It’s been a long time coming, but tonight is the Flames first look at the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks. The divisions putative champions are mostly the same team that ran away with things last year. Although the start of the season hasn’t been quite smooth sailing, they doubtlessly remain at the head of the class.
The Canucks currently reside behind the Avalanche in the NW with 27 points, mostly because COL has played a couple more games. Even though Vancouver is on a 100 point pace, the fanbase hasn’t been totally satisfied with the club’s opening quarter. Some of the anxiety springs from the rather average play of Roberto Luongo thus far – ‘LOOOUUU’ currently boasts a .913 SV% (.917 ES SV%), which isn’t terrible but still falls below his pay grade. Rookie Cory Schneider has been celebrated as a capable stop-gap during Luongo’s "struggles", but the truth is the kid has been below average at ES so far (.911) but sports an impossibly perfect 1.00 in both special teams areas to boost his overall average to .936. He’s a quality prospect, but that number isn’t for real.
Of course, should Schneider develop into anything but a steady back-up, the Canucks face an interesting conundrum: Luongo is signed to a big dollar contract that extends into the shiny of world of tomorrow, forever. If Schneider were to ever usurp Luongo, the Cancuks would be stuck with a difficult to move, boat anchor of a deal. What’s more likely, however, is the Canucks are simply spending time and money developing a capable starter for some other team in the near future. Either they’ll have to deal Schneider for some sort of nominal return or he’ll bolt as a free agent since his opportunities for advancement in the org are obviously capped.
Up front, AV is running his bench in the exact same fashion he worked things last year: privileging the glimmer twins with the best possible circumstances, feeding Ryan Kesler the tougher comp and then simply burying everyone else. The Sedins each have an offensive zone start ratio of 70%+ (!!!), which means of course they are well out in front in terms of possession (+17/+18 corsi per 60). Kesler and Mason are in the 50% range while everyone from Malholtra on down is in the 30-40% range. As a result, the Canucks have one of the widest ranges in terms of possession rates in the NHL, with their top end killing things and their pluggers getting crushed. Malholtra and Torres were brought in to stabilize the Canucks third line, but all that’s done motivate the coach to roast them on the spit with the 4th line.
It’s an interesting strategy to pursue and one I’ve personally considered for the Flames, especially because Calgary’s depth beyond the top six is marginally superior to the Cancuks (who feature the likes of Tanner Glass, Mario Bliznak, Jannik Hansen, Rick Rypien and Joel Perrault at the bottom end of the rotation). Assuming Raitis Ivanans never makes it back into the line-up, the Flames coule probably cobble together a decent enough latter six group that could hold things together well enough to give guys like Iginla, Tanguay, Stajan and whoever else the Sedin-like high ground. Unfortunately, Sutter strikes me as far too conservative and concerned with the defensive end to ever make sucha severe adjustment, but…
Finally, as Robert noted in his recent news and notes article, Vancouver is having issues with it’s "everyone about the same pay and ability" blueline strategy. The Canucks began the year with Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, Sami Salo and Alex Edler all making north of $3M. That’s a lot of scratch and not enough minutes to go around to justify it. The inevitable Salo injury made things a bit easier in the short-term, but the truth is someone was bound to get squeezed out eventually – when a club has near interchangable depth at a given position, the method for dealing with struggles naturally go from "he’s working his way through it" to "he needs a few nights wathcing things from the press box". Like Cory Sarich and Steve Staios here in town, Keith Ballard has found himself on the outside looking in more often than not, which is a less than ideal situation for an org that gave up a bunch of assets in his acquisition and is commited to paying him $4.2M per year until 2013. We could probably wallow in the schadenfreude a little easier if the Flames themsevles didn’t boast some $5.7M in bad money on the back-end as well. Alas.