point streak and is starting to enter Calder territory after looking very lost early in the year.
- Enstrom – Bogosian
- Clitsome – Byfuglien
- Stuart – Trouba
I can only imagine Pav gets the start, with Montoya tomorrow night in Edmonton. Still, Pav has been the anti-Luongo this month, with an .877 – good for 55th among 66 goaltenders to play this month. Goodness. So much for that career year…
Bogosian’s return to the lineup was a positive one. He made a few rusty mistakes, including trying to carry across the defensive zone and onto his backhand one one shift, but was generally seen rattling chest cavities and making pucks thankful they don’t have computer chips yet ("Why? Why was I programmed to feel pain?"). Enstrom is the best partner he’s had this year, and should lend some awareness to the pairing.
Grant Clitsome missed the Florida game with illness, but I’m assuming he’s back in to play with his old pal Big Buf. That pairing his high event, but Byfuglien is currently fourth in scoring by a defenceman in spite of a poor powerplay rate by the Jets as a whole. The team needs this pairing, even as they continue their in-depth study of Michael Keaton in Multiplicity and the harvesting of Enstrom’s DNA material.
Jacob Trouba carried not only his pairing with the frenetic Mark Stuart, but his whole five man unit as the two-some most often played with the Jokinen line. Trouba has the worst zone starts on the team in the classic Atlanta model of youth development known as "Shock Therapy."
- D. Sedin – H. Sedin – Hansen
- Higgins – Kesler – Santorelli
- Booth – Richardson – Kassian
- Sestito – Dalpe – Weiss
Oh, Zac Dalpe. The former favourite for a second line job in Carolina is likely happy just to have a semi-permanent NHL job, but playing with the stick optional Tom Sestito and the star of the Tilburg Trappers Dale Weiss has to be a bit of a let down.
The truth about this lineup is that it’s a lot like the Jets. The talent of the Sedins can’t be compared to anyone the Jets have, but the LLW line does some of what the Sedins do – score at even strength regardless of who they face. As well, a cobbled together second line has made a major impact for the Canucks. Former Jet Mike Santorelli leads the team at +14 and he and Kesler are tied for third in points with 26.
After that, the team has David Booth (who should be better), and a lot of question marks. Zach Kassian has his moments, but has the vision of a player wearing Zoomies. Sure, all his TVs are big screen TVs, but his awareness of the play is very limited to what’s right in front of him (and perhaps whose jaw needs breaking). Brad Richardson was an expendable fourth liner on a deeper Kings team and has managed a Matt Halischuk-esque disaster of a season from the perspective of puck possession.
The primary difference is in how the coach utilizes a shallow team, and Torts has managed to use team structure to keep this group from falling apart and being exposed individually. It’s a novel approach.
The Sedins lead the club with 33 points each ("they’re twins in everything," a Sportsnet Pacific analyst will undoubtedly say tonight). But Hansen is a successful third liner with terrific speed and not a whole lot more. Five of his 10 points on the year have come this month and since the Burrows injury.
- Hamhuis – Tanev
- Bieksa – Garrison
- Weber – Alberts
I’m going to be honest, even though it makes Canucks fans yell. I don’t think Chris Tanev has the physical skating ability to be a top-4 NHL defenceman, and his success has come in large part because he plays on a very good defence corps of Hamhuis, Bieksa, Edler, and now Garrison.
It’s an unpopular opinion that Tanev is working hard to make down right silly this season. To my eye, he wins a lot of battles other, better defencemen just wouldn’t be in. I think at some point teams figure out how to use his poor edge control to get him turned and there will be a moment when he goes from engaged and winning battles to behind them and watching.
(Of course, if he doesn’t, I can always just say he improved his skating. I’m sure someone will publish a ‘he got a skating coach and is in the best shape of his life!’ article by next training camp I can point to.)
Sincerely, he’s a rising star for this club and comes from the Ryan Suter tree of calm, anticipatory defenders. If he continues to have success, it will be because of his big brain.
Jason Garrison had a tough adjustment to the Canucks last year, and then coach Alain Vigneault used him a defensive specialist as Florida had prior to his scoring breakout. This year, he’s 9th in NHL scoring by a defenceman with 23 points while his puck possession game has come apart a little. It may be the transition gap I mentioned above, that he’s trying more homerun passes than some of the other defenders, or that he’s strong in-zone and not as strong in transition. It’s worth a look tonight.
Speaking of lacking in skating prowess, it’s hilarious to me that Andrew Alberts still has a job on this team. Torts has long loved these types (Stu Bickell comes to mind), but watching him live against Colorado recently was a joke. They made him look like he was wearing skate weights and the entire flow of the game changed when he stepped onto the ice. But he’s strong, so… hopefully the Jets just skate around him instead of letting him prove that.