Iain MacIntyre: Perfect storm for Canucks' season
Injuries, lack of upgrades, goalie conundrum all threaten to burst clouds in Vancouver
Wow, that scrimmage season just flew by.
All those practice jerseys, all that incohesiveness and lack of offensive execution. Hard to believe the Vancouver Canucks have already completed not-quite-four full periods of shinny.
And what a finale! Greys beat Blues 3-0. Or did Blues beat Greys? Doesn’t matter. It was training-camp hockey. Or the Ice Capades’ re-enactment of the U.S. Civil War.
Maybe next year there will be an actual intra-squad game. And one day, an exhibition game. Well, what is mankind without dreams?
In a week when there has been some focus on what teams are doing to say sorry and thank you to fans — in the Canucks’ case, not enough so far — the National Hockey League will unleash upon its trampled paying customers the most ragged, unrehearsed hockey in many years. But they’re calling it the regular season. Welcome back, everyone.
There are 13 games on the opening day of a season that is 20 days shorter than the lockout that nearly destroyed it.
The Vancouver Canucks’ first of 48 games is Saturday night against the Anaheim Ducks.
The Canucks have familiarity on their side. Of their roster of 23 players, 20 Canucks played for the team last season when it won its second straight Presidents’ Trophy as the regular-season champion.
World-class first-liners Daniel and Henrik Sedin have played together before and the organization has established a level of excellence the last four seasons unprecedented in Canuck history.
The pattern of regular-season success is reassuring, and lineup continuity seems a very good thing during a 48-game sprint to the playoffs. But beyond the form chart, it was difficult this week to find many other goods things about a team that ended the lockout with one key injury and started training camp with another.
“I have no idea what to expect,” Canuck coach Alain Vigneault admitted this week. “I believe that our guys are ready. Conditioning results were, for the most part, very, very good. We’ve taken the short amount of time we’ve had to get ready and maximized every opportunity to do what we need to do: teach, prepare, execute. Saturday, we’ll (know).”
Nobody is picking the Canucks to miss the playoffs. But neither are people picking them to finish first overall again. The Los Angeles Kings proved last spring how irrelevant the standings are once the playoffs begin.
The Kings backed into the post-season tournament in eighth place in the Western Conference, then promptly cuffed aside the Canucks in a Stanley Cup campaign as dominant as the NHL had seen in 15 years.
The key for teams is to simply play their way into the Stanley Cup tournament. The Canucks should do that for the 10th time in 12 seasons. But there are several small signs that the journey will not be smooth:
Long-term injuries to Ryan Kesler and David Booth, coupled with the failure of the organization to draft and develop players ready to step into the NHL from the minors, means Vancouver begins with a second line of journeyman Andrew Ebbett (six points last season) between Mason Raymond (10 goals) and Zack Kassian (four goals).
Opening well is paramount in the shortened season and, under Vigneault, the Canucks have been notoriously tepid starters, always under .500 through the first two to three weeks.
Only four Canucks played in Europe during the lockout, and one of them (Cory Schneider) was for just a month and another (Raymond) for a week.
Schneider has a fabulous resume but has not been a starting goalie in the NHL, and until you’re a proven No. 1 goalie, you’re unproven.
The risk in carrying deposed starter Roberto Luongo as a $5.33-million backup could blow up on the Canucks in several ways while meticulous manager Mike Gillis waits for the right trade.
It seems so long ago it’s easy to forget how this same group of players struggled to adapt when officiating and defending changed NHL dynamics late last season.
Jason Garrison looks like a nice replacement for Sami Salo on defence, but the lineup, even if Kesler and Booth were healthy, has not been upgraded.
Collectively, these potential deficiencies hardly constitute a “perfect storm” looming above the Canucks. But rain clouds abound, and it will be surprising if the Canucks don’t get soaked at some point, especially early on.
“We maybe have to change our style a little bit here just to make sure we maximize what we have up front, then as the year goes on get some key returns (from injury),” Schneider said. “Perhaps if the goals aren’t coming as often, we have to be a little more defensive.
“Every guy here worked hard and tried to stay in shape during the lockout. This is what it has all been for. We have to keep up our end of the bargain of being professional and ready to go.”
Daniel Sedin said: “We’ve had a lot of injuries throughout the years, a lot of things to overcome, and I think this team has always been good at rising to the challenge. Everyone talks about how tough it’s going to be for us, but all we can do is worry about the next game. The first 10 games are going to be huge. If we lose too many of those, it’s going to be tough to catch up. We all know how it is the last 25 or 30 games (of an 82-game season); it’s really tough to catch up.”
There hasn’t been a 48-game campaign since commissioner Gary Bettman began his lockout hat trick in 1994. The Canucks entered the shortened season of ’95 with largely the same lineup that pushed the New York Rangers to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final the previous spring. But Pavel Bure struggled, there were a couple of injuries on defence and the Canucks barely scraped into the playoffs at 18-18-12, back when the league had only 26 teams and .500 got you to the dance.
The defending-champion Rangers finished eighth in the Eastern Conference.
There is much less margin for error in a 48-game schedule in a league with great parity and 30 teams. It’s likely there will be at least a couple of teams that start badly and miss the playoffs three months from now, but would have had time to recover over an 82-game season.
“This is a brand new season,” veteran Canuck Manny Malhotra said when presented the catalogue of concerns about his team. “The desire to get back on the ice is at an all-time high. We understand the importance of each game.
“If you want to go on past seasons and past statistics and what happened, you might as well write up this season now. The beauty of sport is that you go out and play. This is not the stock market. We’re not trying to read trends.
“This is sport; on a nightly basis things can change. Things work, things don’t work. But it’s up to us.”
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun