March 29 2012 08:49AM
For a team to win the Stanley Cup, a lot of different factors have to correlate in their favour. Health, goaltending, and special teams are the three most important (in order). We saw all three affect the Canucks negatively during last spring's Stanley Cup Final loss. Boston was healthier, they received better goaltending, and their penalty kill stifled Vancouver’s league-leading power play and snsurprisingly, the Bruins won in convincing fashion. Are the Canucks now better equipped to deal with the issues that plagued them in the Final last year?
Read on past the jump to find out.
Problem: what if the power play dries up?
In the Cup Final last year, Vancouver’s power play was a dismal 2-for-33 (a conversion rate of about six percent). A variety of issues caused problems – Tim Thomas, Boston’s aggressive play against the Sedin twins, and a nagging shoulder injury sustained by Christian Ehrhoff.
This season, the power play has gotten a head start on struggling. The Canucks have tried different power play formations and combinations to mixed results. It is obvious that the league has reversed the crack down on obstruction (or at least lessened the restrictions on it), which means that less penalties are being called and there are fewer power-play opportunities. I think we can expect this trend to carry over into the playoffs.
Ehrhoff will be missed, but he was pretty ineffective when it mattered most (not his fault, he was basically playing with one arm).
Vancouver’s best chance of having success on the power play comes when they are getting point shots on goal. Sami Salo is their biggest weapon in this regard, but he has been used a lot on the second unit this season. Having Salo on the point opens up space for Daniel and Henrik down low, usually leading to good things.
The second unit will miss the patience and vision of Cody Hodgson – Mason Raymond will probably run the power play through the half-wall, and the likes of Booth and Higgins should be mixing it up down low and in front of the net. This is the area the team will miss Hodgson the most – at even strength his sheltered role would have presented a ton of matchup problems for Alain Vigneault on the road.
Solution: use the defensemen at the points a lot; get Salo back on the first unit.
Problem: What if the Sedins get shut down?
The Sedins had one great series (San Jose), two pretty good ones (Chicago, Nashville), and one brutal one (Boston). The Bruins played a five-man unit against them, taking away their ice in all directions. The Sedins were very un-Sedin-like – rushing plays, making low percentage passes, and turning the puck over. Without Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson, and with Kesler playing through a torn groin, the team had no secondary attack to speak of.
The offense is much deeper and more versatile this year. Booth and Higgins are both north-south players who take the puck hard to the net, something that needs to be done to consistently score in the playoffs. Hansen can score, and I’m curiously optimistic to see what Zack Kassian can do when the pressure is ratcheted up. It is obvious that his fitness isn’t where it needs to be (most players struggle in this regard when they first arrive in Vancouver), but the team loves his upside. Watching him use his size to protect the puck against the wall, then silkily feed the puck to the point several times last night, it's not hard to understand why.
The real wild card is Raymond. He can be a difference-maker with his speed and creativity, but he needs to remember to take the puck towards the net and not away from it. As we have seen since he has returned from being a healthy scratch, he can be a very effective top-six NHL forward. Putting him on the second or third line would allow him to attack slower opposing defenders.
The Higgins-Kesler-Booth line has been quite good, but so has the recently put together checking unit of Higgins-Pahlsson-Hansen (Higgins seems to make any line a good one). Raymond can play a checking role, too. He isn’t physical but he is good defensively and has a good stick.
Solution: more well-rounded and balanced second and third lines
Problem: What if bad Luongo rears his head?
October notwithstanding, Luongo has once again had a very good season. And once again, no one cares.
When you're Roberto Luongo, the only hockey that matters comes between mid-April and June. Like the Sedins, his play varied from series to series last year. He had one great one (San Jose), one good one (Nashville), and two filled with highs and lows (Chicago, Boston). He didn’t cost the team the Cup, but he didn’t give them the chance to win it when they needed it. I still think back to game six in Boston, when the Canucks game out with some good jump, only to have Luongo allow a few quick softies.
The solution to this one is simple – shorten his leash. Schneider has proven he is a great goalie who can steal games against top NHL clubs. The team won’t be so hesitant to go with him if Luongo’s play begins to falter. As long as Schneider is both hydrated and communicating with his defensemen, he’s one of the most fundamentally sound goalies in the league.
Solution: Shorten the leash/Schneider time.
Problems: Injuries (especially on defense).
If you make it to game seven of the Cup Final without sustaining an injury or two, you probably aren’t doing it right. By the time the playoffs ended, Hamhuis tore muscles in his core area. Ehrhoff had a separated shoulder. Edler had a broken hand, and Bieksa had a leg injury and Ballard was suffering from chronic head flatulence. The Canucks were also without Aaron Rome, as he received the biggest suspension in Cup Final history for a late hit.
As Hamhuis goes, so does Vancouver’s defense. They can’t win without him. However, they are better equipped to deal with the nagging injuries compared to last spring. The depth chart is eight or nine deep, assuming Keith Ballard will be ready to play come game one. Rome, Alberts, and Gragnani will likely be the odd-men out. Not world beaters, but three solid (and very different) defensemen capable of filling in. If a puck mover gets hurt, Gragnani can go in. If more toughness or defensive play is needed, one of the other two can go in.