Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Job Hunting - Part 2: The Defense

Yesterday I took a look at the battle for the goaltending jobs, today it's the defense.

With the loss of Brent Sopel and Marek Malik, the weakest part of the Canucks roster is the defense core. With little payroll flexibility GM Dave Nonis was forced to replace the departed duo with low cost options. He acquired Steve McCarthy from the Blackhawks and signed Sven Butenschon. With no bonafide NHL defensemen added to the roster, the competition for defensive roster spots is wide open.

The Top 4

While the bottom end of the defense core is rather weak, the top four matches up well against nearly any team in the NHL.

Mattias Ohlund is as good as it gets when it comes to a defensive defensemen, and he's got the offensive skills to make him one of the best two-way defensemen in the league. Ed Jovanovski at times struggled in his own end last season, but he is one of the most dynamic defensemen in the league. Sami Salo is coming off a great year in which he quietly became a defensive rock. The biggest question in the top 4 is obviously Bryan Allen. Allen is coming off his first full season in the NHL and will be counted on to play 20+ minutes a game. Is he ready for that? I think so, and really the Canucks have no choice but to find out.

The Rest of the Pack

With the top 4 solidified there remains three jobs open(assuming the Canucks carry 7 defensemen).

Steve McCarthy will surely be on the team and is the most likely candidate for the #5 slot, although the terms "#5" and "#6" don't really have much meaning.

After McCarthy, there are several candidates for the remaining two slots.

Sven Butenschon
I would be very surprised if Butenschon fails to make the top 6. The Canucks like his size and they feel that he has the offensive skills to contribute in their up-tempo system. He should have no problems making the team barring injury or a brutal pre-season.
Nolan Baumgartner
Coming out of junior, Baumgartner looked like a surefire NHL'er. Unfortunately for Nolan, things have not worked out for him. The biggest knock on Baumgartner is his size. In the past he has had trouble in his own end due to his inability to handle the strength of NHL forwards. Positionally he is solid and he certainly has NHL calibre offensive skills. He also has excellent leadership skills and is the consummate team player. The question remains as to whether he can handle the play in his own end. Will the new NHL rules help him? Perhaps. With a good camp and pre-season, he could find himself on the roster on opening night. Interestingly, he was at times partnered with Mattias Ohlund in yesterdays scrimmage.
Wade Brookbank
I have Brookbank penciled in at defense, even though I don't expect him to play there often. I believe that Brookbank could be a leading candidate to be the #7 defenseman and or 14th forward. Despite the new rules fighting will still be a component of the game and their will be numerous games when an enforcer will be essential, especially on those back-to-back-to-back games in the new schedule.
Kevin Bieksa
Kevin Bieksa was the biggest surprise for the Manitoba Moose last year and was one of the top candidates to earn a job on the wide open defense. Unfortunately for Bieksa he has injured his ankle at camp and will not skate at all this week. By missing training camp Bieksa's chances of making the team have dropped substantially. Depending on the severity of the injury he will still have the pre-season to make an impression, but if he misses out on the pre-season he will likely find himself back in Manitoba to start the season.
Jason Doig
The former Washington Capital is in camp on a tryout basis. While still relatively young, Doig has had a disappointing career. He has some offensive skills, but possesses little hockey sense. Doig is a dirty player who has good size, something which the Canucks could use, but his terrible hockey sense will make it difficult for him to make the team.
Tomas Mojzis
Marc Crawford had a lot of good things to say about Mojzis in his post-scrimmage comments(available in mp3 format at Mojzis is a player that has an excellent opportunity to land a job. The injury to Bieksa has opened the door for him and a good pre-season could land him on the roster.
Luc Bourdon
The 2005 first round pick has been impressive so far at both rookie camp and main camp. He already has NHL skating ability and strong offensive skills to go along with his physical play. The Canucks will get a long look at Bourdon and will likely play him in several pre-season games as a learning experience. With the new CBA free agency rules it is extremely unlikely that Bourdon will make the team, but the Canucks will keep him around and let him learn as much as possilbe about the pro game.
Brent Skinner
The remaining player with an outside shot at making the team is Brent Skinner. Skinner elected to forgo his final year of college eligibility. With no professional experience he has his work cut out for him if he wants to make the Canucks. It's not out of the question, but he has to have an exceptional pre-season if he is to make the team. The Canucks will most likely send him to Manitoba for some professional seasoning.

So What Will the D Look Like?

It's difficult to predict who will make the team and what the pairings will look like.

It's likely that Butenschon and McCarthy will round out the top 6, with Baumgartner, Bieksa and Mojzis battling it out for the #7 slot.

As for the pairings, I believe the Canucks will take a long look at a pairing of Allen and Jovanovski. Altenatively Allen could re-join Sami Salo, with Butenschon replacing Malik's role with Jovanovski.

McCarthy is the most interesting element. Do you play him with a defensive veteran like Salo or Ohlund, or do you stick him with Jovanovski?

The other question is do you load up on your top 4 or do you spread your veterans around?

These are very interesting questions and it's likely that they will not be answered until well into the season. Marc Crawford loves to juggle his lines, so I would expect to see many experiments in the pre-season and even in to October.

With several jobs available, the battle on defense will certainly be the most interesting aspect of the pre-season. Next up are the forwards...


Winged_whacker said...

Lovin your posts.. but man, such a long wait in between posts. This recent series has me intrigued, but seriously goin nutz wondering when you're going to finish off the series..

The Canuck Fan said...

I'll finish off the series sometime this weekend... I've been on vacation for the last week.