Canucks need to focus on bolstering the centre in offseason
Uncertainties over Kesler, Malhotra and Pahlsson raise question marks about Hodgson trade
Vancouver Canucks centre Ryan Kesler had a disappointing season by his own standards.
Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG
Ryan Kesler became a centre of attention through injury and indifferent play, but the position is now under further scrutiny because of how the Vancouver Canucks addressed it at the NHL trade deadline and how a season of so much promise ended with a resounding thud in a five-game playoff exit.
Kesler confirmed he injured a shoulder in February and may need surgery, but wouldn’t use it — or an ongoing hip soreness from an offseason procedure — as crutches for his 17-game goal drought and three assists in the Western Conference quarterfinal series against the Los Angeles Kings.
General manager Mike Gillis confirmed he was comfortable with the deadline acquisition of Samme Pahlsson to alleviate an uncomfortable situation with Cody Hodgson. And he believes there’s something left in the tank for Manny Malhotra to be more of a contributor than a concern next season with a year left on his deal. Maxim Lapierre never looked so good down the middle.
The trickle-down effect is concerning. Pahlsson is a 34-year-old unrestricted free agent who had marginal success and Hodgson is an evolving 22-year-old playmaker who was jettisoned because of an uneasy relationship with the coach and organization. And who knows what Malhotra can contribute with a full offseason to address conditioning and coping with his eye injury?
Centres are hard to find, and expecting the diminutive Jordan Schroeder to have an impact next season might be a stretch. The picture looks more cloudy than it did at the deadline, especially if Kesler is slow to come around again next fall, Pahlsson doesn’t return and Malhotra struggles again.
“We didn’t have a tremendous enough confidence in our centre-ice position to be able to play against other top teams and we went and got Samme and thought we were better suited going into the playoffs with him,” Gillis said Tuesday in his season-ending address.
Gillis traded offence and acquired defence at the deadline because he thought another shutdown presence in Pahlsson was a priority and it would free up Kesler to contribute more offensively.
But the Canucks scored just eight goals against the Kings and Kesler was playing through considerable discomfort. He struggled to out-skate and out-battle the opposition and his game became more about positioning because of a tug at the hip and weakness in the shoulder.
“I’m not going to sit here and make excuses — I wasn’t good enough down the stretch,” said the 2011 Selke Trophy winner, who saw his goal total dip to 22 from a career-high 41.
“I’m pretty disappointed because I hold myself to a high standard. I’m pissed off. It took me longer than expected and [I] probably came back too early from the hip surgery.
“We had a great year and took a lot of flak, but we’re judged by the playoffs and we didn’t perform.”
It brought Hodgson back into the spotlight. The Canucks went 12-for-85 on the power play after the deadline for a paltry 14-per-cent efficiency and lacked a second-unit presence in the middle.
But Gillis sounded like it was addition by subtraction in shipping Hodgson to the Buffalo Sabres for winger Zack Kassian, instead of waiting for the offseason and getting more in the postseason with Hodgson. The centre had a back injury misdiagnosed and at the 2009 camp, coach Alain Vigneault said Hodgson used it to cover up a poor preseason. And when he finally hit stride with 16 goals in 63 games this season with the Canucks, Hodgson wanted more than a dozen minutes of ice time.
“Clearly, there were issues that were ongoing,” said Gillis. “I spent more time on Cody’s issues than every other player combined on our team the last three years. We made a determination he didn’t want to be here and we built him into something that we could move. We put Cody in every possible offensive situation and that was by design, and I don’t regret that move and I’d do it today.
“There were six young players available and we traded for Zack, a commodity that is impossible to get if we can develop him into the player he can be.”
With Roberto Luongo willing to waive his no-trade clause, he has made it easier for Gillis to move him, and freeing up a $5.3-million-US cap hit could help pursue roster help when free agency commences July 1.
But Gillis also wants to get younger, bigger and stronger, and that’s hard to find in unrestricted free agency, especially down the middle where players are either older or too expensive.
Gillis might have to trade for help because, as much as Pahlsson may want to keep playing, it probably wouldn’t be here, even though he enjoyed the experience.
“I don’t know anything right now,” Pahlsson said. “I liked it here. It was not fun in Columbus. We lost the first 10 games there and no one had fun, and it changed when I got here. But I have to think about it and talk to my family and see what’s going on.”
Gillis believed his team was well positioned going into the playoffs and the pain of an early exit won’t soon go away. But it will linger if the centre-ice situation isn’t resolved in the offseason.
Simply put, the Canucks need a healthy Kesler and a proven third-line centre, not a project. Hodgson looked like he would help solidify the middle for years to come, so the Pahlsson move will be debated.
“The future is going to show what came out of that deal,” said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin.
“I still think we were as good this year as last going into the playoffs. That’s what made us so good last year. We were deep. And when we’re healthy, we’re tough to beat.”
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