November 23 2011 01:19PM
Lappy and Higgy have reason to smile. They've been two of the best Canucks this year.
This is also a reminder that hockey nicknames are bloody terrible.
(Photo by Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
The Canucks have stumbled and bumbled their way through an inconsistent start to the 2011-12 season.
So how did they really, and how did my predictions for the first quarter of the season hold up?
On October 7th, I made some quarter-pole predictions about the Canucks. I said that Malhotra would have a horrible start (he has, indeed), Salo would play 19 of 20 games (he's played 17... close), Hodgson would have 2G 3A (even better... he's at 4G 5A), Ballard would redeem himself (still iffy on this one, but he certainly hasn't been a question mark like he was last season) and that the Canucks would finish 11-7-2 for 24 points. They wrap the 20-game mark at an underwhelming 10-9-1 for 21 points, only 3 points off my prediction, and only 2 points off their record from the same point last year (10-7-3). Basically, last year, they took two of those regulation losses to OT/SO and still lost.
As for the team itself... their Achilles heel through 20 games has been their defensive play at even strength. Sure they haven't scored at the same rate as last year, but the bigger problem is keeping the puck out of their own net at even strength. And while this falls squarely on the defence and the goaltending, both of which have been subpar to start, the whole team is playing poorly defensively. That is especially true for two players who were regaled last season for their two-way play - Manny Malhotra and Ryan Kesler. Both Kesler and Malhotra went through off-season surgery and, despite claiming that they are both healthy, they are both clearly suffering as a result. Neither has regained a form that is anywhere near what they showed last season. And it's probably the biggest problem for the Canucks this season - not just the 8 D-men, but team defence in general.
As for the forwards, the Sedins have been quietly decent (by their standards). Higgins and Lapierre, newly re-signed after being acquired near the trade deadline last year, have two of the Canucks best forwards this season. In dumping Sturm and Samuelsson in yet another trade with Florida, the Canucks acquired David Booth, who's time in Vancouver has been far more fizzle than sizzle. And with the aforementioned Kesler and Malhotra obviously struggling, that leaves few players playing above expectations. In fact, there's only one player who's exceeded expectations.
That player, the biggest surprise for the Canucks, HAS to be Cody Hodgson. Not that he's been as good as he has been. The biggest surprise is that the rookie has probably been the Canucks most consistent forward. That says a lot about him, but that doesn't say much about the rest of the team when a 21-year-old rookie with early injury problems has been your most consistent player. All that being said, Hodgson's 4 goals and 5 assists this season have been well-earned, and he frankly deserves more than that, given his play to start the year.
As for the goaltending, Luongo has been off to a predictably poor start, just like he is every year. It surprised me that people still freak out when Luongo posts terrible numbers in October. It's the same every year, people! And when you only play 2 pre-season games, it's not giving you much time to work out the rust. Cory Schneider has been better than Luongo, but the team in front of Schneider has been brutal. The Canucks have scored 10 goals in the 7 games where Schneider started. That's just some awful run support (as we'd say in baseball parlance). Yes, Lu's been off, but he's getting better, and Schneider is not getting ANY help in front of him.
For all the grousing and complaining and hand-wringing about the Canucks start, they're no worse than mediocre right now and have several players playing WELL below par. The Canucks are two points out of a playoff position right now, and only 4 points out of 4th place. They're third in their division and making up ground. For as quite as Daniel and Henrik have been this year, they're 7th and 13th respectively in league scoring. And most media and fans believe the Canucks will turn the corner in fairly short order.
Will the return of Mason Raymond be the jolt to re-invigorate this team? Will Kesler and Malhotra wake up and get going? Has the defence worked out its kinks at even strength?