Well it hasn't been a very happy holiday for the Vancouver Canucks. Since playing three of their best games of the season against Ottawa, New York and Philadelphia, the Canucks are 1-5-3. The stretch includes a six game homestand which netted a grand total of 5 points. They have since followed up the poor holiday homestand with two consecutive losses in Minnesota and St Louis. The Canucks currently sit 7th in the conference and have fallen five points behind the division leading Calgary Flames.
So WTF is going on?
There are several areas of major concern...
The first is the goaltending situation. Since the end of Dan Cloutier's season was officially announced on December 13th, Vancouver is 2-4-3 and 7-7-4 since Cloutier went down in Anaheim. While goaltending is certainly not the only problem, it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed ASAP. Management was hoping to go with Alex Auld as long as possible, but that is no longer an option. Auld and Ouellete isn't getting it done. It's time for Nonis to either get a respectable backup, a "1A type" or a legit number one. This duo cannot continue with this team currently playing in front of them.
Speaking of the team in front of them, the defensive coverage has been absolutely terrible. While the spotlight has always been on the goaltending, or lack thereof, defensive coverage has been the true achilles heal of this team over the last few years. The Canucks give up way too many quality scoring chances and during this slump scoring chances against have become an epidemic. The lack of depth on the blueline has taken it's toll on the top 4 guys. Sami Salo, Mattias Ohlund and Bryan Allen are all struggling in their own end, while Steve McCarthy has shown that he is not a reliable NHL defenseman. Going into the season there were a lot of red-flags where the blueline was concerned and you're now seeing why. The defense needs to be addressed.
While the defense core is not playing well, a lot of the blame needs to be placed on the forwards. There are 5 guys on the ice who need to be responsible in their own zone. On too many shifts there are only 3 or 4 guys getting it done. The forwards need to put a lot more effort into backchecking, but more importantly they have to work harder along the boards and they need to support the defense when breaking out of the zone. Until the forwards start playing better defense, the lack of depth on the blueline and in net, will continue to be exposed.
Goaltending and defensive play are two of the obvious areas of concern, but there is one more area that is probably the most concerning of all - intangibles.
This team is lacking in heart, work-ethic, grit, chemistry and leadership. They simply don't have "IT" and it's painfully evident when they play teams like the Calgary Flames. It starts with the top guy, Markus Naslund. While Naslund had his best month as a Canuck in November (working hard, hitting, backchecking and putting up huge numbers) he has gone back to being the pouty, depressing captain of old. Leadership starts with the captain and Markus Naslund is not a very good captain and has never been one. Scoring goals is not leading by example. Leading by example entails working hard on every shift, not lamenting in post game comments that the team isn't working hard enough. Leading by example means backchecking all the time, not once a week. Leading by example means taking the body when it's there and not turning away. Markus Naslund does not lead by example often enough and since he is not a "rah-rah" guy, he does not make a great captain. Markus Naslund is a great hockey player, probably the best this franchise has seen, but he is not a leader. This leaves a huge leadership void that is not being filled by anyone else. Todd Bertuzzi, sure he can carry a team on his back when he want's too, but when he doesn't his lack of effort spreads through the team like a plague, as it did last night in St Louis. Trevor Linden? Great player 10 years ago, but those days are gone, and since he can no longer lead on the ice he doesn't have the respect required to take charge in the dressing room. Who's next? Ed Jovanovski, Mattias Ohlund, Brendan Morrison? Then after that you have nothing, Matt Cooke? Sure he's a sparkplug, but he doesn't have the respect of his teammates, they've long tired of having to clean up his messes and that was in full evidence last night when no one came to his aid during a couple scrums. This lack of leadership results in a heartless team with no work-ethic.
Okay enough with the leadership, let's look at the grit and heart of this team. Well it's hard to look at something that isn't there. There is no grit on the top scoring lines, which you can get by with because of the offense they provide, but you cannot get by without grit on your 3rd and 4th lines. These two lines consist of Matt Cooke, Ryan Kesler, Richard Park, Jarkko Ruutu, Trevor Linden and the callup of the week. There are a couple guys in there, most noticeably Cooke and Ruutu, who provide nice grit and a consistent physical presence, but overall the 3rd and 4th lines are missing "something". Down the middle you have Kesler and Linden. While Kesler certainly hasn't been a liability, he simply has not been good enough on a night to night basis. And while Linden is an asset, he is somewhat wasted playing center as he no longer has the wheels to be responsible defensively while also throwing hits on the boards. It's one or the other and for Linden to be a consistent physical presence he needs to be on the wing IMO. So with no grit and physical play down the middle you are left with Jarkko Ruutu and Matt Cooke providing all of your grit. That's not good enough for the playoffs, especially against a team like Calgary.
Finally I come to team chemistry. This group of players has grown stale. Remember the West Coast Express? Arguably the best line in hockey over the past several seasons, the chemistry is gone. Brendan Morrison is a better player when he isn't playing with Bertuzzi and Naslund and not being the only forward on the ice playing defense. Naslund and Bertuzzi are usually busy playing catch and trying one too many fancy passes. The third and fourth lines have shown no chemistry all year long. Currently the team is playing like they are waiting for something to happen, rarely do they show up and work hard for sixty minutes, they don't stick up for one another on the ice and few players are willing to pay the price on the ice.
So now that my post-holiday rant is over lets get to addressing these issues.
First let's put things in perspective. There are low points in every season and the Canucks are currently at a low point. It's not time to push the panic button, just for the sake of doing "something." What Dave Nonis does now will affect this franchise for the next several seasons. So with that out of the way let's get to it...
There are a couple options for Nonis, none of which are very appetizing. The easiest thing to do is find an experienced backup who can play 40% of the games. There are plenty of goalies out there who can fill this role and shouldn't cost much. The second option is to go with a "1A" type to essentially compete for the #1 job. This would however, cost you more, but should still be within reason. Another option is to callup Wade Flaherty. There are two downsides to this, there is a high probability that Flaherty will get picked up on waivers, so the Canucks would be on the hook for half his salary and more importantly, the Manitoba Moose would be without their number one goalie.
Whichever route Nonis chooses, he must choose soon. The team has no confidence in their goaltending and the situation must be rectified.
It's very difficult to address an area which covers the entire team, but there are a few critical improvements which are required. The first is one(preferably two) more defenseman to take the place of Steve McCarthy. The second is to improve the 3rd/4th lines, ideally by adding another centerman. Outside of those two areas, there isn't much you can do with the current core of players.
The first way to address this is by adding someone who has been "there". Whether the addition is on the blueline or centre ice, the Canucks need at least one veteran who has experience in the playoffs and knows how to approach the game on a nightly basis. The second way to address this is to make a move with one of your core players. Whether it's Morrison for Doug Weight, or Jovanovski off to Florida, or Bertuzzi off somewhere, a change in the core may be necessary. Something needs to be done, because the current group doesn't have "it".
So to summarize...
- A Goaltender - Any legit NHL goaltender will do at this point.
- A Defenseman - A veteran who can play strong in his own end and add some much needed leadership.
- A Centre - Preferably a veteran who can take the load off of Kesler and Linden, and someone who can bring something that gets the 3rd and 4th lines going.
Now those are 3 things that need to be done, the question is how far do you go with each one. Do you go all the way on the goaltender front at the expense of one of your blue chip prospects, or do you look for a bandaid to get you through to the trade deadline? Do you deal Jovanovski to free up salary room for a couple other defenseman, or do you try and catch lightning in a bottle with someone else's spare part? Do you bring in free agent to be Doug Weight at the expense of moving a younger Morrison, or do you try and find a cheaper Mike Sillinger type? None of these are easy choices and they all have varying degrees of impact, but one thing is for sure, something needs to be done because this current group is coasting on a trip down the Western Conference standings.
It's time for Dave Nonis to make his mark.