Iain MacIntyre: Edler’s elevation gives blue-line a lift in crunch time

 

Bounce-back year: Veteran quietly re-establishes himself as Canuck cornerstone with a nasty streak

 
 
 
 
File: Alex Edler #23 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 6, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Canucks 5-2.
 
 

File: Alex Edler #23 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 6, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Canucks 5-2.

Photograph by: Claus Andersen, Getty Images

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Another National Hockey League regular season has nearly come and gone, and still Alex Edler isn’t going to win the Norris Trophy.

It is so disappointing. If it weren’t for the Vancouver Canuck’s excellent defensive play against the league’s best forwards, his physicality, mobility and ability to move the puck safely out of his zone, the 28-year-old would be a total failure.

I mean, 23 points through 66 games? Are you kidding? The Calgary Flames have four defencemen with more points than Edler. The Nashville Predators have five. Someone on the Columbus Blue Jackets named David Savard has 29 points.

It’s like Alex Edler is still playing for John Tortorella. Except his plus/minus is 51 notches better and the Canucks are on pace for 99 points.

“To be honest, I don’t even know how many points he has,” Canucks assistant coach Doug Lidster says. “I look at it like he makes our team better, he makes the players around him better and we have a good chance to win when he’s on the ice. I think he’s had a very good season.”

Lidster slightly understates Edler’s season.

Imperfect and anachronistic as the plus/minus stat may be, Edler is No. 1 on the Canucks after he was No. 886 — and last — in the NHL at minus-39 last season.

The defenceman who made it to the Canucks from the semi-pro Swedish third division in 2½ years, who averaged 21:20 as an NHL rookie in 2007-08 and posted 37 points in his second full season, is probably never going to achieve the projected stardom imposed on him. But he is an elite defenceman who has elevated his overall game, if not his offence, and re-established himself as a Canuck cornerstone.

Lidster, the former defenceman who runs the Vancouver blue-line, says Edler is not a player who needs to be pushed, which is the mistake Tortorella made last season. Rather, he is a player who needed to be freed and infused with confidence to simply go out on the ice and be himself, mistakes and all.

“Totally, 100 per cent,” president of hockey operations Trevor Linden says. “For Alex, he’s best when he’s a little bit reckless and he’s physical and he’s not overthinking things. That’s the way Willie (Desjardins) and Liddy have handled him: ‘Just go play.’ It’s about instincts and believing in yourself.

“Alex came into the NHL with a bright, bright future. So many people look at defencemen and it’s about the points. It’s always about how many points they generate. Well, that’s part of it. But I prefer defencemen who can defend and make good decisions and transition the puck. Alex is a cornerstone of this franchise. If we went to other teams, we’d have a lineup 29 teams long to try to get Alex.”

Linden, who mentored Edler as a teammate before retiring in 2008, was emphatic from the day he became president 50 weeks ago that the 28-year-old defenceman was still essential to the Canucks. It was a message echoed by new general manager Jim Benning and Desjardins, Tortorella’s replacement as head coach.

“I knew the type of person and character he is and I think I know, for lack of a better term, what makes him tick,” Linden says of Edler.

“I know the fire burns (inside him) and I know how committed he is and that last year bothered him. What Alex needs as a player is not what happened to him last year.”

Most of the Canucks who wilted last season under Tortorella’s blowtorch — Edler, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Jannik Hansen — have thrived this season.

Edler knew he had to be better, but always maintained that he wasn’t as bad last season as his plus/minus indicated. His Corsi rating, the share of even-strength shot attempts generated by the Canucks when Edler is on the ice, is virtually unchanged: 52.1 per cent this season from 52.4 under Tortorella. Edler had 22 points in 65 games last year.

The nearest he has come to blaming Tortorella for anything was when he told The Vancouver Sun in October that his former coach’s demanding style affected him “maybe a little bit.”

“But I think you should be able to handle that as a player,” he quickly added.

Edler acknowledges that the outspoken support of management, and an improved atmosphere around the team, has helped him significantly this season.

“Obviously, it feels good when you talk to management and they believe in you and think you’re a big part of the team,” Edler says. “That was good to hear. But after last year, I just wanted to start fresh. I know what kind of player I can be and what kind of team we can be.

“There’s a huge difference (in the dressing room). But when you win, it’s fun to come to the rink and there’s a good atmosphere. When you lose, it’s harder every morning to go to the rink and go through what you did wrong the night before. Going through a tough time like that, I think you learn a lot.”

One of the best lineup decisions by Desjardins and Lidster was to partner Edler with steady defenceman Chris Tanev, who had barely made a mistake before signing a $22.25-million US contract extension this week.

You can go weeks without hearing either one speak, but they communicate on the ice and have become one of the better shutdown pairings in the NHL. Remember, it is against everyone’s best forwards that Edler is plus-12, Tanev plus-11.

“We have a quiet defence and Chris may be the quietest of anyone,” Lidster says. “But he has the ability to communicate with his partner and sense what he needs probably better than the others. Chris has the ability to kind of adapt to anyone.”

Lidster says the Canucks don’t use Corsi, but Edler rates positively in the team’s own more-advanced analytics.

“I remember going to the U.S. Open (tennis tournament) about 20 years ago when Pete Sampras played Goran Ivanisevic,” Lidster says. “They played five sets and (you) couldn’t really tell the difference between the two.

“They were serving 150 miles-per-hour and the ball was back and forth. But by the end of the match, Sampras had won all the key points. And that’s kind of how Eddie has been; at key moments, he is real solid. Stopping a goal is just as important as scoring one.”

Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa says people underestimate Edler’s combativeness on the ice because he is quiet and reserved away from it.

“You see the battle at the end of the game (on Tuesday against Winnipeg) between him and Blake Wheeler in the corner?” Bieksa asks. “He doesn’t back down. He’s got a little bit of a sneaky mean streak in him, too, where he wants to hurt guys with hits. And when someone comes to hit him, he almost takes it like a personal challenge and he explodes into the guy. Even though he’s not a loud guy and doesn’t have the mean look on his face, he’s competitive.

“He wants to win as much as anybody.”

Several years ago, Bieksa revealed that players had given Edler the chore of watching the clock before the game and announcing in the dressing room when it was time to go on the ice. And Edler would do this by saying something snappy like: “OK, guys, it’s time to go on the ice.”

“Well, not in so many words,” Bieksa says. “He doesn’t need other jobs because he’s so good at that one.”

There is a lot that Edler is good at — far more than can be gleaned from a box score.

“You can believe in a guy but if the guy doesn’t play well, eventually you can’t believe in him,” Desjardins explains. “(Alex) did his part. At the start of the year, we recognized he’d be a key player for us and we believed that he could be good, and what we may have done is give him a bit of an opportunity to show that and just let him play the way he could play. He has been real good for us, but he found his own way.”

imacintyre@vancouversun.comTwitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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File: Alex Edler #23 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 6, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Canucks 5-2.
 

File: Alex Edler #23 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 6, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Canucks 5-2.

Photograph by: Claus Andersen, Getty Images

 
File: Alex Edler #23 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 6, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Canucks 5-2.
Head coach Willie Desjardins talks with Alex Edler during the 2014 Vancouver Canucks Training Camp in Whistler, BC, September, 19, 2014.
Three Vancouver Canucks coaches who have played a role in Alex Edler’s development. Left, assistant coach Doug Lidster says Edler is a player who doesn’t need to be pushed, which is a mistake former head coach John Tortorella, right, made last season. Current head coach Willie Desjardins works with Edler at practice and says the defenceman has been ‘real good for us’.
Coach John Tortorella barks orders during Vancouver Canucks practice at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, February 24, 2014.
Dynamic duo: Vancouver Canucks defencemen Chris Tanev (7) and Alexander Edler work to clear Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand from in front of the net during last month’s game at Rogers Arena. Tanev and Edler have become Vancouver’s shutdown defence pairing, often playing against other teams’ top forwards.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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