Jun 272012
 
Vancouver Canucks

Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

1. Some fallout from the NHL Draft: Is it possible that, after the Cody Hodgson fiasco, the Canucks are doing more “background checks” on possible NHL draft picks? I found it interesting when Mike Gillis said that Brendan Gaunce has “good parents, good potential, and good leadership”. Wait, good parents? Sounds familiar.

2. You could make the argument the Canucks were ecstatic that Gaunce was available to them at pick 26. Outside of the offensive upside, there isn’t a ton separating Gaunce and Hodgson. Gaunce wore an ‘A’ for Belleville last season and is close to a lock when it comes to getting a spot on the Canadian world juniors team next winter.

3. Are the Canucks just steering clear of drafting WHL players completely? The club has now made 25 consecutive selections without taking a single WHL player. The last was Morgan Clark (2008, 7th round), and for the last ‘successful’ WHL pick outside of the traded Michael Grabner, you’d have to go all the way back to 1995 when Brent Sopel was a 6th round selection.

4. There was a rough reception for the Canucks on Day 2 of the draft, when they selected all overage players with their remaining picks. A lot of people cried uncle when the team could easily have signed the players over the summer without sacrificing picks. Perhaps the club wants to draft more mature players who could be ready in 2 years as opposed to 3 or 4.

5. How sold are you on the “draft the best player available” mentality? The Canucks certainly aren’t, given most of the drafted players could’ve been available later.

6. One team that didn’t draft the best player available was the Calgary Flames, who took Mark Jankowski when they could’ve arguably had him in the second round. Canucks fans who went through the Patrick White fiasco in 2007 know the pitfalls that can follow when a marginal prospect goes in the first round.

7. The Canucks didn’t make qualifying offers to Victor Oreskovich, Marc-Andre Gragnani or Andrew Ebbett, allowing all to become unrestricted free agents. Oreskovich and Ebbett aren’t total surprises, but steps had to be taken for Gragnani to avoid becoming a UFA in the first place, so the fact the club didn’t extend a qualifying offer is a bit shocking.

8. The problem with Gragnani is that he’s a good to great player in the AHL, but a fringe player in the NHL. Either the Canucks didn’t think he was worth a contract, or Vancouver has another defenseman coming into the system soon…

9. Also sounds like Aaron Rome won’t be returning to the Canucks. Unfortunately, the biggest impact Rome had in a Canucks uniform was for his hit on Nathan Horton which arguably cost the Canucks the Stanley Cup. Rome certainly wasn’t an impact player on the blueline during the run, but the team had been crippled by injuries beforehand so his suspension didn’t help matters.

10. With Rome and Gragnani cast out by the Canucks, who’s going to fill the void? It’s been floated around the Twitterverse that Sami Salo will be back for another year, but that still leaves a spot or two on the blueline open.

11. You can put together an opinion that Vancouver is opening a roster spot for high-profile UFA Justin Schultz to come to the Canucks, but nothing can be certain at this point. You could also argue the Leafs traded Luke Schenn so that they could free a roster spot for Schultz as well.

12. Is Toronto off the table for the Canucks and Roberto Luongo? Trading Luke Schenn, who was rumoured to be offered straight up for Luongo, certainly seems to answer that question.

13. Florida is said to be the frontrunners for Luongo now, but GM Dale Tallon questions whether or not the Cats can fit a gargantuan contract like Luongo’s into the equation, though reportedly, Florida ownership have no problems having to pay Luongo ten more years.

14. The other problem is the Canucks are said to be asking for one of Florida’s top young players: Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau, Dmitry Kulikov, and Quinton Howden. The first two are unlikely acquisitions, given they were top three selections in the NHL drafts the last two years.

15. Big congratulations are in order for Pavel Bure, who was elected to the HHOF yesterday. As a fan who grew up idolizing Bure as a child, the Russian Rocket spawned a generation of hockey fans in this city. And whether or not you believe he deserves to have his jersey hanging in the rafters of Rogers Arena, his place in the Hall is simply unquestioned.

Mar 082012
 

[Inspired by Arsenio Hall's "Things That Make You Go Hmmm…", Clayton Imoo talks about Canucks-related things that make him go hmmm… You can follow Clay on Twitter at (@canuckclay) or on his website, Clay's Canucks Commentary.]

I’m in Ottawa this week for work and it’s obvious that I’m still getting used to this time change after going to bed at 3:30 AM EST the first night and 10:30 PM EST last night.  Thus, I’m going to keep this pretty quick… but just as thought-provoking as usual.  So here are a few Things That Make You Go Hmmm:

1.  What’s wrong with the Canucks? Vancouver’s 5-2 loss to Dallas on Tuesday night was their first 3-goal defeat since they lost to the Kings in Los Angeles on December 31st.  And after a great run that saw them take over the Western Conference lead, the Canucks are now in the middle of a slump in which they’ve won just one of their last five games.  So what’s wrong?  There are few things including (but not limited to):  the Sedins not scoring (actually, make that almost everyone not scoring), an ineffective powerplay, ill-timed defensive breakdowns, and the trading of Cody Hodgson.  I’m kidding about that last point, but there is something to be said about the time it will take for Zack Kassian, Sammy Pahlsson and Marc-Andre Gragnani to build chemistry with their new teammates.

There is certainly no need to panic and five games isn’t the end of the world. However, the Canucks have a prime opportunity to accumulate some points with seven straight games at home.  And you obviously want to be playing your best hockey into the playoffs.  They have a month to figure it out.

2.  Are you sure you want to win the West? When looking ahead to playoff positioning, it might actually be advantageous for the Canucks to finish in second place as a second place finish would conceivably give Vancouver an easier post-season route.  Given the way the playoffs work (teams are seeded 1 thru 8 and maintain their ranking for the rest of the playoffs) AND assuming that all four “higher-seeded” teams advance, the second-place team in the Conference would end up facing the winner of the Pacific Division (either Dallas, Phoenix or San Jose) in the second round.  We all know that anything  can happen in the first round, but if the playoffs started today the Canucks (as the second-place team) would face Phoenix in the first round and then the winner of Dallas-Chicago in the second round.  Contrast that to the plight of St. Louis, who would meet San Jose in the first round and then the winner of Detroit-Nashville in the second round.  It’s easy to see which team (Vancouver or St. Louis) seems to have the easier road to the Western Conference Final.

Of course, if you don’t win the Conference, then you can’t win the President’s Trophy, and thus secure home-ice advantage for the entire playoffs.  And there’s still a month of hockey for potential movement in the standings.  But it’s interesting to imagine the potential scenarios.

3.  Saluting the Canucks fan Ontario-east. I was ecstatic once I found a bar showing the Canucks-Stars game on Tuesday night.  Sure, I had to sit through the third period of the Canadiens-Flames game first but what could I do?  I’m just thankful it didn’t go into overtime.  As the game got out of reach in the third period, I looked around the bar and counted the number of other patrons: I was one of a whopping nine people in there including the three staff members.  But I wasn’t surprised as the game ended at 12:30 AM EST… on a Tuesday night (Wednesday morning) no-less.

When you think of Canucks fans watching in the Maritimes, they are waiting up until 1:00 AM or 1:30 AM if they want to watch the game live (thank God for PVRs).  So I salute you the Eastern Canucks fan – I’m sure there’s been a many sick-day or absence from class especially during playoff time.  In fact, I did a Clay’s Canucks Commentary about it a couple of years ago…check it out.

4.  Do I wear my Canucks jersey tonight? I’ll be going to watch the Ottawa Senators host the New York Rangers tonight at Scotiabank Place.  I’m pretty excited to watch a battle between two of the playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference and I’m trying to figure out if I should wear my beloved David Booth Canucks jersey to the game.  Admittedly, I’ve gone back-and-forth over the past couple of days especially as I’ve solicited feedback on Twitter and Facebook and from my colleagues here.

I’m not worried about my safety (I can always pull out some Jackie Chan kung fu magic if I need to…and I’ve also heard that Ottawa fans are quite friendly), but I’m thinking more of form.  If I wear it, will I look like a passionate and loyal Canucks fan?  Or will I look ignorant, clueless or cocky (or some combination of all three)?

So I ask you, the loyal CHB reader, what would you do?  Would you wear a Canucks jersey to a game that they’re not playing in?  Let me know – you could very well help me make my wardrobe choice for tonight!  Post a comment below or send me a tweet at @canuckclay.

That’s it for today.  While you are all enjoying tonight’s game between the Canucks and Winnipeg Jets, I’ll be in southern Ontario watching two good teams that I don’t really care about.  With or without my Canucks jersey.

Feb 282012
 

Let’s get this out of the way first.

I’m still not convinced Columbus’ interest in dealing Rick Nash wasn’t a creation of TSN and Sportsnet. The two networks needed a big name to speculate about to drive up ratings for their annual Trade Deadline TV marathons.

Sadly for those networks, Nash remains a Blue Jacket at least until the draft, where the hype will be built up all over again. I am giddy with anticipation (and by giddy I mean hitting my head with a shoe to make the idea of 24 hour coverage of “The Rick Nash Trade – Part Two” go away).

Nonetheless, the trade deadline did produce some moves – 15 trades involving 31 players, according to TSN. As per usual, the moves quickly revealed who’s serious about the Stanley Cup.

Based on team performance and moves they made, here now are the REAL contenders for the Stanley Cup.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver

The Canucks enter the final portion of the NHL season with the strongest group of forwards they’ve had in a long time, if not ever. The 2012 version of Sammy Pahlsson is a step-slower, slightly less-effective than the one who helped the Anaheim Ducks with the Cup in 2007. However he remains a strong shutdown centreman who can win faceoffs (he led the Blue Jackets in faceoffs prior to the trade, winning 51.1%).

In Zack Kassian, Vancouver effectively replaced Raffi Torres from last year’s playoff run with someone younger and with 20-30 goal potential. Kassian could even develop into the big, scoring winger the team hasn’t had since Todd Bertuzzi left town. Kassian models his game after Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic, which is probably music to the ears of most Canuck fans.

Marc-Andre Gragnani is an underrated puck-moving defenseman who is about to have the spotlight shine on him. There are folks who think he could flourish into a 40-50 point player, and there are certainly similarities between his game and ex-Canuck Christian Ehrhoff. Those similarities include some puzzling play in the defensive zone.

Bottom Line: This Canuck team looks primed for another long post-season run. Cody Hodgson is a big chip to play, but when you consider the team’s time is now (and Vancouver already has Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler in the top two centre positions), Gillis has made the team stronger than it was yesterday.

Potential weakness: The blueline.

2. San Jose

While there will be folks who scoff, let’s remember that the Sharks have made the Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, and they will enter these playoffs with likely their deepest team ever. Like the Canucks, the Sharks have had some concerns regarding secondary scoring and forward depth, and the acquisitions of Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi (and previously Dominic Moore) address this area.

Winnik was one of Colorado’s most important forwards, playing tough minutes and leading team forwards in ice time for much of the year. The improved play of Gabriel Landeskog and Winnik’s status as an impending UFA made him expendable. He’ll look very good alongside Michael Handzus on San Jose’s third line.

T.J. Galiardi has been an offensive tease so far in his career but he’s got the talent to be a fringe top-six player. Ray Fererro mentioned during Trade Deadline coverage today that Galiardi came to training camp having put on too much muscle, which hampered the player’s speed. Galiardi is an adequate replacement for Martin Havlat, allowing the injury-prone star to take his time to get back into the lineup.

Bottom Line: The Sharks improved their defense in the off-season, and now have improved their foward group. If Martin Havlat comes back healthy, and they get any kind of goaltending, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sharks three-peat as Conference Finalists, perhaps even graduating to the Cup Final. A re-match with the Canucks would not surprise.

Potential weakness: Goaltending

3. Nashville

Why the Predators and not the Red Wings? Detroit only tinkered with their team (adding Kyle Quincey), and now enter the playoffs with pretty much the same group that’s been knocked out of the playoffs early the last two years.

Meanwhile, the Predators are showing Ryan Suter the money and  pushing their chips to the middle of the table. They were rumoured to have made a big push for Rick Nash, and when that didn’t materialize, they quickly added Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal. He’s an enigmatic scorer, but he is a scorer, and a legitimate top-6 one at that. Playing with his brother Sergei could be problematic (one friend commented beer sales are about to go up in bars around Nashville), but it’s unlikely coach Barry Trotz will let any off-ice shenanigans impact the team on-ice.

Paul Gaustad is another effective grinder on a team full of them, and acquiring Hal Gill earlier in the week gives the Predators a premiere shutdown defenseman, perhaps one destined to matchup with Ryan Kesler this season.

Bottom Line: The Predators are one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL, and they were a sniper-away from beating the Canucks in last year’s playoffs. Andrei Kostitsyn might not be Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg, but he is someone who can create offense on his own. With a deep defense, strong goaltending and an upgraded forward group, Nashville has become the dark horse team to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup.

Potential weakness: Scoring

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston

Remember, these are the defending Stanley Cup champions, who have retained much of the team from last year. The addition of Brian Rolston effectively replaces the departed Mark Recchi, although the emergence of Tyler Seguin means less is expected of Rolston in an offensive role. He might become a key part of the second powerplay unit, shooting darts from the point. Otherwise he’ll play a bottom-six role.

Meanwhile, there is a common belief today that you need 8 NHL-ready defenseman to go far in the playoffs. Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau fit that bill, the former one of the better shot blockers in the league, while the latter is a good skater and marginal puck-mover.

Bottom Line: Boston looks like a team ready to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Potential weakness: Nathan Horton’s health

2. New York Rangers

Why the Rangers, when they didn’t make a single move of significance (apologies to John Scott) at the Trade Deadline? Sometimes, the best move a team can make is no move. The 2012 New York Rangers are greater than the sum of their parts, and messing with that chemistry in a significant way could upset everything the team has been building towards.

Rick Nash would have been sexy, but there’s no telling how his arrival would have worked in the locker room. GM Glen Sather was smart to let this team prove what it can do in the playoffs, and then tinker as necessary in the off-season.

Bottom Line: Thanks to Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers are Nashville-East with more scoring. That makes them a Cup contender.

Potential weakness: Scoring

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Couldn’t put Pittsburgh on the list for one reason – there’s no guarantee Sidney Crosby is coming back. If he does, and he’s healthy, they’re added to the contender mix. The thing is, with how aggressive play is in the playoffs, does anyone think Sidney Crosby would survive a long playoff run without another injury?
  • The Flyers aren’t a contender, and really, haven’t been one all season. They’re fun to watch but there are too many holes on defense or in goal to be considered among the elite. Could be a different story in a few years though.
  • Puzzling move #1: The Toronto Maple Leafs trading Keith Aulie, who remains a legit defensive prospect - one who could become Hal Gill 2.0. Yes Toronto has depth on the blueline, but acquiring Carter Ashton for Aulie seems like acquiring 50 cents on the dollar. Ashton projects as a 3rd line guy at best. Burke is living and dying by his current roster in Toronto. It’s likely not enough to get the team into the playoffs.
  • Puzzling move #2: The Edmonton Oilers trading Tom Gilbert to their division rivals the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz. I think this sums it up nicely. Perhaps all this really means is that Edmonton intends to draft an offensive defenseman in the first round this year, and pair him with Schultz immediately.
  • Talked a lot about the Vancouver – Buffalo trade above, but one more thing: there’s no question Cody Hodgson is the most talented player in the deal, but from a Canucks standpoint they’re looking to win now. Long-term, it could be a trade the Canucks regret, although it does seem the franchise never warmed to the guy. Biggest immediate concern - what happens if one of Kesler or Sedin gets hurt?
  • Johnny Oduya is a nice complimentary pickup by the Blackhawks, but they needed more (another d-man, another scoring forward) for their playoff chances to truly improve. Right now, the ‘Hawks look like a second round team at best.
  • It’s rare you see the Flames apologize to the Oilers.
  • It would not surprise me if Ben Bishop eventually forced Craig Anderson out of town in Ottawa. Bishop is a very good goalie prospect, and the team already has Robin Lehner on the farm. It could be Anderson becomes the known asset the Senators eventually move for needed pieces.
Feb 282012
 

I’m writing this post more than a few hours after the Canucks traded Cody Hodgson and Alex Sulzer to the Buffalo Sabres; in return, they receive forward Zack Kassian and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani.

First, the good.

Zack Kassian is a big player. At 6’4″ and 225 lbs., he’s bigger than every other Canucks forward except for Byron Bitz.

And he hits.

And he fights.

And he has decent hands.

In other words, Kassian’s a young, power forward in the making – a type of player the Canucks don’t have in the organization.

However, with just 7 points in 27 games this season, he’s shown but mere glimpses of fulfilling that promise.

On the other hand, to get Kassian, the Canucks had to give up blue-chip rookie, Cody Hodgson, who already had 16 goals and 33 points in limited ice-time this season.

So why did the Canucks do this trade?

The Short-Term

Since their Stanley Cup Finals defeat to the Boston Bruins, the Canucks have faced numerous questions about whether or not they have the requisite size and toughness to undergo another lengthy playoff run. Even after beating the Bruins in Boston in January, they were asked if they could produce the same kind of compete over a playoff series. One win was good, but can they do it again and again and again?

With this trade, Gillis dealt from a position of strength to address a position of need. For all the progress and success that Hodgson has had this season – and don’t get me wrong, he’s had a lot – he’s also a somewhat redundant piece in the Canucks puzzle. Playing on the 3rd line, he faced sheltered minutes, many of which may not be available in the postseason. Gillis is gambling that one of Maxim Lapierre, Sammy Pahlsson, Manny Malhotra, or even, Steven Reinprecht can provide what Cody does, and at the same time, add some size and toughness on the wing.

After acquiring David Booth early in the season, it’s no secret that GM Mike Gillis wanted more balance in the roster.

Consider it mission accomplished.

On paper, the Canucks should be a tougher team to play against. With Kassian, Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen, Maxim Lapierre, Manny Malhotra, Sammy Pahlsson, Dale Weise (plus perhaps Byron Bitz, Steven Reinprecht and Mike Duco later) in the bottom-six, Alain Vigneault has a lot of options to roll out against opposing teams’ top lines (and free up the Sedins and Kesler for the offensive side of things). All are defensively-responsible, all have speed and all are tenacious on the forecheck. Add the offensive potential from Kassian, Raymond, Hansen, and to a lesser extent, Lapierre, and you’ll see why Gillis and company may have tinkered this way.

The Long-Term

In one trade, the Canucks addressed a couple of key organizational needs: a power forward and a defenseman with some offensive potential.

Here’s a recent (September 2011) scouting report on Kassian:

Get ready Sabres fans because here comes “Mean” Zack Kassian. In all honesty, he really isn’t that “mean” of a person – only on the ice. I conducted an interview with Kassian last season (click here) and came away impressed with his poise and overall knowledge of the game and its players. Many have labeled Kassian as a boom or bust prospect, but I just don’t see it. If he “booms”, he will be a first or second line scoring threat with a nasty physical edge. If he “busts” he will end up just a gritty 3rd or 4th line winger (which I wouldn’t consider a bust if he is still playing in the NHL). He projects as a player similar to Lucic, Downie, Burrows or Bertuzzi (prime). For Kassian’s size and aggressive tendencies on the ice, he has a very underrated set of hands. With all the makings of a pure power forward, Kassian put up 77 points this season and was a point-per-game player in the playoffs. His biggest assets are his size, strength, energy and his shot, which he recently developed into a more of a lethal weapon. Taken from the interview I conducted with him, one of his major flaws is speed and skating. In order to be able to play in the NHL as early as next season, Kassian will need to spend some serious time with a power skating coach this off-season. Training camp will give Kassian the opportunity to prove whether he is good enough to log serious minutes at the next level of his development. If things don’t go well for him in training camp, he will be able to polish his game at the AHL level with Portland next season.

Also, the underrated aspect of this trade is Marc-Andre Gragnani. Last season, Gragnani was the AHL’s most outstanding defenseman and points leader among defensemen in the regular season (12G-48A-60P in 63 games) and the Sabres’ top scorer in the playoffs (1G-6A-7P in 7 playoff games). In 44 Sabres’ games this season he has 12 points (1G-11A) and leads the team with a plus-10 rating. Along with Chris Tanev, Kevin Connauton and Yann Sauve, the prospect pool on defense suddenly doesn’t look that bad.

As Matt asked earlier, about the only thing funny with this trade is its timing. Why do it now? Everyone wants to add grit for the playoff run, but why do it at the expense of a potential Calder Trophy nominee?

Mike Gillis is gambling here. He’s gambling that the drop-off from Hodgson to Kassian will be more than offset by the acquisitions of Booth and Pahlsson. He’s gambling that Kassian – and potentially, Gragnani – will be part of the next core of Canucks when the Sedins and Salo inevitably slow down. It’s a huge gamble, especially in a year in which the team is again expected to contend for the Stanley Cup. Let’s hope for his sake – and our sanity – that it pays off.

Feb 272012
 

The Vancouver Canucks have traded centre Cody Hodgson and defenseman Alexander Sulzer to the Buffalo Sabres for right-winger Zack Kassian and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani.

Alright, so let the depression soak in. In 3… 2… 1…

What the Canucks traded: There’s no questioning who the better player was in this deal, and that was Cody Hodgson. At every level of hockey he’s played at, Hodgson has enjoyed success. When he was drafted 10th overall in 2008, TSN’s Bob McKenzie had nothing but terrific things to say about Hodgson. The Canucks were, at the time, getting the heir apparent to a retiring Trevor Linden. Hodgson only exponentially increased the hype when his World Junior performance in 2009 saw him lead the tournament and scoring.

The back problems and alleged rift between Hodgson and the organization ensued. But time heals all wounds, and Hodgson this year was truly coming into his own. On several occasions this season, Hodgson was the best Canuck forward on the ice, scoring clutch goals and making smart passes in the offensive zone. He is well on his way to becoming the two-way leader that most people envisioned him to be, capping out at a point-per-game if he reaches his potential.

Alex Sulzer was a minor piece in the deal and an expendable one at that. He has a booming shot but rarely ever used it. His defensive shortcomings were noticeable.

What the Canucks received: In Zack Kassian, the Canucks received a player who essentially has all the makings of becoming the second coming of Milan Lucic. Kassian has been a high-scoring threat at the OHL level when he’s not on the sidelines serving a suspension. Kassian was a part of that loaded Windsor Spitfires team that steamrolled its way to the Memorial Cup in 2011, putting up 77 points in 56 regular season games. He’s also been a part of Team Canada at the world juniors in 2011.

In Gragnani, the Canucks are getting a mobile defenseman who reminds me a little bit of Christian Ehrhoff. Gragnani has all the makings of a smooth-skating puck-moving defenceman, but also has some defensive shortcomings, which are natural at his young age. Last year, Gragnani was anointed the AHL’s most outstanding defenceman and led Sabres blueliners in scoring during the playoffs. The potential for Gragnani is there and he immediately becomes their most NHL-ready defenceman.

More analysis and video coming your way shortly…

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