Tales of Truth: But is it working?

Patrick Johnston
November 05 2011 01:44PM


Manny Malhotra hasn't had much luck this year.

A year ago this weekend, the Canucks were flying. They'd won six in a row. They'd just beaten the Red Wings 6-4 on Hockey Night in Canada. Manny Malhotra had three (!!) points. Their record was 8-3-2.

Last night the Canucks lost their second straight game. The Canucks are wow 6-7-1.

What the heck has changed? Last year, this was a lineup that was praised as being nearly flawless from top to bottom. Their defensive depth was widely praised. This year's lineup is nearly the same; comparison time!

The Canucks' lineup vs Detroit a year ago: 

Sedin Sedin Burrows
Raymond Kesler Samuelsson
Torres Malhotra Hansen
Glass Rypien Schaefer
 
Edler Ehrhoff  
Rome Bieksa  
Alberts Ballard  

The Canucks' lineup vs St Louis last night: 

Sedin Sedin Hansen
Higgins Kesler Burrows
Booth Lapierre Hodgson
Ebbett Malhotra Weise
 
Hamhuis Edler  
Alberts Bieksa  
Ballard Sulzer  

Lots of similarities but some clear differences too. On defence, there are two clear comparisons- Hamhuis/Ehrhoff and Rome/Sulzer. Dan Hamhuis' strengths are well known - he's an incredible presence in his own end and is pretty useful at the other end. Ehrhoff is a mess in his own end and a fantastic presence in the other end. As we noted in the summer, Ehrhoff had a pretty easy ride despite his heavy workload, getting the vast majority of his zone starts in the offensive zone. It's at best a wash, but realistically we can favour Hamhuis because of his defensive importance. The other switch is Alex Sulzer for Aaron Rome. Earlier this week Cam Charron looked at this very question, pointing out that so far Sulzer has shown himself to be willing to get involved in the play, something that isn't always a good thing. Aaron Rome's strength is his ability to not find himself in bad spots - he's a 'low event player'. He doesn't take risks, he keeps it simple and does a very good job of not getting beat. In layman's terms 'he knows how to play within himself.' Sulzer, so far, seems a fair bit different. Though he's had a rough go in zone starts, he gives up lots of scoring chances and isn't quite the limiter that Rome is. We'd rather have Rome.

Thom Drance has been looking closely at the pairings and as he comments on last night's games, there is experimentation going on which isn't helping the overall picture at the moment. Andrew Alberts getting top-4 minutes is a bad thing. Alex Edler is trying to learn the right side; that's proving to be an adventure. A lot of the struggles are down to this experimentation.

Of course both lineups are missing the guy who quite probably is the Canucks' most important defenceman of the past decade: Sami Salo. Plug him in to either lineup and immediately things work better. You'd clearly rather have him over Sulzer this year. Last year, given how he was playing last year, you'd probably replace Keith Ballard with Salo. We'll come back to this.

As for the forwards, there's a lot to be discussed. First of all - last year's squad was, effectively, a three-line team. The fourth line saw very little ice time. This year's fourth line has been a combination between Lapierre/Malhotra, Weise and Ebbett/Volpatti. Max Lapierre is a fantastic hockey player and was promoted up to the third line for last year's game purely on merit. He's miles better than the late Rick Rypien. As much as Tanner Glass was a solid guy, he didn't have anything going in the offensive zone. Dale Weise has already shown himself to be a useful fourth line presence. Peter Schaefer was kicking the tires on the end of his career and wasn't around much longer. Aaron Volpatti in many ways is a new version of Tanner Glass, probably a better skater, but is likely to be out of the lineup when Steve Pinozzotto comes back. This year's fourth line is miles better.

The third line this year has been mostly centred by Manny Malhotra. At this point last year, Malhotra had 4 goals. This year he has none. Last year he had two functioning eyes. This year he has one and a half. Further, Malhotra has been obscenely unlucky - his PDO so far is 903. Last year over his whole season it was 1031; we can conclude that he was somewhat luckier that he should have been last year, giving us the impression that he was better than expected. This year he's been better than we believe. He'll bounce back.

An assessement of this year's second line can't be done without taking the third line into context. There's been a great deal of swapping in and out this year as the coaching staff assesses the new lineup options. It is here where we can find real difference between this year's and last year's editions. Chris Higgins in, Raffi Torres out. Cody Hodgson in, Mikael Samuelsson out. David Booth in, Mason Raymond out. Every single one of those 'in' players is being killed by PDO. Higgins: 973. Hodgson: 949. Booth: 874 (includes his games for Florida). Both Higgins and Hodgson have received praise for their steadiness. Once the scoring returns, expect the narrative going forward to be focused on how Higgins and Hodgson have been plugging away when times were tough.

Both second and third lines are due to bounce back. They start putting the puck in the net again, everyone will be singing a different tune. The talent is indeed there, but the fans must be patient.

(What of Jannik Hansen? Same story - this year's PDO is 931; last year he was 1025. See the pattern?)

Sami Salo is going to be Alex Edler's enabler as this season moves along. He'll be to Edler what Dan Hamhuis was to Kevin Bieksa was last year. Sami Salo, after Dan Hamhuis, had the second best scoring chance differential among Canucks defenders in October. He also had the lowest chance-against rate of any Canuck defender.

As a team, the Canucks are generally winning the scoring chance battle. The second and third lines have been woefully unlucky so far. Watching the team the last two days has been nothing short of aggravating. When the team starts scoring goals again, we'll stop noticing all the bad bits. No team is perfect and no team is going to go 82-0. Maybe the best thing for now is to close your eyes - we'll let you know when you can open them again.

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Patrick Johnston is a Vancouver journalist. In addition to regular contributions here at Canucks Army, his work has appeared in The Province, Hockey Now and on the CBC. Check out his blog and other writing at http://johnstonwrites.wordpress.com or follow him on twitter: @risingaction
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