It wasn’t that long ago when we were talking about the Vancouver Canucks as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They had just completed one of their most successful Decembers in club history, with a spectacular 10-1-2 record, the lone regulation loss coming on the 19th against the Stars. More importantly, the team looked to have climbed comfortably into a playoff position after an uneven start to the season.
But oh, how quickly things can change in the NHL.
If December was one to remember, January they would rather forget. The Canucks have but a single victory in eight games this month and just finished a brutal three-game road trip where they lost all three and were outscored 11-1.
Now they are anything but comfortable in the playoff race, tied for the final wild card position in the West with Minnesota, and Phoenix is nipping at their heels only four points behind.
This is essentially the same core of players that won back-to-back Presidents Trophies in 2011 and 2012, so how have they fallen from such heights to become merely an average, inconsistent team in such a short time?
I mean dying stars in the astronomical and metaphorical sense, not the literal sense. The fact of the matter is that the leaders of this team, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler and Alex Burrows, along with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, aren’t nearly the players they once were.
In the case of Kesler, I’ll admit he’s having his best season since his 2010-11 Selke Trophy campaign, though he has just three points in the last 14 games. He’s not even on pace to crack the 30 goal or 50 point barriers, which is unacceptable for a player who gets the ice time (21:56, second among NHL forwards) and power play opportunities that he does.
Burrows is yet to score a goal this season through an injury-plagued 17 games, while Bieksa has just two and Edler three (Edler also boasts an embarrassing minus 13, the worst on the team). That is incredibly poor production from your supposed top right winger and top two defensemen.
And then there is the Sedins. Daniel and Henrik are among the top scoring players in the NHL over the last ten years, yet it seems that time and increased competition is finally catching up with them. Both are on pace for their worst seasons since 2003-04 and, to make matters worse, there are reports of Henrik Sedin playing through a broken finger, which has seen his face-off percentage drop to the worst on the team.
The Sedins are clearly outstanding people and still the primary leaders on this team, but what they aren’t anymore is elite and it should be obvious by now that they can no longer single-handedly carry the Canucks as they once did. They will still get their points, but it’s clear they need more help because they aren’t the dominant force they once were.
Caught In Transition
I don’t mean caught in transition on the ice, but rather organizationally. With the core aging, it’s time for the next wave of young players to come into the team and carry the load. In the salary cap era, contributions from young players on entry-level contracts is more vital than ever before. The problem is, they’re not quite there yet.
For the first time in a long time, the Canucks actually have a fairly healthy stable of prospects in the minor leagues. London Knights center Bo Horvat is having an excellent season with 48 points in 33 games and recently represented Canada at the World Junior Championships (the first Canucks prospect on Team Canada at that competition since Cody Hodgson back in 2009).
Recently signed over-ager Dane Fox is simply tearing up the OHL, with 51 goals and 82 points in only 44 games. His new teammate on Erie, Brendan Gaunce, is likewise having a very strong campaign.
Those three players, combined with Hunter Shinkaruk, Niklas Jensen, Frankie Corrado, Ben Hutton (if you haven’t heard about him yet, you will soon) and goaltenders Eddie Lack and Joacim Eriksson represent the future of the Canucks, and all have the potential to make an impact at the NHL level.
The problem is that Lack is the only one who has actually done so, with a 2.18 goals against average and .922 save percentage in this, his rookie season. So while the next wave is coming, Canucks fans will have to be patient and run with the current core of players for a while longer.
I’ve mentioned it briefly in the past, but it bears repeating: no team was more screwed by re-alignment than the Canucks (with respect to Winnipeg, but they have far worse problems).
Moving from the relatively soft Northwest to the new Pacific has been a trial in frustration for Vancouver. Phoenix, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose in particular have been just feasting off the Canucks so far this season.
Combined, the Canucks record is just 2-8-4 against those teams, with only one of the wins (a 4-2 victory over the Sharks) coming in regulation. That’s just not good enough against the best division in hockey and the Canucks will have a huge uphill battle to make up points on any of those teams moving forward.
So, what can we draw in conclusion? For one thing, the sky is definitely not falling yet (despite how I make it seem). The alarmists are having a field day with this one, but the truth lies somewhere in between. The team is not as good as it was in December, but it’s not as bad as their record this month would suggest either.
The Canucks do still have excellent goaltending, something that has helped many teams weather even worse storms. Lack remains one of the top rookie goaltenders in the league, and starter Roberto Luongo (who is due back from injury any game now) is one of the few Canucks regulars who is actually having one of his best seasons in years (2.23 goals against average and .922 save percentage).
Luongo isn’t the only help coming on the horizon. Edler is recently back from injury and Burrows is expected to suit up in the next couple of games as well. These three players, so crucial to the Canucks success, will take a bit of time to get back into their stride, but should ultimately be helping the club before the Olympic break.
Also, despite their penalty killing taking a HUGE hit in the 9-1 drubbing by the Ducks earlier this week (six power play goals against), they still boast one of the best PKs in the league.
This is an experienced team that has been here before, and with their backs against the wall you can bet there will be a push back, particularly with John Tortorella behind the bench. However, they had better start pushing soon, or the 2013-14 Vancouver Canucks season might be slipping away before our eyes.
Photo credit: Lauren Zabel via photopin.
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