October 04 2011 01:21PM
Canucks fans are expecting big things from these two guys.
(Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images North America)
CanucksArmy continues its short series where we preview the Northwest Division by position. Today we go to the blue line and look at the defencemen from each team.
Is it just me or did every defensive group in the Northwest Division get a little bit weaker over the summer? The Avs, Canucks and Wild have all lost key members of their defence in the last 6 months, the Oilers start the season with huge injury concerns, and the Flames blue-line has lost another core component. How will these five teams cope with their blue-line losses? In my estimation, only one will weather the storm. For the rest, it will be a rough ride this year...
Last year, the Flames lost Dion Phaneuf. This summer they lost Robyn Regehr to Buffalo, leaving Jay Bouwmeester as their lone "top" defenceman. Mark Giordano as emerged as a consistent, premier blueliner, but after Giordano and Bouwmeester, the herd in Cowtown is pretty thin.
One of the Flames biggest issues last season was the number of goals they allowed. Without Regehr as their primary shutdown defenceman, Calgary is going to be sailing in rough waters in their own end this year. Regehr's replacement, Scott Hannan, is solid - but he's unlikely to be as effective as Regehr.
Given the weak nature of the defensive lineups in the Northwest, having Bouwmeester and Giordano, along with Hannan, gives the Flames the second-best blue-line in the division. But the Flames play against some pretty decent forwards groups in their own division (Vancouver, Edmonton's young stars, Minnesota's improved offence), and then there's San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Detroit, and Chicago in the West. Bouwmeester and Giordano are going to have to be lights-out this season for the Flames to have even a whisper of hope at containing some of the formidable talent in the Western Conference. If either of those two suffer any injuries, the Flames could be in a heap of trouble.
The Avalanche defence got a WHOLE lot worse. They traded away the underrated Kevin Shattenkirk, and then let John-Michael Liles go to the Leafs. Now that would be okay if they found adequate replacements, but they didn't do that.
Coming back from St. Louis was the deservedly maligned Erik Johnson - who is talented, but is yet to live up to his "1st overall pick over Jonathan Toews" potential. Oh, and they signed Shane O'Brien in the off-season. They may have bolstered their goaltending, but they have a very raw defence corps this year.
With little in the way of deep experience on the back end, you can expect the Avs to give up plenty of odd-man rushes and boatloads of shots. And their only legit power play quarterback, Liles, went to the Leafs, so expect their powerplay to be (to borrow a soccer term) uttterly shambolic.
To my eyes, the Avs D looks like it's going to be thrown to the wolves this season, and the results won't be pretty. They'll be relying heavily on a newly acquired goaltending tandem to bail them out almost every game. I suspect it'll quite quite ugly for the Avalance this year, maybe to the point of being buried alive. Yeah, it went with the atrocious, yet applicable pun there.
Even without recent injuries, the Oilers defence was pretty woeful. With injuries they're without Ryan Whitney, Ladislav Smid and Taylor Fedur to start the season, and they don't have a whole lot of "defensivemindedness" (to coin a term) on their forward corps.
Barker is just NOT a good NHL defenceman, and he's now forced to be a top 2 blueliner! Here's a prediction: the blue line is going to get lit up, early and often, and the Oilers will start the season on their heels yet again. Even when Smid and Whitney return, they may have the fourth best defence in the Northwest division.
The Wild's blue line lost its biggest piece when the Wild traded Brent Burns to San Jose. They didn't really get anybody in return, or subsquently acquire anyone that would even come close to filling Burns' shoes. While I may question Burns' actual defensive abilities, there is no doubt about his ability to get the puck up ice, or to run a power play.
Now once you get past Marek Zidlicky, the Wild really don't have anyone to help fill that role. Do the Wild have a legit shutdown blueliner? They have Greg Zanon - and he's good, but is he the third defenseman on a playoff team? I'm unconvinced. Much like the Avs, the Wild D will be taxed every night, and will rely on their goaltending to bail them out on most nights.
There is a large faction of Canucks fans and media who think that the Canucks will suffer without Christian Ehrhoff, he of 50 points and significant power play time last season. Replacing 50 points from the blue-line is no easy task - but as I see it the Hoff's contributions are very much replaceable.
Ehrhoff played the most sheltered minutes of any Canucks defenceman and was the ultimate beneficiary of the REAL Canucks power play mastermind, Henrik Sedin. Under the new Canucks power play, you could put a 16-year-old WHL rookie at the point, and he would still get 25 power play points.
The REAL cause for concern along the Canucks blue-line is Keith Ballard. Will he return to form? Or will he have another egg of a season? Based on his pre-season play, he's poised to get back to his regular level. But who knows? Alain vigneault may decide that he likes Aaron Rome. Or Andrew Alberts. Or Nolan Baumgartner. Or a kid on my daughter's Atom team. Or ANYONE ON EARTH OTHER THAN KEITH BALLARD better than he likes Ketih Ballard.
The issue with the Canucks will not be keeping pucks out of their own net. They've got that covered. The question with the Canucks is: Who will get the puck to their elite forwards? With Bieksa and Hamhuis there and names like Edler, Salo and Tanev on board as well - I suspect that the Canucks have enough skill from the blue line to get the puck up ice. With Ballard, it is simply a matter of opportunity. Will he be given the opportunity to shine as an offensive defenceman? Again, if the pre-season is any indication, the answer may well be yes. But when your team's coach is Alain Vigneault, any quirky, inexplicable decision is possible. The Canucks are the only team with enough blueline depth to ride out injury concerns, but Canucks fans are still hoping that their defence is much, much healthier than last year.