Photo credit: Bridget Samuels
If Keith Ballard manages to play hero for the Vancouver Canucks in the coming months of battle for hockey’s greatest prize, then we might have a real conclusion to whether or not one of Mike Gillis’ big moves this past off-season was worth it. However, with Michael Grabner putting up 33 goals, the most by a rookie since Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin in ’06-07, and Mason Raymond struggling after a career year last year, it’s easy to see how some Canucks fans think the move was a bit of a flop. This is probably compounded by the fact that Ballard consistently finds himself in the AV doghouse, sitting behind six other Canucks defensemen in terms of ice time, only ahead of Andrew Alberts if we’re talking about D-men who don’t normally play for the Manitoba Moose. That’s a bit of an oddity considering he’s the second-highest paid defenseman after Dan Hamhuis. However, Ballard does lead the Canucks in one category: blocked shots, and his play has significantly improved lately but with only 7 points in what is widely considered the best regular season the Vancouver Canucks have ever had, it’s hard to not think what may have been if Grabner still wore an orca on the front of his sweater.
But, of course, it isn’t that simple. The playoffs aren’t here quite yet, Grabner wouldn’t get the same sort of ice time in Vancouver as he does in Long Island, and to Ballard’s credit, someone has to play sixth defenseman minutes and it sure isn’t going to be Alex Edler or Christian Ehrhoff. He’s part of what is arguably the deepest defensive corp in the NHL, although I still can’t explain why on earth Aaron Rome gets more minutes. Still, whether or not the trade paid off is still up in the air.
In the meantime, the Canucks may have another similar “problem” to deal with in the near future in Sergei Shirokov. A bit of news recently surfaced involving CSKA Moscow, a Russian squad that was previously the home team for Shirokov as well as Columbus Blue Jacket Nikita Filatov. Neither has really made a dent in the NHL as of yet and the Russian team would like them back. Shirokov has had some success with CSKA, tallying 40 points in 56 games, before turning down guaranteed money to make the move to North America. He’s a restricted free agent in ’11-12.
Shirokov is somewhat similar to Grabner. Both are quick players with an offense-first skill set, although Grabner arguably has a stronger offensive game and a small size advantage. Unfortunately for Shirokov, he’s run into a Canucks team that’s heavy on offensive talent. The Sedins, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler will be on the team perhaps until they retire, and Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson are likely to stick around at least another year so it’s hard to see where Shirokov would fit in. Is he going to skip over Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder, the Canucks’ previous two first round draft picks looking to break into the Canucks lineup next year? Actually, I have a hard time believing those two will make the team next year unless they make the move to wing, considering the center position on the first three lines is locked up.
So what does that mean for Shirokov? If the Canucks re-sign him, he’s unlikely to break into the top two lines unless the Canucks deal Raymond or Samuelsson this off-season. If he does make the Canucks lineup, it will probably be as part of the bottom-six with potential to move up much like Chris Higgins or Jeff Tambellini have this year. However, playing in the bottom-six usually means you have to have a physical element to your game, which is something Shirokov hasn’t shown us in his limited ice time with the big club this year, throwing only a single hit in his two games. The AHL doesn’t seem to keep stats on hits but I can only assume that he isn’t throwing bonecrushers for the Moose either. No, Shirokov would probably only be effective playing top-six with other talented players rather than the grinders. Just ask Tamby how he’s doing on the fourth line rather than the second.
Shirokov also has the salary cap working against him. If he’s re-signed at the same $1.3m, that’s simply a cost the Canucks can do without considering our current 3rd line wingers make $1m and $825k and we’ll need every penny to get Ehrhoff and possibly Kevin Bieksa under contract next season.
Will Shirokov go on to score 30+ in a full rookie campaign? He has the potential to but so far, he hasn’t shown us much beyond that. He’s a round peg finding nothing but square holes and it’s hard to see a scenario where he’ll not only fit into the Canucks system next year but thrive under those conditions. Personally, I think Canucks fans place a little too much value on players like Shirokov and Grabner, partly because they see the second coming of Pavel Bure whenever a quick European player with hands shows up in the system.
Whether the Grabner trade will be viewed as a success or not will probably come down to how Ballard plays in the playoffs this year, but really, the Canucks had no place for Grabs so they moved him for someone who fills one of the main concerns coming out of their second round ousting the previous year, defensive depth. Rather than having a potential 30-goal scorer sit in their system or languishing on fourth line minutes, they got something they needed in return.
The Shirokov situation is quite similar to Grabner’s so I think it’s quite likely they’ll look at a similar solution. He’ll most likely be qualified and moved for assets we can use elsewhere. However, unlike last year, the Canucks seem to have no real needs apart from a fourth line upgrade over Tanner Glass and a couple cardboard cutouts of players. They are a bit thin in terms of defensive prospects past pleasant surprise Chris Tanev but bluechippers on the blueline don’t come cheap and Shirokov won’t be enough. He’ll have to be part of the inevitable Cory Schneider deal or packaged with picks. No GM in the NHL is stupid enough to take an unproven player and give up any real assets.
Well, that and Florida doesn’t have anyone left we could fleece them for.