After a 6-2 trouncing of Ottawa, the Canucks continue their eastern swing and face the struggling Leafs in a prime-time match-up Saturday nigth. A convincing win over Pascal Leclaire and the Sens improved the Canucks' road record to 3-4-1, just one game below .500 but compared to the Canucks' home record of 6-0-1, it's like Jekyll and Hyde all over again. Last year, the Canucks had the league's best home record (30 wins, tied first with Washington) but was among the worst on the road among playoff teams (19 wins, third worst among the 16 playoff-bound teams). The Leafs are struggling offensively, with just 32 goals scored, second worst in the league and only ahead of New Jersey. In an effort to jumpstart the offense the Leafs have called up top prospect Nazem Kadri but a saviour he is not (yet) and it is very, very likely that the Canucks will earn their fourth road victory. Here are some things to keep in mind:
<img src="http://www4.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Nazem+Kadri+NHL+Rookie+Tournament+Toronto+pnZkhYfgvVml.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">I'm not as optimistic as others when they say that the Leafs are one centre away from being offensively competent. While "Magic Hands" Kadri is indeed a top prospect, the Leafs don't have anyone in their system at any level that will develop into an elite NHL forward. Phil Kessel is a spectacular goalscorer, but he is not a player you build your team around. Kris Versteeg seems to lack the jump he had in Chicago, and I reckon it's because he's not used to being the focus of opposition defenses, given that in Chicago the top pair was always assigned to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but also to Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. It doesn't help either when Versteeg is such a perimeter player. The lack of offensive presence led to Brian Burke calling up Christian Hanson over Kadri in late October and it's hard to fault his logic. The Leafs were getting shots on net but lacked the physical presence up the middle to create space and time for their wingers and Hanson, at 6'4" and 228 lbs., is much bigger than the 6'0", 188 lbs. Kadri. The reason why the Leafs' fourth line of Mike Brown, Colton Orr, and Mike Zigomanis/Hanson is so successful is because they put so much pressure on the opposition defense with their physical forecheck and aren't afraid to go into the dirty areas.
Offense will probably be the most discussed topic for Toronto but lost in the shuffle is Keith Aulie, a prospect received from Calgary (the piece that really tilted the deal in favour of Toronto) in the Dion Phaneuf trade who was called up along with Kadri. If you don't know who Aulie is yet, you should. The WHL is known for producing great defensemen and Aulie spent his entire major junior career with Brandon. Drafted 116th overall in 2007, Aulie didn't turn many heads... that was until he was paired with Tyler Myers for the 2009 World Junior Championships (the year Canada won its fifth straight gold and Cody Hodgson led the tournament in scoring, only to lose the MVP award to John Tavares) and became the tournament's best shut-down pair. At 6'6", the lanky blueliner has a pterodactyl-like wingspan but once he's filled out his frame, along with Luke Schenn they could form the league's best shut-down 1-2 punch.
Even if you include Ryan Kesler's two-goal effort in Ottawa, the Canucks' secondary scoring has been absolutely atrocious on the road. Granted, Kesler's outburst may have finally opened the floodgates but both Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond have yet to score on the road and have only combined for 4 assists and -9, atrocious stats that you won't find unless you look on the last page of the road +/- category. With no Dion Phaneuf, who remains sidelined with a leg injury, look for Alain Vigneault to try and get his second line going. The Sedins, as always, have been consistent both at home and on the road, and with Alex Burrows finally 100% that line will once again rank in the league's top 5.
<img src="http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/3797222.bin?size=620x400"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Vigneault elected to not make any lineup changes following a shutout loss to Montreal in which the entire team played poorly, thereby declaring that it wasn't just one player's fault for their performance. Coming off a convincing win makes lineup changes even harder to justify but since Keith Ballard's exile to the pressbox, giving the Canucks their first $4 million healthy scratch and the first of Ballard's career, Andrew Alberts' play has regressed. He's taken bad penalties at bad times and failed to clear the puck in key situations. Aaron Rome has been unspectacular but much more steady, giving Vigneault at least a dependable third pairing player. But as hard as it is to justify lineup changes after a win, like Sidney Crosby I prefer to give my struggling players the opportunity to play rather than stapling them to the bench or exiling them to the press box. Let's not forget that Ballard has led the Panthers in hits in five consecutive seasons and along with Zbynek Michalek and Mike Weaver, one of the most underrated shot blockers in the game. He's had a rough start to the season but he is still top four material. Despite Alberts' struggles he is, by far, the most improved Canuck this year (thanks to plyometrics) and he has proven that he can be change the momentum of the game, like in the 6-4 win over Detroit when he absolutely wallpapered Pavel Datsyuk. Aaron Rome doesn't have that game-changing ability. For that reason, Rome would be my odd man out. On a team that is as talented and skilled as this I can afford to make the risky play knowing that Roberto Luongo and rest of the team can bail Alberts out if he makes a mistake. I'm not saying Alberts' upside is like Ed Jovanovski's, who similarly made a name for himself by taking risks, but like Mario Bliznak last night it's particularly uplifting for a team when a depth player can make such a significant impact in the game.
Speaking of Bliznak, another former WHL product like Aulie who played with the Giants, if he continues his strong play forget about the search for a fourth line centre (move aside, Peter Schaefer. Thank goodness that ill-conceived experiment has ended). Drafted 205th overall in 2005 by Dave Nonis, Bliznak was virtually unknown, save for the fact that he was playing in the Slovak men's league as a 17-year old and appeared in 19 games but registered zero points. Bliznak moved to the WHL to further develop as a hockey player but was never known to be a prolific goal scorer. However, his work ethic has always been his selling point and even when he graduated from the WHL, Moose GM Craig Heisinger was taken back at how ready this kid was for professional hockey. There's no lack of confidence in the kid by Vigneault either, with Bliznak taking 10 face-offs last night and winning half of them. Since centre ice is arguably the most valuable property on the ice, if Bliznak can develop into a serviceable fourth line centre, the Canucks will be locked in at that position for years to come. Just like how the Leafs hesitated to call up Kadri, Mike Gillis has elected to keep Jordan Schroeder and Cody Hodgson, who leads the Moose in scoring, in the AHL for further development. There's no hurry - both players are entering their first full professional season.
For those wondering when wunderkind Cory Schneider will get his next start, it is most likely in Buffalo against the struggling Sabres, but if Luongo plays well he will start all of the games on the trip. With four teams struggling, especially the Penguins suffering from new-home-rink-itis, the Canucks may go 4-1 on this trip.
Prediction: The Canucks absolutely blister the Leafs on special teams. The Canucks are clicking at 26% on the powerplay and the Leafs can barely kill of 3/4 of their penalties. Kadri makes one nice play but disappears for the rest of the game. Mike Komisarek takes at least one dumb penalty and Tanner Glass scraps with former Canuck Mike Brown. Canucks win, 5-1.