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 022012
 

With the NHL Trade deadline a little less than a month from now, speculation is heating up.

Actually, that is a bit of an understatement. Speculation isn’t just heating up, it’s already reached a good rolling boil. We’ve entered the silly season of trade rumours people, where Ryan Getzlaf could be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, you know, just ‘cuz.

It’s not just fans or the media that can get swept up in the euphoria that is the trade talk. General Managers can too. With that in mind, here are the four worst trade decisions that could be made by a General Manager in the NHL today.

 4. Trade Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets

Granted, Carter has had a difficult first season in Columbus. He’s looked lethargic when he’s been healthy (which hasn’t been nearly as much as the team had hoped).  

Carter remains a one-shot scorer though and a first-line centre talent. He’s the type of player you rarely find on the trade market (the last first line centre to be traded was Joe Thornton back in 2005-06).  

In Carter, Rick Nash and Ryan Johansen, there is a good offensive core in place in Columbus. God knows there are other teams trying to build around less up front (cough Phoenix, Florida, Winnipeg to name three cough cough).

Now it could be that the Blue Jackets just want to save themselves some money and get Carter’s $5.27 million off the books. This is incredibly short-sighted thinking. The Blue Jackets need wins to generate revenues. They need talent on the roster to produce wins. Eventually, that talent gets paid, and scoring talent of Carter’s ilk can get a lot more expensive than $5.27 million a season.

Moving Carter doesn’t get the Blue Jackets anywhere closer to wins in the short-term, and is not guaranteed to save them much money in the long-term.

In short – it would be a trade that doesn’t make much sense.  

3. Trade Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres

At one point, it could be argued he was the best goalie in the game, but these days Ryan Miller is pretty, pretty, pretty average . His performance and outspokenness has made him a lightning rod in Buffalo where pre-season optimism has turned into a season-long nightmare.

A great goaltender gives an NHL team a chance to win every night, and turns poor or mediocre teams in all other areas into playoff participants. Miller was once great – there’s no question he could be great again. The smart move in Buffalo would be to consider goaltending “secure” (Jhonas Enroth is a talented youngster who’s earned more time in the crease) and address other needs.

You know, like the Swiss Cheese defense of Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr that would have trouble defending against a minor bantam team some nights.  

2. Trade PK Subban from the Montreal Canadiens

PK Subban isn’t your typical NHL player – he’s colourful, opinionated and openly confident – and this has frequently contradicted with the conservative, conformist culture established by the Canadiens in the era of Bob Gainey, Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier.

There are few NHL defencemen that offer the same combination of physical gifts, offensive instincts and passion for the big moment as Subban does. He will be an NHL star, and will one day find himself in Norris consideration.

You can count the number of Stanley Cups won by teams without a strong offensive defenseman on one hand. Trading Subban would be akin to the Canadiens admitting they don’t have any plans to truly compete for a Stanley Cup in the near future.  

1. Trade Brendan Morrow from the Dallas Stars

For all the hulabaloo about trading Jarome Iginla from Calgary, the potential trade of Brendan Morrow from Dallas would be the bigger mistake.

Uncertain Stars ownership has wrecked havoc on the franchise’s off-ice fortunes. Now, with new owner Tom Gaglardi in the mix, the team needs to re-establish its relationship with the Dallas community.

Morrow is an obvious, important player around which to build this new relationship. He’s one of the few remaining links to the championship-calibre teams Dallas iced in the late 90s and early 2000s. Moreover, he is the type of character leader that can shape and inspire not only a locker room, but a fan base.

With one of the lowest payrolls in the league, the Stars don’t need to jettison salary. They should move other pieces before moving their captain.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • According to John Shannon on Prime Time Sports last week, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are best of friends. Does anyone else smell another Teemu Selanne-Paul Kariya-esque situation developing for these two future UFAs?
  • The Sidney Crosby “fracture-no fracture-concussions-no concussion” story sounds more and more like the Eric Lindros situation in Philadelphia every day. There’s no reason to think relationships are poisoned between Crosby and the Penguins, but this certainly makes one wonder how the next contract negotiations between the team and its star player will go in 2013.
  • Let’s all give Alex Radulov the benefit of the doubt here – we all see the bug on his coach’s neck, right? (Editor’s note: Note that the coach behind Radulov was not his head coach, but the goalie coach.)
  • Given that the Winter Classic is also a huge event for league sponsors, the NHL All-Star Game should move to the start of the season. This would give the Winter Classic even more prominence mid-season, and would create a special “kick-off” event for the NHL to start its year. I’d even be in favour of returning to a Stanley Cup champions versus NHL All-Stars format in a neutral site (say Europe).
  • Does Mikhail Grabovski look like a $5 million player? Because that’s what the UFA market is likely to pay him. This is also why it would be of no surprise to see the Leafs either trade their second-line centre at the deadline, or walk away from him on July 1st. He is too inconsistent to be paid like a top-four player.
  • Speaking of the Maple Leafs, the more you watch Nazem Kadri play, the more it seems his best work at the NHL level will come playing for a team other than Toronto. Kadri needs consistent top-six ice time to grow his game, and he won’t get that playing for a team competing for a playoff spot right now.
  • The New York Rangers pass around a fedora to the team’s best player post-game. The St. Louis Blues? A weiner hat. Classic.
  • Sorry Blackhawks fans, but Brendan Morrison isn’t the answer to your second-line centre dilemma. He adds some nice depth as a complimentary, offensive player, but a regular contribution in a top-six role is asking far too much.
  • Finally, I cannot recommend Behind the Moves enough for anyone who loves the business of hockey. Here’s a nice review from over at dobberhockey.
Jan 172012
 

At the end of the 20-game mark, I took a look at the “real” NHL standings in the East and West.

Now that every team has played their 40th game, it’s time to even the playing field once again and see what’s really been going on in the NHL.

Last time, I made special mention of a team’s special teams, goals for and goals against performance for the season.

This time, to learn a bit more about an individual team’s strengths and weaknesses, each squad was ranked in six categories*:

  • Goals for (GF) and shots-for (SHF) were chosen to evaluate a team’s offense;
  • Goals against (GA) and shots-against (SHA) were chosen to evaluate a team’s defensive play;
  • Five-on-five (5-on-5) was chosen to evaluate a team’s even-strength/system play;
  • Save percentage (SVPCT) was chosen to evaluate the team’s goaltending performance.

Teams were then ranked and put into groups of five, with those ranking 1-5 in each category designated “great,” 6-10 “good,” 11-15 “above average,” 16-20 “below average,” 21-25 “poor,” 26-30 “awful.”

(* – Stats were taken as of Thursday, January 12th, once all teams had played their 40th game.)

The Western Conference After 40 Games:

1. San Jose Sharks (53 points)
Games 21-40: 3rd in Conference (26 points)
Games 1-20: 1st in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Great / GF: Above Average / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: One of the most complete teams in the NHL and one of the toughest teams at 5-on-5 (tied with St. Louis for 3rd overall). Surprisingly, Michal Handzus (1 goal, 10 assists) had almost as many points as Joe Thornton (3 goals, 11 assists) in the second quarter. Martin Havlat, who found a way to hurt himself hopping the boards onto the ice, has been a bust.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (52 points)
Games 21-40: 5th in Conference (25 points)
Games 1-20: 3rd in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Above Average / GF: Great / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Good

Notes: This is a team getting it done with offense, as the penalty kill and goaltending have been inconsistent all season. Marian Hossa (20 pts in the second quarter) looks like he’s five-years younger. Secondary scoring was absent in games 21-40. Dave Bolland (3 goals), Viktor Stalberg (4 goals) and Michael Frolik (2 goals) struggled.

3. Vancouver Canucks (51 points)
Games 21-40: 1st in Conference (30 points)
Games 1-20: 11th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Above Average / GF: Great / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Good

Notes: A dominant second quarter revealed the Canucks look ready again for a long playoff run. Ryan Kesler was almost a point-per-game player in December (14 points in 15 games). For all the fan criticism, Keith Ballard was +10 in the second quarter.

4. Detroit Red Wings (51 points)
Games 21-40: 4th in Conference (26 points)
Games 1-20: 5th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Great / GF: Great / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: Those of us waiting for the Red Wings to collapse into a rebuild will probably wait forever, as it looks like Valtteri Filppula (9 goals, 18 points in the second quarter) and Jiri Hudler (9 goals, 16 points) have finally established themselves as scoring threats. Meanwhile, Pavel Datsyuk (24 points) and Henrik Zetterberg (just 4 goals but 20 points) keep rolling. Interestingly, Nicklas Lidstrom had a pedestrian games 21-40 (2 goals, 7 points).

5. St. Louis Blues (51 points)
Games 21-40: 2nd in Conference (29 points)
Games 1-20: 9th in Conference (22 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Great / GF: Below Average / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Good

Notes: It didn’t take long for the Blues to play Hitchcock hockey did it? Sure, St. Louis still has trouble scoring, but the powerplay’s improving (9.2% in the first quarter, 18% during the second quarter). Meanwhile, the Blues goalie tandem was dynamite in games 21-40. Both Brian Elliott (7-4, 1.91 goals against, .931 save percentage) and Jaroslav Halak (6-0-3, 1.95 goals against, .929 save percentage) played like all-stars.

6. Minnesota Wild (48 points)
Games 21-40: 11th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 2nd in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Awful / GF: Awful / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Awful

Notes: It seems pretty clear that amazing start to the season was built on a house of cards – there’s a lot not working in Minnesota. After a hot start, Niklas Backstrom has been average lately (.908 save percentage in December), while the team’s goals against in the second quarter was almost a full goal higher than the first quarter (from 1.98 to 2.75).

7. Dallas Stars (47 points)
Games 21-40: 8th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 7th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Awful / GF: Above Average / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Below Average

Notes: The Stars will be one of the teams in the Western Conference fighting tooth-and-nail for a final playoff spot. After a great start, Sheldon Souray was cooling off in the second quarter prior to his injury (3 assists, -1 in 14 games). Meanwhile, Stephane Robidas was a -6 during games 21-40. In Kari Lehtonen’s absence, Richard Bachman was solid (2.56 goals against, .917 save percentage) while Andrew Raycroft was not (3.49 goals against since November 23rd).

8. Nashville Predators (46 points)
Games 21-40: 10th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 6th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Above Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Awful

Notes: Another team trending downward thanks to disappointing goaltending play. Pekke Renne was rather human for games 21-40 (2.95 goals against, .904 save percentage). Rookie Craig Smith had just 1 goal in the second quarter, while Patric Hornqvist had 2.

9. Los Angeles Kings (45 points)
Games 21-40: 9th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 8th in Conference (23 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Good / GF: Awful / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Good

Notes: During the second quarter, the Kings only scored three or more goals four times. Stats like that are why coaches get fired. Simon Gagne went goalless for December (2 assist in 12 games), while Jack Johnson was -6 during games 21-40. The team desperately needs a sniper – do they have enough to put into a package for Zach Parise? Goaltender Jonathan Bernier would have to be in the mix.

10. Colorado Avalanche (43 points)
Games 21-40:6th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 12th in Conference (19 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Good / GF: Poor / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: For being a young, skating team, the Avalanche sure have a tough time scoring. Youngsters Matt Duchene (3 goals, 8 points), Paul Stastny (5 goals, 8 points) and David Jones (2 assists) all struggled in the second quarter.

11. Phoenix Coyotes (42 points)
Games 21-40: 12th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 4th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Poor / GF: Poor / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: Pretty easy to see why they fell so far in the second quarter – Mike Smith returned back to earth (13 games, 5 wins, 3.38 goals against, .894 save percentage). Key forwards Shane Doan (3 goals, -7) and Martin Hanzel (2 goals) were MIA during games 21-40.

12. Calgary Flames (41 points)
Games 21-40: 7th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 13th in Conference (17 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Below Average / GF: Awful / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Poor

Notes: It hasn’t been a great season in Calgary, but the Flames were a playoff team during the second quarter. One of the reasons was an improved powerplay, which helped the team score enough to win games. Naturally, Jarome Iginla was at the centre of this improvement (9 goals, 21 points, +7 in 20 games), although Olli Jokinen was right behind (7 goals, 19 points, +2). In the absence of Mark Giordano, Derek Smith stepped up (9 points), leading all Flames defensemen in scoring in the second quarter.

13. Edmonton Oilers (35 points)
Games 21-40: 15th in Conference (13 points)
Games 1-20: 10th in Conference (22 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Below Average / GF: Above Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Awful

Notes: Introducing the worst team in the Western Conference during the second quarter. Yes, their defense is AHL-caliber, but some blame on the Oilers’ collapse should fall on the shoulders of the team’s veterans. Shawn Horcoff (4 goals, -8) and Ales Hemsky (2 goals, -4) underperformed, while Ryan Smyth (4 goals, 12 points, +2) was only marginally better.

14. Anaheim Ducks (30 points)
Games 21-40: 14th in Conference (14 points)
Games 1-20: 14th in Conference (16 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Below Average / GF: Poor / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Awful

Notes: The fabulous core of the Ducks got rolling in the second quarter. Teemu Selanne (7 goals, 20 points), Corey Perry (11 goals, 21 points), Bobby Ryan (10 goals, 16 points) and Ryan Getzlaf (3 goals, 15 points) sparked the offense. However, a lack of depth and poor goaltending (Jonas Hiller had a 3.32 goals against and .892 save percentage in games 21-40) has kept Anaheim near the bottom of the Western Conference.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets (27 points)
Games 21-40: 13th in Conference (15 points)
Games 1-20: 15th in Conference (12 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Good / GF: Awful / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: At the time of this study, Columbus was one of only six teams with a team save percentage under .900 (they were at .894). For what it’s worth, league average at the time was .912. Players playing their way out of town: Antoine Vermette (3 goals, 2 assists in the second quarter); Derick Brassard (2 goals, 5 assists); and Vinny Prospel (2 goals, 10 points). Could someone explain how keeping Ryan Johansen in the NHL (2 goals, 4 assists during games 21-40) is helping him develop into a top-six NHL forward?

Jan 172012
 

[Every week, Caylie King looks at the Canucks week that was and the Canucks week ahead.  You can follow Caylie on Twitter (@CayKing).]

Since the epic win against the Bruins, the Canucks are 2-2-0 and haven’t looked like the team that rolled through much of November and December. You can even say they were lucky to win against the Lightning and Blues. In their most recent loss, against the 14th place Anaheim Ducks, the Canucks looked out of synch and were outshot and outhustled most of the night. That said, the great thing about an 82-game season is that the Canucks have every opportunity to right their wrongs and move on from these recent lackluster performances.

Canucks Record

46 GP, 28-15-3, 59 points (1st in Northwest Division, 2nd in Western Conference)

Who’s Hot

Cody Hodgson has made quite the impression by being one of the better and more consistent Canucks on the ice. Since December 11, CoHo has not gone more than 1 game without recording a point. Despite logging an average of 12:44 minutes of ice-time per game, he has 11 points (5G-6A) in his last 14 games (0.79 points/game).

Hodgson is currently tied for 4th in rookie scoring with 26 points (11G-15A) and has a plus-10 rating. Last week, he was selected to participate in the rookie All-Star weekend festivities.

Who’s Not

Chris Higgins has been plagued with a mysterious infection twice already this season. In late December, he missed a few games due to a swollen hand, but ever since his return at the beginning of January, Higgins has struggled to find the scoresheet. In his last 7 games, Higgy has just 1 assist; prior to that, he had 6 points (2G-4A) in his previous 7 games.

Despite this setback, Higgins has recorded 10 goals and 14 assists already this season, and is on pace to exceed the 28 points he recorded all of last season. With David Booth also back in the lineup, the American Express line is back together, and hopefully, they can find the same chemistry they had before Higgy’s and Booth’s injuries, and start producing more consistently again.

Who’s Next

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 vs. Los Angles Kings (7:00 PM start, home)

Only 6 points separate the Canucks and the Kings as they meet for the third time this season. So far, both teams have won one game each in this series. In their last meeting, on New Year’s Eve, the Canucks lost 4-1 to the Kings at Staples Center.

The Kings are 3-4-2 against Northwest opponents so far this season. Both teams have a good penalty-kill; the Kings’ PK is ranked 3rd in the NHL (87.6%) and the Canucks’ PK is ranked 4th in the NHL (86.7%).

Anze Kopitar leads the Kings in goals (14), points (42) and has been their best player against the Canucks. He has 3 points (1G-2A) and a plus-2 rating in their first two meetings. He is currently on a 4-game point streak (3G-3A-6P).

Saturday January 21, 2012 vs. San Jose Sharks (1:00 PM start, home)

With another early afternoon game this Saturday, it’s the perfect time to head down to the Hog Shack for the Canucks Hockey Blog tweetup as the boys take on the dangerous San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks have had a great start to the month of January going 6-1-1 in their first 8 games. They currently lead the Pacific Division; they also sit in 3rd place in the Western Conference, just 4 points back of the Canucks, with 4 games in hand.

The Sharks have played great against the Northwest Division this season. They’ve taken points in 8 of 10 games – a 5-2-3 record – against Northwest Division opponents. This will be the last regular season meeting between the two teams this season.

In three games against the Canucks this season, Patrick Marleau leads the Sharks with 3 points (2G-1A) and about 23 minutes of ice time.

He is also tied with Joe Thornton for the team lead in scoring with 36 points (17G-19A), and is tied for the team lead with 4 powerplay goals with 3 other Sharks (Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Ryan Clowe).

Jan 102012
 

If someone you know is in a car crash, the first thing you want to know is how badly hurt they are.

The 2011-12 season of the Columbus Blue Jackets has been an epic car crash.

But in the grand scheme of things, they’re not too badly hurt.

Why? Just like someone struggling with addiction, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to start your way back to the top.

For the Blue Jackets, this year has been rock bottom – and the path to the top is pretty clear.

Here’s why the future isn’t all that dark in Columbus:

1. The first overall pick this year is a dandy.

Nail Yakupov has been heralded as the best Russian prospect since Alex Ovechkin and has drawn comparisons to Pavel Bure. Unlike many of the Russian forwards that come to play in the NHL, Yakupov has strong on-ice vision and knows how to use his teammates (witness the 4-assist game against Canada in the World Juniors). A torn meniscus shouldn’t dampen his NHL future, and he’s already stated he doesn’t want to play in the KHL. If the Blue Jackets remain as the worst team in the NHL and don’t lose their first overall pick in the draft lottery, Yakupov could have the same impact as Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have had on their respective teams.

2. They already have a veteran superstar to build and market the team around.

Rick Nash has never had an elite centre to play with, and for the most part has been almost a lone-gunman his team’s attack, making it easy for the opposition to defend against him. However, he remains an elite talent, with great speed for a power forward and terrific goal-scoring hands. In many ways, he could become what Jarome Iginla came to mean to the Calgary Flames, both on the ice and in the community. The Blue Jackets would be fools to move him. Besides, teams when trading a superstar of Nash’s standing rarely get equal value back in a trade (witness the Joe Thornton deal from Boston years ago).

3. Their attendance woes are greatly exaggerated.

One of the great myths propagated by hockey media (particularly Toronto hockey media) is that Columbus is just another failed NHL expansion team destined to move.

Well hold on a minute.

From 2000-2004 Columbus was actually a top-15 market attendance-wise in the NHL, peaking at 8th overall in the league in 2001-02. Granted, years of on-ice incompetence eventually wore the lustre off of going to Blue Jackets games. But if you look at the history of the franchise (2000-present), they’re actually only 21st in league attendance:

RankTeamAverage Attendance (2000-present)
1Montreal Canadiens20,837
2Detroit Red Wings18, 859
.........
21Columbus Blue Jackets16,168
22Boston Bruins16,083
23Florida Panthers15,625
24Carolina Hurricanes15, 441
25New Jersey Devils15, 157
26Anaheim Ducks14, 988
27Nashville Predators14, 935
28Atlanta/Winnipeg14, 714
29Phoenix Coyotes13, 823
30New York Islanders13, 090

The success or failure of a hockey market can only truly be measured once the local team has experienced both sustained success and failure.

Columbus has only known failure. It’s not a stretch to think the team will fill their building again once the team enjoys some success.

4. It doesn’t take a rocket science to see where this team needs to improve.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Scott Howson has been at best mediocre, at worst a failure, as Blue Jackets general manager. The remainder of this season, and what he can accomplish in the off-season, will decide if he remains the team’s architect in 2013.

Howson has already stated Columbus is open-for-business. There’s a nice breakdown of who could be moved here. Who the team ships out though is almost secondary to the importance of what it brings back.

In this case, the only acceptable return is a goalie who can make a difference night in, night out at the NHL level.

The Steve Mason era has to end. Other than during Mason’s rookie season, the team’s goaltending has been among the league worst. A great team can win with average goaltending. A rebuilding team can only win with great goaltending.

The Blue Jackets need to find that goaltending – that is priority no. 1. Maybe it’s Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles; Cory Schneider in Vancouver; Thomas Griess in San Jose; Anders Lindback in Nashville; or Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s 2012 unrestricted free agents Tomas Vokun in Washington or Ray Emery in Chicago. Maybe it’s a a draft pick like Andrei Vasilevski. Maybe it’s prospect Mark Dekanich, who has been knocking on the door in Columbus for awhile but can’t seem to stay healthy.

Whoever it is, the Blue Jackets must turn that perennial weakness into a position of strength for the team to turn around.

The most consistently successful teams in NHL history are those that build from the goaltender out. It’s time Columbus followed the blueprint.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • One final Blue Jacket thought - the time to fire coach Scott Arniel was two months ago, when the season was still somewhat salvagable. Letting Arniel try to change the team’s on-ice philosophy on the fly during the season only further muddled the direction of the team. As stated above, the future could be rosy in Columbus if the right moves are made right now. Howson’s handling of Arniel though creates more doubt he’s the GM to right-the-ship.
  • Can’t stop laughing at the headlines involving Dustin Penner’s injury while eating pancakes. With only four goals and 15 points in 50 career games now with Los Angeles, he could be moved at the trade deadline. The question is – who would want him? Love these unasked follow-up questions to Penner about his injury too.
  • This is why expansion is coming soon to the NHL – it would address the “unbalanced” conference issue the NHLPA has with the league’s proposed realignment. Adding two teams to the proposed “East” (say Metro Toronto and Quebec City) would give every conference eight teams. Such a move would also add a lot of profits to the league, which in turn benefits both owners and players.
  • If the NHL does expand let’s hope they reduce the roster size. There’s not enough talent for 30 teams, let alone 32.
  • Here are ESPN’s first-half grades.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #1 – Here’s why the Washington Capitals do not make the playoffs this year: Dale Hunter is in over his head as coach; beyond Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom, the team is overrated offensively; the team lacks the discipline to commit to a defensive scheme; GM George McPhee has made the critical mistake of overvaluing players on his own roster.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #2 – It sure looks like the Edmonton Oilers, despite all their high draft picks, are on the fast-track to nowhere. They’re likely the worst team in the league right now. Sure that can happen when your team’s best players get hurt. It’s more likely to happen when you ice an AHL-level defense and feature only adequate goaltending.
  • “We’re in the people business too, and I would look like an idiot not to put him in” says Ken Hitchcock about giving Jaroslav Halak the start in Montreal. Funny how this comment made me think about how the Canucks chose to start Cory Schneider against Boston over the weekend. Sure Vancouver won, but it was probably bad people business for Roberto Luongo.
  • One last Canucks thought: Sami Salo had been playing some of the best hockey of his career before getting hurt against the Bruins. Vancouver’s rolling right now, but defensive depth must remain a trade priority if this team intends to make a long Stanley Cup run.
Jan 022012
 

[Every week, Caylie King looks at the Canucks week that was and the Canucks week ahead.  You can follow Caylie on Twitter (@CayKing.)]

The Canucks looked to end 2011 with a California sweep, unfortunately they just fell short due to a poor effort against the Los Angeles Kings.

A new year brings the same expectations. They had a fantastic month of December and we expect much of the same to finish off the season and continue on into the playoffs.

Captain Henrik and his crew head back to Rogers Arena to play two home games and then head to Beantown for a rematch against the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Canucks Record

39 GP, 24-13-2, 50 points (1st in Northwest Division, 2nd in Western Conference)

Who’s Hot

Henrik Sedin was just named the NHL’s 3rd star in the NHL ffor the month of December after recording 22 points (2G-20A) in 15 games. He currently has 6 points (1G-5A) and plus-3 rating during an active 4-game point streak.

Not only is Captain Henrik leading the Canucks with 36 assists and 46 points, he is also leading the NHL in those two categories. He is player that leads by example – he isn’t the strongest, biggest or fastest on the ice, but he does what he needs to do and can change the game with one slick pass to his brother, Daniel. He has also shown in the last few games that he won’t allow the opposition to push him around; he has been a little bit more feisty. Albeit, his feistiness won’t intimidate other players but at least he is standing up for himself.

Who’s Hotter

Kevin Bieksa had a slow start to the season, struggling with his defensive responsibilites and not finding the score sheet consistently. Since the middle of November, Juice has turned his game around for the better and has become an offensive threat while improving his plus/minus rating. He is currently on a 6-game point streak and has 7 points (1G-6A) during that stretch.

But also, Bieksa – along with defensive partner, Dan Hamhuis – have been the Canucks’ shutdown duo and have done a commendable job. Hamhuis’ calm presence and poise allows Bieksa to be more adventurous offensively. Likewise, Bieksa has been smarter about his pinches so as to not leave Hamhuis in a bad spot.

Who’s Next

Monday January 2, 2012 vs. San Jose Sharks (5:00 PM start, home)

The Canucks and Sharks met up just last week in one of the best – if not the best – games of the season thus far. The intensity and atmosphere at the Shark Tank made it feel like a playoff game. It was a physical battle between two teams who clearly do not like each other. In that last game – a 3-2 OT win for the Canucks – Joe Thornton taunted and stuck his fingers in Henrik’s face while they were talking to the referee. To say that there is animosity between the teams is an understatement, so it should be interesting to see how the Canucks respond.

Patrick Marleau is tied for second on the team with 27 points (13G-14A). Marleau has great speed and when he is on his game can be very effective on the ice for his team. He has been hot with 10 points (3G-7A) and a plus-4 rating in his last 7 games.

Wednesday January 4, 2012 Minnesota Wild (7:00 PM start, home)

Before last week, the Wild lead the Northwest Division but they have been struggling as of late. They’re 1-6-3 in their last 10 games, which is a complete turnaround considering that they were, just before that, on a 7-game win streak.

The Canucks have won 2 of the 3 previous meetings against the Wild this season, including a decisive 4-0 shutout before Christmas. In that game, Roberto Luongo was stellar in stopping all 33 Minnesota shots.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who recorded the GWG in the Wild’s lone victory against the Canucks this season, has 3 points (1G-2A) in 3 games against Vancouver (same with Matt Cullen). He currently has points in consecutive games and has 22 points (9G-13A) in 36 games this season.

Saturday January 7, 2012 vs. Boston Bruins (10:00 AM start, away)

It won’t be hard for the Canucks to find motivation against the Bruins on Saturday. This is the first meeting between the two clubs since Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. We all know how that ended, so it will be fun to see the two team renew their rivalry from the finals. Canucks fans will never get over the Cup final loss but many are moving on, but it willl be interesting to see what sort of emotions will arise. Brace yourself, Canucks Nation, for countless reminders of what happened in June and the hostility from Bruins fans.

The Bruins, like the Canucks, are playing very well right now. They had a very successful December going 9-3-0; while the Canucks went 10-4-1. It’s safe to say that both teams are on top of their game which can only mean an entertaining battle come Saturday.

Second overall pick, Tyler Seguin, is far from experiencing the dreaded “Sophomore Slump”. He is currently leading the Bruins in goals (15) and points (32). He has 6 points (2G-4A) and a plus-6 rating in his last 5 games.

Tough Enough

Although the Canucks did not win (or deserve to win for that matter) the game against the Kings, there are a few positives to take out of that game.

The biggest thing that stood out was the fact that players like Andrew Alberts and Keith Ballard stood up for their Captain and their teammates. The topic of team toughness is as prominent in Vancouver as the Kardashians are in Hollywood. They may not have fighter or an enforcer – nor do they necessarily need one – but if they can play together and stand up for one another, there’s no telling how far they can go (again) in the playoffs.

The bottom line, like Henrik said, is that we didn’t lose the Cup Finals because of team toughness we lost because we couldn’t score. So while the assertiveness and physical play of players is a positive, the team needs to stay focused on their game and what makes them successful.

Dec 292011
 

[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 know it’s been three weeks since my last “Things That Make You Go Hmmm”, but I was a bit pre-occupied with Christmas and creating this year’s Canucks Christmas Carol called “Under the Minneso”. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it was rendered irrelevant on Boxing Day when the Canucks passed the Wild to take over top spot in the Northwest Division. So check it out now if you haven’t seen it yet, before it fades into YouTube oblivion.

For my last “Things That Make You Go Hmmm” column of 2011, I am going to focus solely on Andrew Ebbett’s overtime goal that lifted the Canucks to a thrilling 3-2 win over the Sharks in San Jose last night. I have three things that made me go hmmm:

  1. Kevin Bieksa left wide-open… three times on one play. Do you want to know why Kevin Bieksa was so wide open on the game-winning play? First, Bieksa and Jannik Hansen took off on a two-on-one when Brent Burns was caught pinching. Shortly after Bieksa’s shot was saved by Antti Niemi, the four Sharks skaters did their best impression of a Timbit hockey team: they were all within six feet of each other and they had no semblance of positioning because they were all dead tired. The two worst offenders, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau, were both on the ice for a whole minute before the goal went in. We’re not talking about a first-period shift here; this is after playing 63 minutes of frenetic hockey. Boyle came onto the ice with 2:45 left in OT, Marleau with 2:37 left (which was coincidentally the same time that Bieksa came onto the ice). Add Brent Burns and Ryan Clowe, who both came onto the ice with 2:25 left, and you had four tired Sharks out there. By contrast, Andrew Ebbett and Hansen came over the boards with 2:20 left and Alex Edler barely got into the play, jumping on the ice for Dan Hamhuis at the 1:53 mark and not touching the puck before Ebbett tipped home Bieksa’s shot with 1:37 left on the clock. On Bieksa’s slap shot with 1:46 left, Boyle was too slow to get out to him. And when Bieksa let go the final wrister, it was Clowe slow to mark him. All this time, Marleau stayed in front of Edler at the other point, likely hoping that the puck wouldn’t come in his direction. Whether it was superior conditioning or a bit of puck luck, the Canucks looked absolutely dominant for the last 20 seconds of the game.
  2. San Jose fans must hate Kevin Bieksa. After all, the Canuck defenceman scored one of the most memorable (and fluky) goals in Canucks history when he alertly pounced on a loose puck that had deflected off a stanchion at Rogers Arena, finishing off the Sharks in 5 games in last year’s Western Conference Finals. Not to mention, he was a plus-3 in that double overtime game. Bieksa notched one assist in the Canucks 3-2 win over the Sharks back in November, and then Bieksa has two assists in last night’s win. Simply put, he’s been a beast against San Jose. Except on last night’s game-winning goal, he didn’t need a stanchion… he only needed an Ebbett.
  3. Ebbett celebrates by himself. Fellow CHB writer Ed Lau pointed this out as well: the Canucks jumped off the bench and swarmed Bieksa after the overtime goal, while Ebbett raced into the corner to celebrate with himself apparently. A few seconds after you see Bieksa jump into the waiting arms of Daniel Sedin and Manny Malhotra, you see Ebbett leap into the pile, ramming his own face into Max Lapierre’s glove. It’s understandable: the Canucks were elated to win the game, and they had no idea that Ebbett deflected Bieksa’s point shot. Ebbett trying to get included in the celebration brought back memories of Victor Oreskovich doing the same thing after Alex Burrows’ goal in game 7 vs. Chicago last April.

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