Over the next few days, Flames Nation will offer previews of every team in the Northwest division. To start off, here’s an overview of the Vancouver Canucks.
Regular season – NW division champions: 103 points, 3rd seed in WC playoffs
Playoffs – Beat L.A. 4-2 in first round, lost 4-2 to Chicago in second round
Significant additions – Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard
Injuries – Alexandre Burrows, and shockingly, Sami Salo
Key players – Sedins, Kesler, Luongo
Cap position – tight
Predicted finish – 1st in the division
The Canucks are this season’s semi-fashionable pick to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought, given that they didn’t lose any major contributors and might have added a couple of very nice, albeit somewhat overpaid D. The team also appears to have filled in a hole or two in their bottom six. As much as I might like to see them fail, Vancouver are division favourites for good reason.
Alan Vigneault gave Ryan Kesler the full time job of taking on the other team’s best players last season, and until they ran into a team that was deeper than themselves in the second round of the playoffs, that strategy was sound. Kesler is a terrific player who can carry other decent players again top comp, and playing with him likely helped give Mason Raymond’s bank account a nice boost this summer. Once they get healthy, I’d suspect that the Canucks either use Burrows or Samuelsson as the other winger on Kesler’s unit, and it will be the play of Kesler that can really give Vancouver a leg up. His ability to at least saw-off everyone else’s first lines allows Vigneault the luxury of using the Sedins against lesser forward lines, and Hank Sedin’s Hart Trophy campaign was aided immeasurably by not having to play the toughs night after night.
The Sedins are certainly good, though, and they took full advantage of those cushy circumstances to kick the living hell out of soft competition. Some of that was certainly percentage driven in Henrik’s case, but I do note that he shot from a significantly shorter distance than he had in previous seasons. It will interesting to see if he can sustain that sort of production, but even if there’s a drop off, he and his brother Daniel are first rank forwards, and they along with Kesler are the best 1-2-3 in the division at the moment.
Of course, being a team that was only two lines deep ended up biting the Canucks in the ass against the Hawks, so Mike Gillis dipped into the UFA pool for Manny Malhotra. It’s an interesting move, and it isn’t without the potential to backfire. Malhotra’s a decent enough player, but his salary now reflects results gained in some measure by good fortune. His PDO (combined EVSV% and EVSH% while he was on the ice) was 105.1. That’s not normally the type of number that holds up year after year. His numbers over the two previous seasons in Columbus were acceptable enough, but I wouldn’t be shocked if his 5v5 +/- took a hit this year.
The other potentially useful forward obtained via free agency was Raffi Torres, whose 1M deal might end up being a worthwhile expenditure. He can compete at some sort of decent level against bottom sixers, and he’ll be a fill-in on the Kesler line while Alex Burrows spends another month or so rehabbing a bum shoulder. I suspect the Canucks would like to see the return of Crazy Raffi, but I’m still of the opinion that Torres hasn’t been quite the same since he was hurt in Edmonton. He’s not terrible, though.
The Canucks spent major money on defenders this summer, and as a result have a pile of dough tied up on the back end. They acquired Keith Ballard from Florida at the draft in exchange for not much, adding his 4M+ ticket to the payroll. He played the other team’s best with the Panthers in 09/10, but he was very bad at it, with possession numbers that might make me think that he’s being overpaid.
Another big salary arrived via the UFA market, with Dan Hamhuis returning to his home province for 4.5M a year on a six-year deal. Again, though, he was pushed out of Nashville’s top pairing by the middle of last year on the merits. He’s a very nice third defenceman, and if I were to summarize Vancouver’s entire D corps with one statement, that would be it. They have plenty of good defencemen, and several expensive ones, but Alex Edler might be the closest they have to a player that can handle the other top lines. Willie Mitchell was the guy for Vancouver in that role until his concussion, and I’m not quite convinced they’ve replaced him. Sami Salo might also get that sort of duty for two or three games after his return from injury, before he stabs himself with a spork, or sleeps on his eye wrong, or whatever the hell else afflicts him next.
Like any other team that’s sunk big cash into a goalie, it’s probably Bobby Lou or bust. Luongo didn’t have his best year by raw save percentage in 09/10, but his .926 EVSV% was right in line with most of the other top goalies in the game. He’ll be backed up by Cory Schneider, as the long-time prospect will finally get a chance to open the gate as a back-up. Luongo has certainly taken his share of hits for his post-season play, but for all I know Dustin Byfuglien relocating his big keister to the other conference might be enough to push him, and the Canucks, farther along in the playoffs.
Teams mostly go as far as their best players, and the Canucks have the best collection of top end forwards in the division, a reasonable group of defenders and a good goalie. They aren’t without holes, and the absence of a serious shut-down D might hurt them in the post season, but they have fewer chinks in their armor than the other teams in the Northwest. They’ll likely finish first again absent some very strange happenings or a long-term injury to Luongo.