Admittedly, the outlook and dialogue on this blog has been pretty bleak lately. I guess that’s what happens when the team your blog is devoted to goes through an injury-induced malaise; which includes 1 win in 9 games since December 30th, a -14 goal differential, one of the most embarrassing group performances imaginable, and having the same number of points for the season as the Minnesota Wild.
All that considered, the tone seems justified and the situation seems dire. But just as fast as things have spiraled out of control over the past few weeks, I think they can be restored. There are some very tangible reasons to expect this team to right the ship, which we’ll get into right past the jump.
The biggest issue is plaguing the Canucks – well, maybe aside from Glen Gulutzan cashing cheques that he hasn’t actually earned – has been the fact that their biggest weakness on paper, their lack of depth up front, has been exposed due to the litany of injuries they’ve been dealing with.
I guess this brings up the larger issue at hand, which is that the Canucks flat out weren’t prepared to brave the storm given the way that they were constructed. Every team deals with injuries over the course of an 82-game season; the Canucks are in the top 10 in the league, but two teams ahead of them are the Ducks and Sharks, who have continued to truck along just fine despite all of their injury woes. I’d say that this is for sure a knock against Mike Gillis and his staff, but that’s a topic of discussion for another day (like maybe one in June when we do that dance again in which we wonder out loud whether his days in Vancouver are numbered).
In the first game of the season, the team lost Alex Burrows for two weeks (to go along with the 5-game Zack Kassian suspension). By the time Burrows came back into the mix, Jannik Hansen had injured his shoulder and David Booth had strained his groin. That’s not to mention Jordan Schroeder, who lasted only 2 games and change before falling off of the face of the earth.
The Canucks had their full cast of characters for a grand total of 8 games (November 17th -December 1st), before Burrows broke his jaw. Then came the Alex Edler knee injury the following night, and it was at that point that things really started to go on a downslope:
Here’s a fun fact for you, Ryan Stanton, and Ryan Stanton’s agent: in the first 35 games of the season, with Stanton healthy, the Vancouver Canucks controlled 52.9% of all 5v5 score close shot attempts, which is near elite. In the 14 games since Stanton got injured in Minnesota? Just 47.6%, which resembles a heavy, heavy dip.
I’m undoubtedly being a little facetious because, while I love Stanton and his story, he’s just a bit player in the grand scheme of things. You can manipulate the numbers to look like anything you want them to, and I think this is more of a coincidence and alignment of everything bad coming together at once rather than proof that Stanton is some sort of play-driving dynamo.
The important player here is Alex Burrows, which our good friend Rhys did a fine job of illustrating in last night’s game recap:
Look at that right there. As Rhys noted, the big difference is that the team is attempting ~6 fewer shots/game without Burrows around. It’s common sense, really, and our readers are privy to this by now, but it bears repeating that you’ll on average score less as a team if you’re shooting the puck less frequently. And that’s happening with the Canucks, who have scored 7 goals in their past 5 games.
Which brings us to the good news: as far as we know right now Alex Burrows will be making his return to the lineup tomorrow night vs. the Flames, which also serves as a timely segway..
The schedule has certainly done the Canucks no favours as they’ve waited for the reinforcements to come off of the IR. Phoenix is the only one of their last 9 opponents that doesn’t currently hold a playoff spot, and they’re a good 2-3 game stretch away from being able to lay claim to that themselves.
The average record of their 8 opponents in the month of January is 31-12-5, with a +34 goal differential on the year. That’s dominant, and highly unfortunate for the Canucks.. but with every bad stretch in the schedule comes a good one, and that certainly holds true for the Canucks moving forward. Travis Yost recently published a list of the remaining strength of schedule for every team (sorted by avg. opponent score-adjusted Fenwick). He found that the Canucks have the 3rd easiest remaning slate of games in the league, with only the Sharks and Lightning having more favourable opponents going forward.
More specifically, though, here’s the list of games the Canucks play to end the month (I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the only game in which they shouldn’t be the prohibitive favourite heading into it: v. CGY, @ EDM, v. NSH, v. PHX, v.EDM, *v. CHI*, @WPG. Yep, cake. And that Blackhawks game is one which you’ll probably be hanging out with us at The Pint, so even that one ain’t so bad.
Things will definitely get better for the Canucks moving forward. The injuries have to be the main factor for their tailspin of late, because otherwise there’s no rhyme or reason to it. For the first half of the season they were looking like a team that had a chance to jump into that jumbled up non-Blackhawks 2nd tier in the West (with San Jose, St. Louis, LA, and Anaheim) based on their underlying numbers. They more than held their own when they played those teams – 55.1% 5v5 FenClose in 1st 6 games v. Pacific Divison teams, 44.7% in 5 games since – looking like they belonged.
Where does this team’s true ability lie, then? I still believe it’s ultimately much closer to the one saw in the first half, than this one:
.. but that still hinges entirely on the team’s health, which, while improving with the return of the Alexs is still a cause for concern going forward. Is Henrik’s broken finger something that he can manage? Ideally he’d be able to take some time off now and heading into the Olympics to let it properly heal, but knowing him – the ultra competitive nature, the ironman streak, the importance placed on representing his country – I don’t really see that happening.
I think the same questions can be applied to Ryan Kesler, who has really cratered of late and looks nothing like the guy we saw earlier in the year. He has gotten through the year relatively unscathed compared to the past few seasons, but it’s a distinct possibility that he’s more banged up than he’s letting on based on the obscenely high usage rate in the early going. He, too, will be competing in Sochi instead of taking some time to get right, rested, and ready for the stretch run. That has to be somewhat annoying if you’re either a fan of the team, or part of the organization.
Back to the team, though. They’ll head into the Olympic Break with a mini 4-game trip out East, which when combined with the upcoming 7 games I laid out above, provides them with a nice opportunity to rack up some points, and improve the perception of what they’re capable of.
This’ll provide an interesting dilemma for the management team and the fans, since the trade deadline will be just one week after the NHL schedule resumes on February 25th. I don’t think it’s exactly farfetched to say that the way the next few weeks unfold could have a strong influence on the way in which the team handles their business around March 5th.
I personally believe that the team, much to most people’s chargin, will stand pat and do nothing of any significance on that day. At some point prospects and picks need to stop being sold off like hot cakes for 2-month rentals, especially if the franchise wants to establish the depth each of the top teams in the West has right now. Anaheim and San Jose have been handled a litany of injuries with ease, and the Blues and Blackhawks are absolutely loaded from the ground up with assets.
I’d like to think that MG and Co. are cognizant of that, especially since it’s looking more and more like this team just doesn’t even have a fighting shot to compete unless absolutely everything breaks their way. But it’s not impossible to envision a scenario in which that changes. Teams scrap their plans and succumb to pressure all of the time in professional sports. Either way, it’ll be an interesting time to follow hockey in Vancouver.