At The Quarter-Pole

The race is on, but right now, the Canucks are headed in the wrong direction. Fast.

My oh my. How quickly things can change.

At the beginning of the season, when the supposed pundits were making their picks for Stanley Cup favourite, many picked the Vancouver Canucks to not only make it to the Stanley Cup final, but to actually win the championship this year.

But 20 games in… does anyone still think this team can actually live up to those lofty expectations?

After their first 20 games, the Vancouver Canucks are well below expectations. They have a talented, deep lineup that many felt were built to win consistently and go far in the playoffs. But they are very few players on the rosters that have lived up to the billing that was set up at the start of the season.

Not surprisingly, the team itself has overall been like many of its players: inconsistent from one game to the next and unable and unwilling to put in a full 60 minute effort. At 10-7-3, the Canucks are basically a .500 team with 10 wins and 10 losses, and are clinging to a playoff spot in 8th place. They have 10 wins because they have been able to beat up on the lesser lights of the league. Granted they should be doing that, but what they aren’t doing is that they are not beating the better teams. Their 10 wins have come against Florida, Carolina, Minnesota, Colorado twice (once in OT), Edmonton, New Jersey, Detroit, Ottawa and Toronto. Of those, only Detroit and Colorado are currently in a playoff spot. So that’s 3 wins out of 10 against non-playoff teams. Yikes.

So at the quarter-pole, what do I like about the Vancouver Canucks and what don’t I like? Does anything or anybody get a pass?

What I’ve Liked

Well it ain’t much, but here’s a few things that have impressed me so far. Ok let’s be fair. The Canucks have done some things very well to start the year. But the list is not nearly long enough.

1. The effectiveness of the Power Play. It’s ranked first overall, first on the road and top 10 at home. It is one of two main reasons why the Canucks have 10 wins, not 5 or 6.

2. The penalty kill. New special teams coach Newell Brown is doing his job. And he appears to be the ONLY Canucks coach to be doing his job. The Canucks PK is 7th overall, and is 2nd at home. Impressive. When was the last time the Canucks had such a highly ranked PK at any point in a season? I can’t say I can remember that it’s happened in the last 10 years.

3. HALF of the defense has been mostly effective. Alex Edler has probably been the Canucks most consistent player so far. Andrew Alberts has been solid and has exceeded expectations. Sure, he’s had a couple of stinker games but that’s a LOT better than many of his fellow Canucks defensemen. And finally… (it’s going to be a shock) Keivn Bieksa has been decent defensively so far this year. His point totals are a bit distressing, but on his own side of the puck, he’s been pretty good this year. Again, he’s had a couple of forgettable games, but he’s had way more solid games than forgettable ones.

4. Cory Schneider. He has done everything that he has been asked to do. He came out winning. He has replaced Luongo on some terrible nights, and frankly outplayed his teammate this far. He’s playing with the same fractured defense that Luongo is, but Schneider has looked far more calm and poised when he’s played.

5. The third line… up until the 5-game road trip. Boy, that newly built third line was looking like a little bit of sunshine to start the year. Malhotra and Torres came out firing and with Hansen (despite his unBELIEVably terrible hands) they found their immediate chemistry. Great stuff. But once the Canucks went on their first main road trip, that line just evaporated. They were a line that was providing much needed offense while the 2nd line sputtered. But then, at 5-on-5, that line just completely dried up. And truthfully, both Torres and Malhotra are still going well on special teams. But it seems like the fortunes of this hockey club rest on the effectiveness of this line, which is a scary proposition. As this line goes, so does the Vancouver Canucks. So it’s time to get them going again.

What I’ve Not Liked

There are many things. But I’ll list five, just to be consistent (unlike the Canucks).

1. The Second Line. Ryan Kesler has had some pretty good games. In fact, Kesler was having a pretty good game against Phoenix despite the vanishing act perpetrated by his linemates. For the most part, the second line has been Kesler centering Raymond and Samuelsson. Both Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson have been awful this year. Absolutely awful. Sure, they are both coming off career years but they aren’t even coming close to their form from last year. If the Canucks want to turn around their start and get back to the top of the division, Samuelsson and Raymond have to play monumentally better… NOW. Rumours abound that Raymond may not be 100% with an injured hand. If that’s the case, then he needs to sit out. Bring in a short term reinforcement from Manitoba and let his hand heal properly.

2. The Lack of a Defensive Plan. What the HELL does Rick Bowness do?! Isn’t it his job to plan and organize his defensemen to have a scheme from shift to shift and game to game? The Canucks blue line looks lost, panicked and disorganized at large chunks during almost every game. They do not have a good system set up to get the puck out of their own zone. They do not have a good system set up to handle long stretches of play in their own zone. They do not have a system to cover and play against the opposition parked in front of their own goal. These are things that defensive coaches are supposed to instill in their players.

3. Roberto Luongo. Luongo is an pretty good goalie. And it’s looking more and more like that is all is ever going to be. A good goalie. Maybe even a very good goalie on some nights. And every once in a while, he is an elite goalie. But the problem is that Roberto Luongo, this year, is the highest paid goalie in the league and one of the highest paid players overall in the whole league. He is not playing like a top-tier goalie. And he is not earning his VERY large pay cheque. He is ranked in the twenties in wins, save percentage, and goals-against average. He is being outplayed by his backup goalie. Most importantly, not once has Roberto Luongo looked like he could win a game all on his own. His only shutout came against an inept Devils team. His play is unacceptable and he needs to step his game up now.

4. Full-game efforts. The Canucks aren’t a bad team. They’re a decent team. They’re pretty good. But they sure as hell aren’t a hard-working team. Not even close. They have coasted on less than acceptable effort and have managed to win 10 games out of 20. If they want to get back to a .667 winning clip, they need to start playing hard for every minute of every game. Looking back at the schedule, I cannot identify one game (NOT ONE!!) where the Canucks played with a full effort for a complete 60 minutes

5. The lack of an "edge". Where is their physical play? Much like their lack of 60 minute efforts, the Canucks just aren’t playing with enough nastiness or jam. Their two lopsided losses are perfect examples of this. When the Canucks lost to both Minnesota and Chicago, the Canucks folded like a cheap tent. They cowered. Where was their fight-back? If this is a reflection of their coach, then management needs to look very seriously at the coaching staff. With the players that the Canucks have, and the improvements they made in bringing in some guys with gumption, they sure aren’t playing with any.

Dishonourable mention – The Sedins. Their stats are great. But they’ve been buoyed by their great power play. At 5-on-5, the Sedins are not dominating like many expect. They haven’t had a single truly fantastic or extraordinary shift yet. This from newly annointed captain. Henrik needs to start to lead by example and put his team on his shoulders. That’s what good captains do when their team is down.

My last thought on this. I have one foot on the Fire Vigneault bandwagon. I’ve been less than thrilled with his coaching decisions thus far, his line matching has been embarrassing, and I’m beginning to think that the players are tuning him out now. The next 20 games willshow me if AV can get this team back on track or if it’s time to look for a change behind the bench.

Who Gets a Pass?

The only players to whom I am willing to provide a pass are those that have been hurt for a noticeable amount of time. So my passes go to Alex Burrows, Dan Hamhuis and (marginally) Keith Ballard. However, none of them get passes at the next review at he midway point this year.

What Do You Think?

Via Twitter, I asked Canucks fans to give me some comments on what they’ve thought of the Canucks thus far.

Here’s what you said:

Ryan Blight (@arby_18): #canucks managed to win with Smoke & Mirrors early but have been lucky against bottom-feeders and slammed by contenders.

Carly (@carlz8): they are like a katy Perry song ..there hot then there cold ..there yes then there no ..

Kent Wilson (from Flames Nation): (@Kent_Wilson) Nice! Okay…the Canucks are terrible. The team should fold. The Twins are funny looking.

Lindsay (@causticchick) Best acquisition this season has to be Malhotra. He’s the king of the faceoff, has presence on the ice, and is damn cute.

  • Oilers4ever

    In answer to your opening question, I, for one, no longer believe that the Canucks can live up to the pre-season expectations for them. No doubt the talent is there but the character, work ethic and will to win are noticeably absent. It is a real shame as I started the season as a believer. Alas, it is going to be the same as the preceding 39 years…just not good enough. The hockey gods know that I hope I am proven wrong.

  • Great comments, John.
    I agree with you about the “will to win” and that seems to me something that the coaching staff should be responsible for.
    I know these guys are pro athletes and all, and that they’re supposed to jacked up for every game. But sometimes you need a little extra push. And when the WHOLE team is suffering from the same lack of enthousiasm, you have look past the players to the guys standing behind the bench.

  • Here are some additional comments that were e-mailed to me from Ramzi Ghurani.

    “I just saw your quarter pole post and I totally agree with you. I think Luongo needs to focus again and put his team on his shoulders again, he just needs to take responsibility for this team like he did in 06 – 07. I think he still has it in him, he’s only had a really bad 6 months, other than his stats are pretty solid and clutch.

    Finally I think there needs to be coaching change, just like Pittsburgh did and the blackhawks early in 08 and the flyers Last year these are all teams with recent playoff and regular season success with ok goaltending. We just need a fresh voice — its part of the hockey cycle. AV knows it and his comments after the Chicago game (commenting about Running up the score) shows he’s desperate.

    If there winning pct isn’t 620 by the half way mark he and bowness needs to go.”

  • Good piece, but I’d like to add that I think the poor play of the forwards is a major factor in how the the D sometimes plays.

    I disagree with your Luongo comments, but I am a big Luongo supporter. I think he’s improving under Melanson. Remember, he’s no different now than he was when he stole an entire season for us in the ’06 season. The difference is that the Nucks (and Florida before that) were still a defensive minded team. Lu has always been a good first shot goalie, and when the whole team is collapsing and fishing out rebounds, one of his big weaknesses is neutralized.

    I think Luongo’s problems are a reflection of the entire team’s problems. This team has a lot of talent, but it does not know who it is. With the exception of D joining the rush, the forwards do not complement the defense, and the defense does not complement the goalie.

    For example, if the D had been instructed: “Under no circumstances let a guy cut across the net. Give up a penalty if you have to.” With our PK being so good this year, this one idea would probably dramatically increase Lu’s save percentage. And at least we’d be killing a good penalty instead the dumb ones we take. That’s a simple philosophy of playing to your strengths and hiding your weaknesses. If the team hasn’t figured out simple things like that, there needs to be a major coaching change.