Iain MacIntyre: Canucks' Shawn Matthias content playing his role

 

 
 
 
 
Vancouver Canucks centre Shawn Matthias, centre, and right wing Linden Vey, left, celebrate after Matthias scored in second period against St. Louis Blues. At right is Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.
 

Vancouver Canucks centre Shawn Matthias, centre, and right wing Linden Vey, left, celebrate after Matthias scored in second period against St. Louis Blues. At right is Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.

Photograph by: Chris Lee, AP/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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CHICAGO – The question about ice time and fairness hung like an invitation in front of Shawn Matthias, like a hanging curveball to Babe Ruth, like prime rib to a starving carnivore. And still Matthias resisted.

After several seconds of silent consideration, the Vancouver Canuck winger smiled and said: “It’s a good thing you’re asking me this when I’m 27.”

Because if he was 23, goodness knows what Matthias might have said about the correlation between his ice time and productivity this season. Matthias is second on the Canucks with 18 goals but is 10th among forwards in average ice time with 13:10 per game.

He is second in goals but has been used on the power play for just 6:59 – an almost incomprehensibly paltry sum through 77 games. Matthias’ lone power-play goal ties him with teammate Nick Bonino, who has been on the power play for 129:13.

Professional sports is not fair. Every decent coach strives to create a meritocracy and every one of them fails at some point because he has the same human biases as the rest of us.

As far as the Canucks go, it’s largely irrelevant at this stage whether Matthias has been rewarded with the ice time and opportunity he deserves. What matters, in the context of the “team” and National Hockey League playoff race, is how the 6-4 power forward from Mississauga, Ont., is handling the unfairness.

“I’m not going to go crying about anything or complain,” Matthias said. “I’m just going to give the best I can. This time of year it’s all about the team. In whatever role I’m in, I’ve got to be the best I can be.

“I think that’s the toughest thing in this line of work – to put your ego aside and not worry about yourself. The team is fighting for a playoff spot; that’s where my focus is.”

When Matthias arrived from the Florida Panthers 13 months ago in the Roberto Luongo trade, he spoke eagerly about a fresh start in Vancouver and the chance to break through the low ceiling imposed on him in South Florida, where he was regarded strictly as a depth player.

He was never going to get any of the minutes lavished freely on younger, higher-drafted prospects around whom the awful Panthers were selling the idea of a brighter future. The Canucks, by contrast, seemed a land of opportunity.

But despite career highs in goals and points (27) this season – and the nightly willingness, rare among Canucks, to drive to the net -- Matthias is averaging 2½ minutes less for Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins than he did last season under former boss John Tortorella.

For the last two weeks, Matthias has been skating on the fourth line beside rookie centre Linden Vey, who had a big goal in Tuesday’s 5-4 win against the Nashville Predators but has looked physically overmatched at the NHL level for much of the season.

Matthias leads Canuck forwards in even-strength goals per 60 minutes (1.12). Linemates Vey (0.31) and Derek Dorsett (0.29) are lowest on the team.

When Desjardins shortens his bench, Matthias sits. In Saturday’s overtime loss against Dallas, Matthias had one shift in the final 22 minutes.

“For sure he’s frustrated,” Desjardins said. “I don’t know if there’s any player who doesn’t want to play more. How can you be a player and not want to play? As a coach, there’s only so much ice time and you can’t give it to everybody.

“A lot of times you ask guys to accept it for the team, like, ‘this is what it is.’ You don’t say: ‘I want you to agree that this is how much ice time you should get.’ But for the team, you’ve got to accept it right now. The only way you get more is proving you deserve more and, even then, sometimes you prove it and still don’t get it. So it’s a tough one for the players.”

Desjardins said Matthias hasn’t played much late in recent games when the Canucks have trailed because most of his goals have been generated off the rush and, typically, those chances aren’t available when the opposition is focused on defending. It’s the same reason, he said, that Matthias hasn’t been used on the power play.

Vancouver’s second man-advantage unit has generated two goals in three games after scoring only three times in the first 74. Desjardins hints he probably should have given Matthias more of an opportunity five-on-four.

“I think one of the strengths I probably have as a coach – and it can be a weakness, as well – is I’m pretty loyal to guys,” the coach said. “I trust guys and once they (earn) that, I stay with them. I think there were certain points in time where it might have been wise to make some moves. But I just didn’t do it.”

Matthias is an unrestricted free agent on July 1. His 18 goals – and a chance to get 20 without power-play time – have likely priced him out of Vancouver after this season. He said he hasn’t even thought about that.

“My mindset is still to help the team and be the best player I can be,” Matthias said. “A lot can change, right? If I keep working hard and get chances and play with energy, so much can happen in this game. You never know. From Florida on to here, I’ve always waited for my opportunities, and when they’ve come, I’ve done well.”

When they’ve come.

WHO'S NEXT: Canucks at Blackhawks

RECENT FORM

The Canucks won 5-4 in a shootout Tuesday in Nashville to sweep back-to-back games against the Predators and St. Louis Blues. Vancouver is 5-1-1 in its last seven games and on a five-game road winning streak. The Blackhawks also are coming off an impressive back-to-back sweep with wins against the Los Angeles Kings and Winnipeg Jets on a goal by Jonathan Toews. Before that, Chicago had lost three out of four.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Canucks are 2-0 against the Blackhawks this season. Vancouver blew a two-goal lead in the final two minutes of regulation time in Chicago on Feb. 11, but won 5-4 on Daniel Sedin’s overtime goal. Sedin has only three goals in 24 games since then. Jannik Hansen’s hat trick drove the Canucks to a 4-1 win in Vancouver on Nov. 23. A regulation win Thursday night would move Vancouver within a point of Chicago in the Western Conference.

WHO’S HOT

Canuck RW Radim Vrbata’s contribution in Nashville was a shootout goal, but he had five goals and 11 points over the previous six games. C Nick Bonino is on a three-game points streak (2-3-5 pts.), as is linemate LW Chris Higgins (2-1-3 pts.). The Canucks’ second-unit power play has two goals in three games after scoring only three in 74 … Blackhawks LW Brandon Saad is on a four-game streak (1-3-4 pts.).

INJURIES

The Canucks remain without G Ryan Miller (knee), RW Zack Kassian (back) and C Brad Richardson (ankle) … Blackhawks star RW Patrick Kane (collar bone) resumed practising Wednesday but won’t play. C Joakim Nordstrom (upper body) and LW Daniel Carcillo (upper body) are out day-to-day.

BURR IN SADDLE

Canucks RW Alex Burrows escaped suspension after being assessed a major penalty and game misconduct in Nashville for colliding behind the play with Predator Paul Gaustad. “It was kind of just an unfortunate thing,” Canucks GM Jim Benning said Wednesday. “Burrows played a real good game for us and we need him for the games we have left so, obviously, we’re happy nothing more is coming out of this.”

Iain MacIntyre, Vancouver Sun columnist

 
 
 
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Vancouver Canucks centre Shawn Matthias, centre, and right wing Linden Vey, left, celebrate after Matthias scored in second period against St. Louis Blues. At right is Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.
 

Vancouver Canucks centre Shawn Matthias, centre, and right wing Linden Vey, left, celebrate after Matthias scored in second period against St. Louis Blues. At right is Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.

Photograph by: Chris Lee, AP/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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