Richard Loat

May 052011
 

With the Canucks amidst one of the best seasons they’ve ever had we’re seeing fans go to extraordinary lengths to support their team. This includes the passionate fans behind Force and Sully, The Green Men, and extends to the hundreds of fans that invaded California along with the Canucks to make their road presence known. With the great lengths we’ve seen Canucks fans travel, it only made sense to support The RUSH Vancouver when they approached us with Mason Raymond swag for you guys to win!

The RUSH: Race & Urban Scavenger Hunt is not your ordinary event. Teams of 2 will scour the city of Vancouver, deciphering clues to help them complete a predetermined number of Checkpoint Challenges at unknown locations. The challenges are designed to test teams’ limits, both mentally and physically, while also being fun and entertaining. The first team to complete the race wins a trip for two around the world!

You can check out the event and even enter a team here. Heck, I’d even encourage you to do the whole race in as much Canucks gear as possible. Make it fun!

For fun we’ve created a bit of a contest and we’re giving away a signed Mason Raymond Tshirt and a signed Mason Raymond Flag! So how do you enter? There’s a couple of ways:

1. Leave a comment on this post telling us which road city you would want to watch the Canucks play in if you had a ticket to any hockey city in the world. Yeah, that’s right, the world. If you wanted to see the Canucks play Modo, that’s acceptable. It would be kind of cool too.

2. Post the following to Twitter: I just entered to win a signed Mason Raymond shirt RT and follow @canuckshockey and @therushvan to enter! http://ow.ly/4O0pw

So, where would you go?

[Update: We'll accept entries for this contest until Saturday, May 14 at 11:59 PM. We'll draw the winner shortly afterwards.]

Apr 102011
 

As the Canucks head into the postseason, there’s no doubt that we’re seeing a different team from years past. This is a team that is hungrier than ever. They know the pain of defeat. They only have one goal, there is only one standard. Since they started their domino effect assault on personal, franchise and league records, they’ve established – for themselves and the fans – that it’s Cup or bust.

Whether they play the Blackhawks or the Stars, this team is on a mission and it’s clear that come puck drop on game 83, all bets are off. As Ryan Kesler’s favourite artist Eminem would say, they’re “not afraid to take a stand”. No matter who the Canucks face in the playoffs, bring it on.

Apr 052011
 

With the Canucks putting the finishing touches on their 40th anniversary regular season, there has been much talk about the various awards and trophies the Canucks are going to add to their cabinet. Like his brother did last year, Daniel Sedin is on the verge of locking up the Art Ross and is also a solid candidate for the Hart. (Only two players outside of the top two in NHL scoring have won the Hart in the modern era, his odds are good.) Kesler has made his case for the Selke again this year, Luongo would not be an unreasonable Vezina finalist, and the Canucks have sealed the deal on the Presidents Trophy.

But amidst the trophies and records, there is, in my mind, one man responsible for the Canucks successes this season: coach Alain Vigneault.

It seems like just yesterday that fans were calling for Vigneault’s head with almost as much vehemency as they did Bieksa’s. Now, all seems to be forgotten as the former Jack Adams award winner has lead the Canucks to the top of the Northwest Division, Western Conference and NHL – locking up all three titles before any other team in the Western Conference had even clinched a playoff spot. His work to give the Canucks their fourth Northwest Division championship in five seasons, their first President’s Trophy in their 40-year history, their first 50-win season, a franchise record for points in a season has been impressive.

Some of his off-ice moves have been equally impressive and even more impactful. He had input on Mike Gillis’ decisions to bring in Newell Brown and replace Ian Clark with full-time goalie coach Roland Mellanson. With AV’s coaching, Brown has helped the Canucks’ special teams – both the powerplay and penalty-kill – establish themselves among the league’s best while Mellanson has helped Roberto Luongo to the most consistent season of his career and has trained the Canucks netminders to be the best one-two punch in the NHL.

Significant kudos need to be given to his in-season coaching to get the Canucks to the point they are today. After losing six defenceman in three weeks, Vigneault’s team went 7-2 in that span. Rotating through 14 blueliners this season, Vigneault has fostered a system that boasts the leagues lowest goals against per game and highest goals scored per game. Now, while part of that is due to an improved goalie tandem, there is no doubt his blueline has been responsible as well. Despite a rash of injuries and issues and a rotating cast on the fourth line, he has consistently iced a team that amplifies their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.

Some of the players we’ve seen Vigneault’s biggest impact on have been guys like Andrew Alberts. After being brought in during last year’s trade deadline, Alberts played like a deer in headlights and Canucks fans were calling for his head. Vigneault’s attention to Alberts has helped him fit the blueline mould. Until his injury, Alberts has been moderately consistent this season and has given the Canucks a physical element in front of Luongo; despite missing 37 games, he still leads all Canucks’ d-men in hits. Vigneault’s created synergy between the players’ styles and transitioned guys like Ballard into a new role with minimal side effect.

There’s no doubt the Canucks successes this year have been in large part to their superb play, but there’s even less doubt in my mind that Vigneault is directly responsible for it.

Mar 182011
 

The old adage that defense wins championships is one we’ve seen proven true year after year. The Blackhawks proved that last year. So did the San Francisco Giants when they won the World Series last year on stellar pitching and field play. And in the case of recent Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, there’s no doubt in my mind that the winning formula is a complement of defense and offense.

That said, the loss of Manny Malhotra isn’t one to panic over. There is no denying that Malhotra’s contributions to this team’s penalty kill and bottom-six has been integral to the team’s success this season, but all teams win as a team and lose as a team. No one player is the team and that rings true even more so on this Mike Gillis team.

The Canucks are no strangers to adversity this season. Their roster has been plagued by various injuries to various forwards and defensemen; despite that however, the Canucks have kept winning. If anything, they’ve demonstrated throughout the course of the season that it’s their system that is winning games for them. Take for example the Canucks in January and February. In a three week span, they lost six defensemen (all of them of top-four calibre), and rattled of a 7-2 record. Whether it’s losing Rick Rypien to personal issues or Mason Raymond to a hand injury, someone has stepped up to fill the void.

With how this team is built, Manny’s loss shouldn’t be treated any differently. The Canucks have been fortunate this season to realize great potential in players who have stepped up to fill the voids created by injury. Chris Tanev is one such example. Manny has been a catalyst for the play of Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres this season, and I think we’ll see more how much he’s positively impacted their play. When the Canucks lost Daniel Sedin last year, it made them a better team. It challenged Henrik Sedin to push forward and taught him how to play a more selfish game which ultimately won him the Art Ross and Hart Trophy. Growth comes in the wake of adversity and the Canucks have had no shortage of it this season.

This season’s Canucks team is built differently from previous seasons. They’re deeper and they’re not placing all their eggs in one basket the way they did in 06/07 when they expected Luongo to win all four rounds of the playoffs singlehandedly. They’re not expecting the Sedins to be a two-man line on a one-line team and carry the team to the Stanley cup. In fact, one of the marks of this year’s Canucks team is their ability to stick to their game plan regardless of circumstance. Whether it’s injury or a multi-goal deficit, their play doesn’t change and it’s that consistency that is going to be what will dictate a deep playoff run. The Canucks have one of the strongest cores of players in the league, are backed by one of the most skilled and deep blue lines and have the best one-two punch in net this league has to offer.

When one door closes, another one opens. Malhotra’s exodus from the lineup, indefinitely for the time being, is simply another opportunity for someone else to excel. While Malhotra will be missed, his 16 minutes of ice-time per game can (hopefully) be replaced as the team prepares for the playoffs. It’s not time to hit the panic button, it’s not hugely damaging to our playoff chances, it’s a part of the regular season and something to take in stride.

Mar 142011
 
Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks

Photo credit: National Post

There are a few hockey adages that nearly always ring true. Adages like “throw it on net, and good things happen”, or one of a similar vein, “go to the net and good things happen”, litter not just hockey but all sports. There is no sport where being flashy and being pretty wins games. More often than not, it’s the hard-earned garbage goals that are more effective or have a larger impact than the fancy toe-drag dangle after a coast-to-coast rush.

This year’s Canucks team is loaded with depth, talent and a will to win but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect in every area. While the gears are turning and lines are transitioning from hot to cold amidst return from injury and re-injury the Canucks are in most cases primed for the postseason. After all, a playoff spot is all but locked up, the powerplay and penalty-kill units are still top-tier, and a few players are vying for end of season hardware.

That said, we cannot lose sight of the fact that this turns into a different game when game number eighty-three begins.

One thing the Canucks have seen time and again has been the other team’s persistence in the crease. Their persistence to get garbage goals, their persistence to crash the net, and their persistence to get to the Canucks’ netminder. The Canucks have fallen victim to it two years in a row as the Blackhawks riding Dustin Byfuglien have sent the Canucks home empty-pocketed save perhaps Patrick Kane’s $0.20. Crashing the net though isn’t just a strategy successful against the Canucks, it’s successful against most goalies. It’s part of a winning strategy yet the Canucks have yet to employ it consistently.

The Canucks have shown glimpses of net presence this season. Their powerplay has evolved to feature Ryan Kesler as your new breed of power forward. Gone are the days when Todd Bertuzzi would park himself in front of the net and have pucks bounce off him. Instead, Kesler brings to the Canucks offense a net presence which has proven effective all season and which is one of the main reasons the powerplay sits first in the league. (For what it’s worth, those Blackhawks sit in second.) It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out the effect of a body in front of the net and the effect of the screen, and if there’s one criticism of the team this season, it’s that they don’t employ this strategy nearly as often in their even-strength game.

The good thing is, the Canucks seem to be getting the message in preparation for the playoffs. We already know that Kesler scores many of his goals from the dirty areas. Of late, Manny Malhotra’s and Jannik Hansen’s success have also come from going to the net. But also, Alex Burrows has notched his points from in close. If the Canucks want to go deep this year, it’s going to need to be a more regular part of their game plan, and with four great forechecking lines and big centers, they certainly have the personnel to implement big-bodied offense in the net area.

Looking at the close playoff race in the Western Conference, it’s conceivable the Canucks could face any of the Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes. The Kings boast big boy and deadline pickup Dustin Penner, the Flames have Tim Jackman and Olli Jokinen, the Stars have havoc-maker Ben Eager, and the Coyotes have Marty Hanzal to terrorize Luongo’s crease. Looking further ahead, the Canucks could also face a physical Philadelphia Flyers team with Scott Hartnell and others who have no issue with taking liberties in front of the net. Game momentum is going to be dictated by crease crashers in the postseason as it is every year and the Canucks need to get with it.

Good regular season stats mean nothing when the postseason starts. It’s a fresh slate for every team and while external regular season factors may impact the playoffs to a degree, the postseason is an entirely different game. Players elevate their game, it’s more physical, and every single goal counts. There’s no such thing as a good loss in the playoffs. The Canucks have the players to go to the net, they have to start using them. Perimeter play may work for the Sedins, but Malhotra, Kesler and who ever fits the revolving role of fourth line center need to impact the scoreboard, starting in the crease.

They say the best defense is a good offense. Well in the words of the Hunter Hearst Helmsley, it’s time to play the game.

Feb 282011
 

When it comes to thoughts on the Canucks’ acquisitions of Maxim Lapierre and Christopher Higgins, it’s hard to say something that hasn’t already been said. With that in mind though, there are a few reasons I think these new players will fit well.

The big take away from the addition of Lapierre is that Burrows can finally worry about doing his job. With Rypien out of the lineup, it looked like Burrows was unsuccessfully trying to play under-your-skin-hockey while simultaneously struggling to play Sedin triggerman. Lapierre allows Burrows to focus on offense as a top liner, a role he played earlier in the season when he was the firestarter in an already fiery Kings-Ducks relationship.

The addition of Higgins alongside Lapierre gives the Canucks a more complete 4th line. After rolling through a carousel of 4th line centers who didn’t seem to make the grade, the Canucks managed to deal away some depth (i.e AHL talent) in return for some final pieces of the puzzle – a great decision by management.

Perhaps what’s best of all this is Higgins has the ability to jump up into a top six role if called upon (as is seen in the video below). At least initially though, he rounds out a 4th line that will have 19 games to build some chemistry and get ready for the postseason.

Higgins is the quintessential Mike Gillis pick up. He has speed and skill. He’s young, and more importantly, multi-dimensional.

Both Lapierre and Higgins also bring PK experience that will not only add to an already excellent Canucks special teams, but the big takeaway will be the impact both have in their role as a shutdown line when the game is on the line.

Gone are the days when the likes of Darcy Hordichuk would roam the Canucks’ 4th line. The Canucks have tried all season to find a trio of bottom-six talent to round out this team, and with the first three lines set, that last piece of the puzzle really was one or two players away.

They’re set for the playoffs now; it’s time to bring back Stanley.

Feb 232011
 

After an unfortunate rash of injuries, the Canucks got Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard back last night against the Montreal Canadiens. This resulted in one of their worst starts this season as the period of re-adjustment cost them two goals and ultimately the game. With their return though, came no drastic impact. Ballard and Hamhuis are core blue liners with skill sets far superior to their replacements Oberg and Sauve, but their impact is defensive and more subtle.

When you look at the remaining injured blueliners, Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler are two of the more prominent blueliners on this team. Bieksa brings and edge to this team which would have surely fought PK Subban. Bieksa isn’t the one I’m worried about though. We’ve managed without him before, we’ve won without him before. As we look at the return dates for our players on the IR, the date on my calendar that’s circled in red is the return of Alex Edler.

As we shift towards and start to gear up for the playoffs – the season that really counts – the injury that’s worrying me the most is Edler’s. The back surgery he underwent has an unpredictable nature with respect to a rehab and return time, but the hope is still there that he’s in the lineup in time for the playoffs.

If you remember back to last season he was the one player that showed up on day one and fought through to the last game. He’s a big game player that elevates his play and leads by example. The impact he’s had on Ehrhoff’s offensive game has also been noticeable, and recently, noticeably lacking. In a West Coast postseason that’s oriented around wearing down the opponent in a three-round battle of physical attrition, Edler’s presence doubles as he’s not only contributing offensively but is a monster physically.

Edler is the key to the entire Canucks defense corps. Since his injury, we’ve seen a drastic decline in play from Christian Ehrhoff, who has struggled of late both in discipline and in offense. His defensive game has taken a hit and that’s in large part due to the absence of Edler. In Salo’s return to the lineup we’ve seen him transition well at a time when the Canucks lost six blueliners in three weeks, but it’s clear he has many more layers of rust to shake off. The point shot he was once known for doesn’t come out to play as much as it used to and his protege, Edler, has developed his sense of calm for quarterbacking the powerplay. Edler’s shot and presence on the powerplay and at the blueline is one that anchors the Canucks defense as he tandems with Ehrhoff to power that first unit.

As for the rest of the defense, Hamhuis is a solid shut down guy and Bieksa has edge. Ballard’s adjusting to a new role on this team but has been defensively solid. Alberts has shown great improvements, and Rome is, well Rome. Tanev’s auditioning for next year’s roster spot, and Sweatt, Oberg and Sauve did just what they were asked to do.

I have no doubt that Edler will step up when the playoffs roll around. Hopefully, he’ll build on last season’s postseason success, come back from injury and lead this team. Hopefully, he continues to develop into quite a phenomenal young blueliner and be integral in the success of the Canucks’ blueline, the powerplay and many other facets of this team that he has impacted with his play.

Feb 162011
 

With the Canucks’ magic number at 34 points only midway through February, it’s conceivable the Canucks could clinch the Northwest Division as early as the beginning of March. This team is at the top of its game and is showing no sign of slowing down. The only thing that’s left is for the playoffs to start. In the Canucks’ recent home game against the Blackhawks, Rogers Arena was more electric than it has been since last year’s postseason. This city is ready to will its team to the Stanley Cup and the rest of this season is a formality. April can’t come soon enough.

Feb 162011
 

With Canucks defenseman falling like flies from game to game there’s certainly a building pressure on the team to act come the deadline. While players like Ballard, Alberts, and Edler are all expected to return before the playoffs, how much worse is it going to get before it gets better? Hamhuis’ injury of a concussion is likely the most unpredictable, veterans like Nolan Baumgartner injured down on the Manitoba Moose, and players the Canucks don’t want to lose to the waiver wire in Nathan Paetsch and Ryan Parent, Mike Gillis has a tough decision to make.

If the Blackhawks and Flyers taught us anything last year, it was that great defense can be enough to go the distance (or fall just short). The Canucks have dressed 18 different defensemen in the last 18 months dating back to last year, and with the playoffs fast approaching it’s gut check time. There is no doubt that Mike Gillis has done an excellent job of adding key pieces to the blue line and that this has to be the most excruciatingly frustrating thing to see from game to game. There’s no doubt that the on and off NHL leaders will be buyers this deadline so let’s look at who the Canucks may pick up.

Tomas Kaberle: The always effervescent Tomas Kaberle rumours are undoubtedly back to a near all-time high. With the Leafs sitting well out of a playoff spot and Brian Burke sitting at the phones night and day it wouldn’t surprise me to see Kaberle moved. He comes with a hefty price tag, however if Gillis can keep the Canucks cap compliant until the playoffs it doesn’t matter who returns from the IR after that. In the absence of Edler, the need for a powerplay quarterback is there but to get Kaberle the Canucks would have to give up quite a lot to the hardballer Brian Burke.

Chris Phillips: Chris Phillips is probably the best fit of all blueliners on the free agent market right now. The 32 year old is a part of a last place Ottawa Senators and would fill a role the Canucks have now lost twice to concussion. Phillips, a shut down, stay at home defenseman is exactly what Willie Mitchell was and does exactly what Hamhuis was trying to do. He comes with a little more size and physical prowess which the Canucks blueline needs outside of Kevin Bieksa. Missing Keith Ballard and Andrew Alberts really takes away from the blue line’s physical presence, an aspect of the Canucks game that Phillips could elevate.

Jan Hejda: Coming to the end of his first multi-year deal and the end of a 3-year, $6 million contact, Jan Hejda is an interesting option and my off the board pick for the Canucks. His $2 million cap hit is manageable and allows for the slotting back in of some of the Canucks injured blueliners. While he doesn’t come with a wealth of playoff experience – 3 games to be exact – he brings some veteran presence to a blueline that has currently dressed three rookie defensemen this season in Chris Tanev, Lee Sweatt, and Yann Sauve.

There are a few other names there that could also work. Depending on whether or not the Sabres are sellers at the deadline pending UFA Steve Montador could be a decent pick up. He has the playoff experience that saw him fall just short of a cup in his run with the Flames and he comes with a reasonable price tag too.

The biggest thing that Gillis is going to have to contend with is of course the cap. Kaberle and Phillips are nice wish list items but come with cap hits of $4.25 and $3.5 million respectively. If the cap was no issue for Gillis though and some of our blue liners prove to be out indefinitely (say for example Hamhuis’ injury is worse than expected – I sincerely hope it is not) then my last pick would St. Louis Blues defenseman Eric Brewer. He comes with a cap hit that’s quite hefty, but would provide a veteran presence on a blue line that is desperately lacking it right now. Gillis is under some pressure to make a move this deadline. Ultimately his challenge will be to keep as much of his current assets sinice he’s built the best team in Canucks history and lets be honest, no one wants to see this season derailed because of injuries.

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