After watching the Vancouver Canucks skate through a frustrating 2-0 loss to the Dallas Stars last night, a game in which the Canucks dominated early only to go down a goal in the second period and ultimately fail to mount a comeback, many Vancouver fans must be having flashbacks to last season.
The Canucks had been off to a hot start in 2014-15. Just a few weeks ago the team had a brilliant 18-7-1 record and were flirting with first overall in the NHL, but a losing streak that has now reached five games has derailed all the good vibes the team had going for them. After all, this is a club, though with an admittedly different makeup, that essentially fell off a cliff last January and managed only 10 wins the rest of the year en route to a missed playoff appearance.
The question on everyone’s mind in the hockey-mad Vancouver market is: how likely is that to happen again? Is this nothing more than deja vu for Canucks fans? Or is history really about to repeat itself? Let’s take a look at some of the major points of contention during this losing streak and why they are nothing more than an aberration and not the true measure of this year’s team.
If you ask most Canucks fans about the tandem of Ryan Miller and Eddie Lack, the majority of respondents are likely to tell you that the duo hasn’t been good enough, while lamenting the departed Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider (it’s especially frustrating, considering how Luongo is single-handedly pulling the Panthers into a playoff spot). However, there is reason to believe that both will improve over the course of the season.
That Miller hasn’t lived up to expectations is no surprise, and the number of poor performances he’s had over the last few weeks have certainly contributed to the team’s slide. That said, one has to recognize the situation Miller is in: adjusting not only to new teammates, but also a new goalie coach who is attempting to tweak his style. Rollie Melanson is a guru hailed by many, and if anyone can hone Miller’s game, it’s him.
However, for a veteran like Miller, no tweak to his game is minor, so many goals where Miller has been caught looking a little bit lost can be attributed to this. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that come mid-season, Miller should be significantly more comfortable in the Vancouver crease, and his save percentage (currently .900, one of the worst in the league) should naturally regress up to his career average (.915), which means more consistency and more wins.
As for Lack, he’s been solid and looks poised to spell Miller more often in the coming weeks, as the latter continues to find his comfort zone. If you subtract an early season shellacking at the hands of the Avalanche (a game in which he allowed seven goals, but also made more than 40 saves), Lack’s save percentage is .927, elite for a back-up goaltender at the NHL level. His development continues to move in the right direction, and more starts from him will likely equal more wins as well.
The Top Line
The biggest worry entering this season for the Canucks was how Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin would play this season. They both got off to a hot start this year, just as they did last season, and the concern was whether they would be able to maintain their pace, or whether things would fall apart for them down the stretch as they did in 2013-14. With both on 3-game pointless streaks, the wolves are starting to come out. As the Sedins go, so too do the Canucks, so it’s not surprising the team has only managed two goals total over the last three games.
However, there is one key difference between the Sedins from last year, and the Sedins from this year: Radim Vrbata. Simply put, and with no disrespect to Trent Klatt or Taylor Pyatt (and Alex Burrows, I suppose), the Sedins have never had a regular linemate with the pedigree and offensive skill of Vrbata.
The 33-year-old from the Czech Republic has been as good as advertised this year. Yes, Vrbata has also been held scoreless for three straight games, but it’s his only such streak this season. He’s still on pace for more than 30 goals and 60 points, while he’s poised to pump nearly 300 shots on goal this season (he currently has 106 shots on goal, 9th in the NHL). His 11.3% shooting percentage is a tad high, but it’s not too far over his career average (9.4%), a huge fall off from those projected numbers would be pretty unexpected.
Point being, if there’s anyone who can help pull the Sedins out of any extended funk, it’s Vrbata. Certainly he’s a far better option than Burrows, Jannik Hansen, or Zack Kassian – all of whom were inadequate solutions for the Sedins when they were struggling last year.
Plus, a Saturday night game at home against a Calgary Flames team mired in a losing streak of their own and a team the Sedins (and the Canucks for that matter) traditionally feast on might be just what the Twins need to jump-start their offense.
One aspect where this year’s iteration of the Canucks differs vastly from the last is behind the bench, where Willie Desjardins appears to be the polar opposite of John Tortorella. However, Desjardins is a rookie after all, and part of this losing streak can likely be attributed to his first growing pains as he becomes an NHL coach.
Desjardins himself has admitted that he needs to alter the team’s approach somewhat. To this point in the season, Desjardins has had the Canucks playing a fast, aggressive style that saw the defense pinching constantly to maintain pressure in the offensive zone. However, NHL coaches are nothing if not adaptable, and the embarrassing plethora of odd-man rushes against lately is a direct result of opposing teams countering Desjardins’ tactics.
With an even-keeled approach and a positive demeanor, plus a new commitment to playing a more rounded, conservative style – which has traditionally be a recipe for success in the NHL – it seems as though it won’t take long for Desjardins to get his team back on track.
Additionally, the team’s possession numbers (50.7 Corsi for %, 16th in the NHL) under Desjardins this year have been relatively middle of the road, and a more defensive structure should help those numbers improve. Combine that with a PDO of 97.9 (27th in the NHL), and all signs point to a team that is poised to score more goals and get more saves, unless everything we have learned about statistics is horribly wrong (yes, there are outliers, but they are few and far between).
So, while the Canucks have struggled to put wins on the board recently, one thing is certain: it’s a team that is in a good position to see it’s fortunes trend up again sooner rather than later. At the very least, the exasperation of last season’s collapse seems unlikely to be felt again by fans in Vancouver this season.
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