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This Week Straight Up:
Jeff Angus: The more things change, the more they remain the same, right? It was a vintage Sedins-against-Edmonton performance last night – you’d think the Oilers would have figured out how to game plan against Daniel and Henrik by now?
The game featured a lot of action – some great goals, big hits, a fight, and a John Tortorella outburst. Most interesting to me, though, was the post-game comments from Roberto Luongo and Henrik. If you are one to read between the lines, both the current captain and the former captain spoke about their preference to play “Tortorella hockey” in relation to the previous regime. It’s a lot easier to make those types of comments in game two (and after an impressive victory), but I still found them highly interesting.
Luongo: “Maybe in previous years we come out flat in the second period and they get back in the game.”
And Sedin: “In the past, when we lost the puck we tend to skate back into our own end, giving up too much room. That’s the big difference this year.”
Now let’s see them do it against a team that isn’t from Alberta.
Thomas Drance: Vancouver’s new uptempo, aggressive system has been exceedingly entertaining through the first week. It’s a little bit unfair to compare this club through three games to last years team though – or compare this years game plan to Vigneault’s last season – because the 2013-14 Vancouver Canucks have had a healthy Ryan Kesler through the first week of the season. I’d argue that the 2013 Canucks never really had a healthy Ryan Kesler, certainly not one who could willfully dominate play like Kesler has through three games.
Vancouver’s still a shallow team – and we saw them fade noticeably in the latter half of their first game of the season against a club that could roll four lines – but with Kesler going, at least Tortorella has two lines to play with. Vigneault only had one last season. Yeah it’s nice to see Vancouver adopt the old "safe is death" mantra, but it’s also a game plan that wasn’t really even on the table for the club last year.
Angus: Exactly. And I think the comments last night speak volumes as to what the players on the team are looking for in a system and a coach. The quest for a third line center will continue this year (I suspect the team will add another band-aid solution before hoping Horvat/Gaunce are ready next season), but having two really good lines is still a significant advantage against most teams in the West (save for San Jose, Chicago, LA, and St. Louis).
And how happy is Luongo right now? Getting to start every game, and not being asked any questions that don’t relate to hockey. First time in close to two years you could say either of those things.
Drance: Yeah I’d imagine he’s happy (or happier than he was last season) even though he’d probably prefer to be between the pipes at Sunrise, and the results haven’t quite been there for him just yet. He even admitted he was fighting the puck after Saturday night’s game.
Not that Luongo struggling early in the season comes as a surprise. After all, Luongo – despite being among the league’s most consistently elite goaltenders – hasn’t posted a save percentage above .910 in the month of October since 2006-07. I’m curious, what are your theories as to why Luongo starts so slowly every season?
Image via wikimedia commons
Angus: I am far from a goaltending expert (it usually ends up costing me in my fantasy pool every year), but Luongo seems to be one of those goaltenders who thrives when he is busy and facing more shots.
I think it probably takes him some time at the beginning of each season to feel the pucks, so to speak. I’m curious to see how he will play this year with a bit more of a wide open system in front of him (at least it seems to be that way through a few games). He has never been the kind of goalie who is at his best facing 18-25 shots a night – perhaps a bump up to the 30+ range every night may actually help?
Drance: Well he definitely faced a lot of shots early in his career with the Panthers. Also a whole whack of phantom shots from the notorious shot over-counters in Miami!
I’ve always sort of explained it similarly to myself and thought about Luongo as a "rhythm goaltender." Maybe a few additional shots per game will help him, and hell, so long as Vancouver is generating "more" than their opponents it might help the club too. After all, I’ve never really thought of this Canucks team as one particularly well suited to playing "shutdown hockey."
Anyway let’s chat about Vancouver’s depth, or lack thereof. The third and fourth lines were fine (to very good) against the Oilers and Flames, but the Sharks rolled four lines against the Canucks in the opener and just flattened Vancouver’s bottom-six. Zac Dalpe is a fixture on the bench while Dale Weiss is currently a top-nine forward. So the situation is kind of grim beyond the top-six.
How much will the return of Jordan Schroeder, Zack Kassian and Alex Burrows help, do you think? Or should we resign ourselves to the fact that the Canucks will audition Dalpe, Mike Santorelli, Brad Richardson and Jordan Schroeder at third-line centre, find those options wanting, and ultimately trade more future assets for a third-line centre at the deadline?
Angus: I think the return of those three will help significantly. I mentioned this last week, but I see Schroeder developing into a solid depth option in the mold of Kyle Wellwood. He’s really smart and can play with and without the puck. Burrows is obviously a really valuable player in all situations, and Kassian gives Tortorella more options with his right wingers.
I think Schroeder will emerge as a viable third line center at some point, and Richardson will settle in on the fourth line. I really don’t get why the team let Max Lapierre walk at this point – it’s not like they didn’t have the cap space for him. I understand wanting to go a different direction (younger, less of a reputation, whatever)… but is there a really viable reason for not bringing Lapierre back?
Drance: I think reputation probably had something to do with the decision – not that the Canucks are overly cognizant of the fact that they’re penalized more often than your average NHL team, so much as the fact that Lapierre did take a lot of penalties.
But the real reason, I suspect, is that Lapierre is a bit of a possession drag. Consider that over the past six seasons 386 forwards have played over 2000 minutes in the NHL. Maxim Lapierre ranks 375th out of 386 in Corsi For percentage over that time (fun fact: Tanner Glass ranks 386th out of 386).
By comparison, Brad Richardson ranks 63rd out of 386 (sandwiched rather amusingly between David Booth and Mason Raymond). Now there’s some uncaught noise there from usage (Lapierre played some pretty difficult minutes for Vigneault, Richardson spent some time on the wing with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown), but that’s a massive gap.
Generally speaking L.A. Kings forwards did better by the underlying data when they skated with Richardson than they did without him. The exceptions to that rule are guys like Brown, Kopitar and Drew Doughty, or in the other words, the real engines of that club.
(All those stats are per stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
What the large sample data suggests to me is that Richardson is very probably the better player, and the more credible option to play up the lineup. It became clear during Lapierre’s Canucks tenure that the team didn’t really view him as anything more than a fourth-line option. So yeah, I actually see Richardson as a clear upgrade. He certainly looked like it this weekend too.
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Devils @ Canucks – Tuesday, Oct 8th at 7:00 PM PST
Angus: Cory Schneider won’t have to wait long to face his former team as the Devils make an early trip out West to Vancouver. Schneider had the unfortunate task of facing Sidney Crosby on opening night, but he had a stellar preseason for the Devils and is looking to cement himself as New Jersey’s starting goaltender. A strong performance against his former club would definitely help in that regard. Expect a low scoring contest in this one as Luongo and Schneider face off for the first time as opposition instead of teammates – take the under (the under is set at 3 or less over at PlayNowSports).
Drance: Yeah betting the under is the smart move. The Devils, in some ways, are a team that might defy conventional analysis. They dominated play last season, but couldn’t buy a goal (or keep any out of their net). They improved their goaltending this summer by acquiring Schneider, but they also lost Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson, and it’s tough to figure out who is going to put the puck in the net for this team. Unsurprisingly their offense has looked lost so far this season.
Angus: So I’m going to take the Canucks in a low-scoring squeaker.
Drance: I agree with you, particularly because it’ll be the second game of back-to-backs for New Jersey. Schneider’s going to have a huge game though.
Sharks @ Canucks – Thursday, Oct 10th at 7:00 PM PST
Angus: Assuming the Sharks don’t lose any key players to injury over the next few days, the Canucks will be in tough to come out on top in this contest. San Jose is bigger, faster, younger, and deeper at both forward and defense. The Canucks may have once had the edge in goal but Antti Niemi has quietly developed into one of the more consistent goaltenders in hockey. Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl has made an immediate impact, and fellow rookie Matt Nieto is also looking comfortable at the NHL level. San Jose has been able to keep their window to win open by drafting and developing really, really well – can the Canucks repeat that formula in the coming years?
That remains to be seen, but until then, take the Sharks any time these two teams face off.
Drance: You know what Jeff, I don’t think I quite agree with you here. The Sharks at home are a nightmare matchup for the Canucks – particularly because McLellan can roll four lines and just pick apart Vancouver’s weak bottom six. But the Sharks can’t do that on the road when Tortorella has last change, or at least, can’t do it quite as easily.
Vancouver was a better possession club at home last season than San Jose was on the road, and I’d expect that to continue. The key, really, will be to stay out of the penalty box. Vancouver’s PK was excellent in holding San Jose to an 0-for-8 conversion rate in the season opener, but if the Canucks keep playing with fire against a power-play this dangerous they will get burned.
Anyway, if the Sharks are favoured on the road against Vancouver this week, I’d be taking the Canucks.
Angus: But will you take Vancouver to win this contest outright? Because I won’t. This game will be a Sharks victory.
Drance: Yeah I won’t either. Sharks will win in a much closer game than the one we were treated to in the season opener.
Canadiens @ Canucks – Saturday, Oct 12 @ 7:00PM PST
Angus: Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher both make the trip to their home province for this one. Price has played against the Canucks in Vancouver before, while Gallagher will be making his NHL debut in Vancouver. The scrappy winger is looking to avoid the sophomore slump, and he is off to a quick start in 2013-14.
Montreal has been carried in the early part of the season by Lars Eller, who they originally acquired from the Blues in the Jaroslav Halak trade. Not many teams can compete with Montreal’s collection of young talent (especially up front), and PK Subban is one of the more dynamic defensemen in hockey. I’d expect a fast-paced and offensive contest between these two teams. Montreal and Vancouver both skate really well and this game should have its fair share of scoring chances. Even with Luongo and Price in goal, taking the over may be the smart play here.
Drance: It’s weird that Subban won the Norris trophy last season, and I still don’t think he gets enough respect around the league. He’s a singular, dominant force in this league.
Luckily for the Canucks, the Habs don’t possess a tonne of depth beyond Subban. Unfortunately for the Canucks, they might not possess enough forward depth to really exploit that.
The Habs generally gave Vigneault’s Canucks teams fits, and in particular play the twins very physically. I’ll be curious to see if Vancouver handles that a bit differently under Tortorella than they did under Vigneault. I’d imagine they will.
Angus: I’ll take the Canucks to win here and go 2-1-0 on the week.
Drance: And I’ll take the Habs. Subban’s presence should make life tough for the twins, and if it’s on Vancouver’s depth to win you a game, bet against Vancouver.