Saturday, September 24, 2011

A New Season

Well it's been a long time since my last post. Quite frankly, after such a crushing disappointment I needed to take the summer off from all things Canuck. I was going to do a review of last season and "what went wrong", but really whats the point. We all know what went wrong. The Canucks power play floundered, Tim Thomas was amazing and Luongo wasn't good enough (again). Sure you can throw in the fact that the Bruins "pushed them around", but really, the Canucks lost because they couldn't score. That's what it came down to. Anyway it's time to move on, the 2011 pre-season is under way and the Canucks are starting back at the bottom of the mountain. Do they have what it takes to get back to the summit?

It was a quiet off-season for Mike Gillis. As expected the Canucks lost Christian Ehrhoff to free agency along with Tanner Glass and Raffi Torres. Ehrhoff will certainly be missed, but the Canucks had no interest in matching Buffalo's contract. Instead the Canucks will hope to replace Ehrhoff's production with a healthy (for now) Sami Salo, a better season from Keith Ballard and a more experienced Chris Tanev. The Canucks lost some grit in Glass and Torres, but both players will be easily replaced. Glass was a solid 4th liner, but when the pace picked up in the playoffs he wasn't able to keep up. Torres was effective at times and provided a physical presence with the odd goal. The Canucks are auditioning several players who can keep up with the NHL pace while playing a physical game and any offence Torres provided will easily be replaced by a full season of Chris Higgins.

The big addition to this year's roster is of course Marco Sturm. Many were surprised at the signing, Sturm after all has battled injuries and doesn't exactly address the perceived lack of grit/toughness that most thought the Canucks needed to address. That said, a healthy Sturm provides Vancouver with some impressive depth in their top 9 forward group. So far, Sturm has looked bigger and faster than expected and should be an excellent fit.

Pre-Season Auditions

While Sturm is obviously a lock to make the roster, there are numerous players vying for some openings in the forward group. Injuries to Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond mean that there are two jobs available on the second line and questions surrounding Malhotra's readiness also create some interesting possibilities in the bottom 6.

Cody Hodgson
With Kesler out the door is wide open for Cody Hodgson to make the team. After two pre-season games it's pretty clear that he is ready to make the most of the opportunity the Canucks are giving him. (Yes the Canucks are giving him an excellent opportunity, despite what a few whiners in the media seem to think.) Hodgson has looked great in his first two appearances. He's made a Sedin like improvement in his skating ability. There was one play in Edmonton where the Oilers were rushing up ice and Hodgson was racing back on the backcheck - amazingly Hodgson kept pace with the young Oilers. In addition to his improved skating, Hodgson has also improved his strength and his shot. It's pretty clear that Hodgson is ready to be an NHL regular, there will be some growing pains, but physically he's ready.
Owen Nolan
What does Owen Nolan have left in the tank? After the first pre-season game I would have said not much. He looked slow and sluggish. However he had a much better showing in his second game. Sure he scored a goal, but more importantly he skated much better and was much more assertive and involved in the play. Still, the deck is stacked against him. With Burrows, Samuelsson and Hansen on the right side and numerous right handed shooting wingers vying for a job (see below) the chances of Nolan snagging a job are pretty slim.
4th Line Wingers
The Canucks have a very interesting group of wingers who are battling for the two slots available on the 4th line. It's clear the Canucks are looking for a combination of grit, toughness and speed. With the exception of Todd Fedoruk several players fit those criteria: Steve Pinizzotto, Mark Mancari, Victor Oreskovich, Mike Duco and Aaron Volpatti.
Add Nolan and Fedoruk to the mix and you have 7 players fighting for 2 jobs. The battle for the right wing spot appears to be the most competitive as you have 4 right handed shooters. So far Pinizzotta and Mancari have been very impressive, both have shown an ability to skate and make plays. Incumbent Oreskovich has been quiet so far and will need to show a lot more if he wants to avoid starting the season in Chicago. On the left side Mike Duco had a strong game in Edmonton, with his ability to contribute on the PK he appears to be the leading candidate to take over Tanner Glass's role. Aaron Volpatti will really have to step up if he hopes to jump a head of Duco. And of course there is always the possibility of one of the right handed wingers playing the left side.
Jordan Schroeder
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of camp so far is Jordan Schroeder and the strides he has taken in his game. It's highly unlikely that the Canucks would keep both Hogdson and Schroeder, but Schroeder has definitely shown that he is a lot closer to the NHL than he was last season. His competitiveness in the defensive zone has improved dramatically. He will in all likely hood start the season in Chicago where he will be expected to be a top player. If he stays healthy he'll receive a callup at some point.

This weekend's two home games will be the last chance for several players to make an impression. The 4th line battle is particularly interesting, Expect some cuts on Monday. Hard to believe that the regular season is less than two weeks away...