Thursday, October 13, 2005

How good are the Vancouver Canucks?

I made a point of watching the entire Minnesota-Vancouver game on TSN Wednesday night for a couple of reasons.

The first was because I bought into all the media hype that the game would have playoff level intensity due to the supposed bad blood that still lingered between these teams from their tough seven game series in the second round of the 2003 playoffs. In that sense, it was a complete disappointment. Not only was it not even close to being comparable to playoff hockey, it was barely an intense regular season game. I can understand TSN promoting the game in this way, as it benefits them, but why did the rest of the media?

The other reason I wanted to see the game was to get a good look at the Canucks. I only saw bits and pieces of their Saturday night game on HNIC against the Oilers, and what I did see, I was not impressed with. Yet I saw many ‘Nucks fans talking about how they were pleased with their team’s play. So I figured I’d give ‘em a second chance.

Once again, another disappointment.

I realize that judging the fate of a team based on a single hockey game is not exactly a fair and accurate method, but if this was a window into the Vancouver Canucks, B.C. hockey fans should be worried. They looked unorganized, undisciplined, lacking motivation, and without much of a consistent work ethic from top to bottom.

Much has been made about this team’s depleted defence core. In the offseason, they lost Brent Sopel to the Islanders and Marek Malik to the Rangers. Malik never struck me as all that important, but he was a big body. The big loss was Sopel. Once the whipping boy of B.C., he had matured into one of their better two-way defencemen; solid in his own end and more than capable of contributing offensively. The fact they essentially let him go for nothing as a salary dump didn’t sit well with a lot of Vancouver residents, and rightfully so. They’ve plugged those holes with Steve McCarthy and Nolan Baumgartner.

But what it also means is that the remaining guys must carry the load. When Sami Salo is on your top defence pairing, and Bryan Allen is on your second, you might be in trouble. Last night, it sure looked like it.

Salo had a solid run in Ottawa, but was never able to stay healthy. Who knows if he was just snake bitten or it was a result of bad conditioning, but since heading out West, that seems to have been rectified, as Salo’s been mostly healthy. Still, paired with Mattias Ohlund, who might give his fellow countryman Mattias Normstrom a run for the “most underrated NHL defenceman” title, means Salo has to play a lot of minutes. I’m not convinced he’s capable of doing this night in and night out. So far this season he’s actually leading the team in average ice time at 26:35, and with five points thus far, seems to be holding his own. But can this last? Last night, he looked really good in the first period, pretty good in the second, and invisible in the third.

Bryan Allen, once a first round pick, is a real good #5 or #6 defenceman on most teams, but being asked to play 20 minutes a night with the Canucks also should be worrisome.

Of the new guys, Baumgartner impressed, but McCarthy looked downright awful, almost putting the put in his own net.

Up front, the Todd Bertuzzi-Brendan Morrison-Markus Naslund line has gotten the tag of the best in the NHL. On paper, it seems to be. But they did not look like it last night. Bertuzzi had a mostly dull and boring game, and still seems to be feeling the effects of the Steve Moore incident. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why Bert doesn’t play with that same edge that made him one of the most dominant forwards in the league. He did get into a scrap, and the announcers noted that hopefully that would wake him up, but alas, no such thing occurred. Once back on the ice, he resumed his sleep inspiring play. Very few hits thrown, little aggression. As for Morrison, I would comment on him, but the truth is, most of the time, I barely noticed him out there.

The only one who I thought had a moderately good game was Naslund. He was creating almost all of the line’s chances himself, with seemingly little help from the other two, but with Minnesota’s tough defence, it wasn’t if he was going to be able to score goals himself without the other two doing something. Another thing I liked about Naslund’s game was his play in the Canucks’ zone. His offensive prowess gets tons of praise, but Naslund’s solid defensive play mostly goes unnoted by most pundits.

The alleged second line of the Sedin Twins and Anson Carter didn’t fare much better, with little offence produced from any of the three. It’s been said that if the Canucks are to take the next step as a team in the playoffs, they’ll need secondary scoring, and I assume that why’s Carter was brought in. I hope last night was just an aberration.

As for who I liked, I thought the Canucks best forward line was Matt Cooke-Richard Park-Ryan Kesler, but when looking at the stat sheet, discovered they went –2 as a line for the game. That might just be an indication of how insignificant the +/- stat is. At the very least, at least they seemed to actually have some emotional investment in the outcome of the game. Cooke was his usual self, banging and crashing and making things happen. He’s never had much finish, which makes me wonder why they don’t put him on a line with some people who do. Who would benefit from his work ethic. I remember he filled in for Bertuzzi on the big line when #44 was suspended, and fared pretty well. If the Sedins and Carter continue to struggle, then Marc Crawford might want to look into putting Cooke onto that line to at least provide some energy.

Richard Park was always a forward I liked, and he looked solid in Wednesday’s game. Kesler is not someone I’m all that aware of, but he played a decent game as well.

Beyond them, I actually went out of my way to try and see how Trevor Linden played. Not good. Has father time caught up with him, or is he still feeling the wrath of the year of hell that is being the NHLPA President during a work stoppage? Obviously I haven’t been following this team closely enough to have the answer, but it was almost sad how little of an impact he had in last night’s game. Once a top player in the NHL, Linden seems to have fallen into mediocracy. And why did he lose his “A”?

I have never been a big fan of Dan Cloutier. Never convinced he’s a legitimate number one goalie. In that sense, he’s been the Western Conference version of Patrick Lalime. But at least with Lalime, once he was exposed, the Sens cut bait and got a new ‘tender. The Canucks have stuck with Cloutier. I’ve never known whether to applaud their loyalty or criticize their stupidity. Part of it, I always assumed, was Brian Burke’s own stubbornness. He told everyone who would listen that Cloutier was a legitimate NHL starting goalie that to send him packing and get a new one would be admitting he was wrong. Not something he seems to be a fan of. But when Dave Nonis took over the Canucks GM job, he had a perfect opportunity to abandon the Dan Cloutier Plan and start fresh between the pipes. He did no such thing, instead signing him to a new contract.

Giving up six goals might make some fans of the team point the finger at Cloutier for last night’s loss, but the truth is, I don’t think he was at fault. He made several big saves that kept them in the game when they were playing dreadfully. A few of the late goals he gave up were not exactly highlight reel caliber, but by then, the game was over. The Canucks had played poorly for almost the entire game up to then, so even if Cloutier had made another game saving stop, it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference.

On the other side, Minnesota looked like a team possessed. Some have theorized that the new crackdown on obstruction, the emphasis on offence, and the rules that have attempted to minimize the effect of coaching on the game would hurt Minnesota as hard as any other team. I must admit, I did. I didn’t even pick them to make the playoffs. I had to eat a lot of crow last night. My first look at the Wild in the new NHL showed me that their demise has been greatly exaggerated. They’re a fast skating, good passing, consistent forechecking team with solid goaltending and, from one to six, a strong defence. They’ll definitely be in the mix in the Western Conference. I should have known better than to have counted out Jacques Lemaire.

As for the Canucks, it was just one game, and before I write them off as a contender, I probably should watch them a bit more. But with a national TV audience watching, they crapped the bed. The Western Conference appears to be wide open, and there are probably a half dozen teams that could take the title. The Canucks were at the top of most pundit’s lists as to who would win it, but after last night, they might want to do what I did and take a closer look.

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