This Week Straight Up: Oct 14 – 20

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The Week Straight Up

Thomas Drance: We’re a week into the season, and as per October tradition – that means the Canucks are playing .500 hockey!

Jeff, what have you seen from the team so far this season that has you concerned, and what have you seen that makes you optimistic?

Jeff Angus: I think at this point the most concerning thing for the Canucks is the bottom-six forward group. But that’s almost too obvious and persistent an issue, so let me go with a more surprising issue: the erratic play of Dan Hamhuis.

Seriously: where does the Dan Hamhuis goal rank among the worst all-time own goals? In terms of magnitude, it is far below the infamous postseason gaffs from Steve Smith (Edmonton) and Chris Phillips (Ottawa) obviously. But I think it’s in the Shane O’Brien pantheon in terms of Vancouver Canucks regular season own goals, and certainly every bit as bad as the puck-handling error Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick had this week.

The play itself was obviously extremely embarassing for Hamhuis nonetheless, who has gotten off to a slow start this season (although the underlying stats say otherwise). I’m curious Thomas, what’s your take on Hamhuis – and don’t rely solely on your precious "fancy stats" please – is it merely a case of bad luck, or does the new system has something to do with his less-than-stellar play?

Thomas Drance: Bad luck is absolutely part of it and probably the biggest part of it, frankly.

Through 6 appearances this season, the Canucks have actually outshot opponents with Dan Hamhuis on the ice at even-strength (51 shots for, 42 against). But they’ve been outscored eight to four.

Some of that reflects Hamhuis’ struggles in his own end, and on zone-exits in particular, but we need to point out that Canucks goaltenders have an .810 save percentage with Hamhuis on the ice at even-strength so far. Hamhuis has been more error prone than usual to start this season and that’s odd because Hamhuis doesn’t make too many mistakes historically – he just quietly and efficiently takes forwards into the corner. But in the past when he has been an error, his goaltenders have been there to bail him out and that hasn’t happened this year. When every mistake you make ends up in the back of your team’s net, fans and media are likely to key in on that.

Goaltending and bad luck is part of it, but it’s also pretty clear that some of Dan Hamhuis’ decision making has been a bit iffy in the early going. Whether that’s adjusting to systems, or feeling the pressure from Team Canada’s Olympic team scouts, or maybe even an undisclosed injury: there’s no doubt that Hamhuis hasn’t been himself.

The good news is that he’s still Vancouver’s best defender by the underlying numbers, and his track record of understated, first-pairing quality defensive play should be weighed more heavily than his looking out-of-sorts over six games. 

In other words, feel free to disregard the underlying data when describing Dan Hamhuis’ play so far: his form has been well below his usual high standard. But I think being "concerned" about Dan Hamhuis’ game is a bit silly, and that’s partly because his underlying numbers are still so strong. Hamhuis will surely sort out whatever is ailing him in the early going, and remain one of the league’s best defensive defensemen over the course of 82 games. 

Angus: That sounds about right to me, the other thing that I think is cause for concern has to be Ryan Kesler’s lack of production.

So far, Ryan Kesler has been really quiet under John Tortorella. Finding his groove, or cause for concern? Without him at his best, the Canucks are merely an above average team that relies too heavily on its top two offensive weapons. Does Kesler have another gear to get to, or have the past few injuries taken a toll on his ability to dominate at both ends of the ice?

Drance: Kesler has been an interesting case so far this season. His underlying numbers through six games are way stronger than they were last season which is a great sign long-term. However, his offensive production remained pretty steady last year even as the Canucks spent a tonne of time in their own end with him on the ice and this season it has dried up (so far).

Like with Dan Hamhuis, a lot of that is the wrong kind of luck. The Canucks are shooting 4.4% with Kesler on the ice so far this season, and it’s tough to be productive when you need 25 shots to score a goal. That’ll regress and the goals will come.

Still, we may want to adjust offensive expectations for Ryan Kesler downward somewhat. Kesler isn’t really being used as a scoring center by John Tortorella, so expecting him to produce like a second line scoring center seems #abitmuch. So far Kesler is soaking up tough matchups and defensive zone starts and coming out narrowly ahead in those minutes. That’s hugely valuable, and if he can do it all year the Canucks will be in good shape (especially once the bounces start going his way).

The only thing I might add with Kesler is that I’d love to see the Canucks find a way to rotate him to the point a bit more on the power-play. Kesler’s shot is a really dangerous weapon with the man-advantage and it doesn’t seem like the Canucks are taking full advantage of it this season.

There has to be a way to have Kesler rotate up to the point with Edler moving down low on occasion. That would set up a Kesler/Garrison D-to-D one-timer which would, in theory, score a lot and cause penalty-killing units to cheat up high (giving the Sedins space to be wizards down low)…

Angus: Now that you’ve mentioned it, I have to say, on my "reasons for optimism" the way Jason Garrison has been destroying it offensively this season is up there.

In fact, Jason Garrison is one player who is thriving under Tortorella at both ends of the ice. Garrison looks to be a lock for 15 goals this season, and how often can you say that about a defenseman? Correct me if I am wrong, but the Canucks haven’t had a blueliner reach that mark since Jovanovski over a decade ago.

Drance: Yeah I’m really happy I nabbed Jason Garrison in my fantasy pool.

Dimitri and Cam have a bet going, on whether or not Jason Garrison will top 14.5 goals this season. If Garrison’s early season shot rate is any indication: he absolutely will. Through six games, Jason Garrison is averaging four shots per contest (only Dan Boyle’s is averaging more). If that keeps up, he’ll hit 15 for sure (even if the league keep taking goals away from him).

Angus: Yep.

Anyway, the up-and-down start to the season doesn’t surprise me. This Canucks team simply lacks the depth to win on a consistent basis in this league, especially now that they aren’t able to play Calgary, Edmonton, and Minnesota every few days (I’d lump Colorado in there, but Patrick Roy the coach has them playing like they used to in front of Patrick Roy the goaltender).

I read a few blogs and columns from after the San Jose and Montreal games that were full of criticism for the team. Perhaps it is time to readjust expectations? This is still a good hockey club, but there are a lot of good hockey clubs in the NHL right now (thanks to Mr. Salary Cap).

Drance: Interestingly enough I think Colorado’s still not that good. I love that top-9 forward group and have a lot of respect for Varlamov and Giguere, but that Avalanche team is doing it with smoke and mirrors in the early going this season. They’ll come back to Earth once their goaltending does, and I just have a tough time believing that you can make the playoffs with Jan Hejda, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie and Andre Benoit in your top-four.

The Wild on the other hand might be the league’s single most improved team. They’re playing track-meet hockey so far this season too, so it’s like, the Pacific Division lost the Wild just as they got good at hockey and really fun to watch…

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Angus: The Canucks have a tough week ahead with four road games in six nights, including a visit to Buffalo to face the former prodigal son Cody Hodgson. 

But first they’ll play Philadelphia on Tuesday, a team that seems absolutely lost this season, even though their goaltending has been surprisingly (and unsustainbly) stellar through the first couple of weeks. I don’t think Steve Mason can keep that up frankly, and it’s still October (the month in which Luongo always looks human) so I quite like the over on this game, which is set at 5.0.

Also, the Cancuks aren’t even favoured in Philadelphia on Tuesday, and I think they’re the better team, so there could be some value there if you want to bet on the boys in green and blue to get a road win. YOU CAN BET ON THIS GAME HERE

After the Canucks get Philadelphia and Buffalo out of the way, the weekend back-to-back sees the Canucks go to Pittsburgh and then Columbus, and Eddie Lack is sure to see some time in one of those games. The Pittsburgh game is an early morning one (10am). Does anyone remember what happened the last time Luongo started a 10am game in Pittsburgh?

Drance: You have to think the Canucks should throttle Philadelphia and Buffalo, two teams that are weak in net and on the back-end, but those road games in Pittsburgh and Columbus could be tough.

The Penguins are, in some ways, pretty similar to the Canucks. They’re deadly at the top-end of the lineup (more deadly, in fact, than Vancouver is) but have a soft underbelly like John Goodman. Columbus meanwhile looks to me significantly improved, and the human clutch-and-grab machine known as Fedor Tyutin always gives the Sedin twins trouble.

I think a road trip will do the Canucks well, however, and I’ll pick them to beat Buffalo, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before losing a trap-game against the Blue Jackets on Sunday.

Angus: Yeah, I think the Canucks would be very happy with a 2-2 split for these four games. Let’s give them the Philadelphia game and the Buffalo one. Columbus is a strong team and the Canucks are going to be tired for that match-up on Sunday.