VANCOUVER — It wasn’t the big shot or the right-handedness that the Vancouver Canucks missed most after Sami Salo left as a free agent last summer. And it sure wasn’t his medical record. What the Canucks missed was Salo’s reliability, poise and ability to calm those around him.
Exhibit A is Alex Edler. The National Hockey League team’s most talented defenceman, shepherded by Salo in Vancouver, was erratic for most of the 48-game season as he adjusted to new blue-line partners and the periodic switch to the right side from his natural position on the left.
Without Salo to lean on, Edler looked less sure of himself and made a lot of mistakes.
That’s partly why another Western Conference coach, when asked during the season for his thumbnail assessment of the Canucks, said he really liked the team when its forwards controlled the puck but thought Vancouver vulnerable when its defence had it and was pressed. To some degree, every NHL team has the same issue.
But Edler’s risk, given his importance to the Canucks and the minutes he logs, was noteworthy. So was the risk involved with Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who was having a good season until a groin injury in late February took him out of the lineup for seven games.
Edler and Bieksa were partners for the second half of the season, mostly because Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison were so good together the coaching staff left them alone.
As the Canucks prepare to open the Stanley Cup playoffs Wednesday against the San Jose Sharks, there remains the question about Vancouver’s defence and its ability to safely pass the puck while under pressure.
Edler, however, has been much better the last three weeks — more confident and more physical. And Bieksa, thrown back into the lineup Saturday in Edmonton after missing another five games, has been inching back toward his form of the first month.
The defence also has been bolstered by the steady play of 20-year-old call-up Frankie Corrado, a right-sided rookie who has done well enough in three games to push veteran Keith Ballard off the third pairing.
The Canucks defence suddenly looks a lot less vulnerable than it did a month ago.
“I think our defence is extremely strong,” Garrison said after Monday’s practice. “There’s a lot of guys who can play a lot of roles and have a lot of experience. As a group, we expect a lot from ourselves.
“I think the pressure (on the forecheck) is going to be a step up from regular season, but the guys in here know what to expect. We’ve got to make sure we get back to the puck first and make plays. The game plan doesn’t change.”
When the Canucks went to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, the defence was Hamhuis-Bieksa, Edler-Salo and Aaron Rome-Christian Ehrhoff. For Game 1 against the Sharks, it’s likely to be Hamhuis-Garrison, Edler-Bieksa and Andrew Alberts-Corrado.
It may not be quite as good as it was two years ago, but it’s close. “Those two (Hamhuis and Garrison) have had a great season together,” Bieksa said. “They found some very good chemistry and they’re playing some good hockey for us. The other four of us have to elevate our game to match theirs.
“I felt really good to start the season, and then something happened and I broke down. But I’m feeling good again, though, and I’m trying to get my game back. Health-wise, I feel like I’m back. There’s no excuses come playoff time. We need everybody’s best. And we need my best.”
Even without the puck-carrying Ehrhoff, who left the Canucks for a retirement contract from the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, Vancouver continues to have one of the most active and productive defence corps in the NHL.
Edler and Garrison scored eight goals each and Vancouver’s 28 goals from the blue-line were second in the NHL to the Montreal Canadiens’ 29.
“I’ve got confidence in our group,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. “We’re almost as healthy on the back end as we have been. Frankie coming in gives us a little more depth as far as right-handed personnel on the defence. So I like our blue-line.”
Vigneault thinks Edler has elevated his game. So does Edler. “I think I’ve been a bit better here at the end and that’s obviously good for me and the team,” Edler said. “I just feel like I’ve been doing everything a little better lately and being more intense. That’s helping me, too.”
TANEV ON THE MEND: Steady defenceman Chris Tanev, who has missed 10 games with a sprained ankle, was still in a walking boot Monday. When Vigneault saw him outside the dressing room, he bellowed: “C’mon, Tanny, stop milking it!” Tanev could return during the first round.
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