<img src="http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_JkKg_dKJQO0/S7k_bUctgwI/AAAAAAAAAk4/oR2sWN5UJ74/s1600/NHL-President%27s-Trophy.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Sitting at the top of the league with 55 points in 38 games, the Canucks are in an unfamiliar territory. Always considered a division favourite and top 5 team in the West, having not lost a game in regulation since December 5 vs. St. Louis and going 11-0-2 afterwards, a slim lead over Colorado has expanded to 10 points and 1 game in hand and the Canucks are now the heavy favourites to win the Presidents' Trophy, the first in franchise history. It's unfamiliar territory for a franchise not exactly known for winning, but with a stunning effort in a 4-3 road win over San Jose in a playoff-like atmosphere, even the most cynical fan is asking himself if this is the best Vancouver Canucks team ever assembled. The blue and green are en route to a franchise-record third consecutive 100+ points regular season finish and also a third straight division title, but neither of the previous squads had cracked the 50-win barrier nor advanced past the semifinals. Is this the year that everything changes in Vancouver? Most teams will be over the halfway mark by the end of the week so now's a good time to break down the roster and see what the Canucks have in store for the rest of the year.
Had Daniel Sedin been healthy all season last year, 2010 could've been the season the Canucks finished first overall in the West. Chicago had just three more wins and San Jose two more, and could Daniel have made up that difference? Definitely. If Henrik was good for 113 points, then Daniel was good for at least 105 as well. They're ranked 4th and 5th in league scoring, with Henrik having a one-point edge. They've been the most consistent point-producers in the NHL since the lockout, but the big difference this year is that they have been unbelievably good on the road. Henrik has 320 home points vs. 302 on the road in his career, but this year has 28 of his 50 points on the road. Daniel has 303 at home and 293 on the road, but has 31 of his 49 points on the road. It's a little unfortunate that neither player will ever win MVP if both remain healthy, because there's just no way to decide which is more important than the other (perhaps Henrik, but only slightly). Just to don't ask the Sedins to play on Wednesdays - the Sedins' combined career +/- based on the day of the week: Sundays +26, Mondays +34, Tuesdays +69, Wednesdays -2, Thursdays +38, Fridays +32, Saturdays +77. And what does that tell us about them? That they suffer from middle-of-the-week-itis, just like everybody else, except that they're really good at hockey.
While the Sedins have been the engine driving the league's second-ranked offense, clicking at 24.8%, Ryan Kesler has been undoubtedly the team's MVP. He's on pace for 41 goals and plays more than any other forward. He's second on the team in shorthanded ice-time and first in powerplay ice-time (yes, more than the Sedins). In my mind, he's a franchise centre in the Mike Richards mold. If you were to build a team, after taking an elite point-producing centre and locking down your first line, nobody is better than Kesler on that second line. Nobody. Will he reach 40 goals though? I'd wager no, but continue what he's been doing away from the puck - 60 hits, 41 blocked shots, 32 takeaways, 57.3% faceoffs won, discipline - and he's a lock for the Selke. Anything short of winning would be a complete travesty and the whole city should mobilize and march on Gary Bettman's house in protest.
We knew that Manny Malhotra was a great in the circle, but did it warrant a three-year deal worth $7.5 million with a limited NTC? I guess since good face-off guys are so hard to come by, especially ones that can play a regular shift, unlike Zenon Konopka or Yanic Perreault, it's certainly worth it. For a team that depends so much on puck movement and puck possession, Malhotra was totally worth it. He wins 63% of his faceoffs, and is just 0.2% of the league from Dave Steckel (a hugely under-appreciated, under-valued player). It's no fluke - he won more than 60% in San Jose last year and 58% the year before in Columbus. He's found a market where he can thrive, not having to shut down the opposition's top line or worry about putting the puck in the net. The Canucks' PK ranks 5th in the NHL and has just allowed one shorthanded goal. The only gripe I have with Manny? While he wins more than 60% of his face-offs both at home and on the road, he has just 4 assists in 20 games and -5 on the road but 13 points in 18 home games and +6. It's nothing new though, Malhotra has always been much, much better at home than on the road, something that is worth keeping an eye come playoff time.
Any Stanley Cup contender needs a strong supporting cast. Alex Burrows was sidelined early in the season and struggled with timing early on but has found his groove - he has 6 points in 6 games, and while the argument could be made that any player could play reasonably well with the Sedins, nobody does a better job on this roster than Burrows. Both him and Kesler made concerted efforts to tone down their extracurriculars, but Burrows doesn't have the respect of the league. Dan Boyle was noticeably irked by his high-sticking penalty because Burrows still has a reputation for being a diver. That's not going to help in the playoffs when special teams is a true premium. Like Burrows, Raymond's just coming back from injury but even on the fourth line he hasn't missed a beat, scoring a goal in his first game since breaking his finger. While I pegged Raymond to score 30 goals this year, he's unlikely to hit that total but he will have a chance to turn heads in the playoffs, where a much more physical game has clearly derailed his play. He has just 7 points in 22 career playoff games.
Jeff Tambellini, Tanner Glass, and Jannik Hansen are three key players in the Canucks bottom six (along with Malhotra) that are keys to the Canucks' success. Tambellini's found a team that caters to his particular talents. The Canucks move the puck well, which allows Tambellini to show off his speed along the boards, and they pass the puck around a lot (almost too much, sometimes) and he's not afraid to shoot the puck. He's a great triggerman for a team that doesn't have a lot of shooters up front. He's also shown a willingness to take the body, with 50 hits in 28 games. He's far from your average one-dimensional offensive player. In Raymond's absence, his offense was more than adequately replaced by Tambellini, who has since been demoted to the fourth line upon Raymond's return. Hopefully Tambellini doesn't get demoted, because he's a good player to have on your roster. Glass is a true blue-collar player. He's the reason why teams don't need any Darcy Hordichuks or Raitis Ivanans anymore, because he can skate, hit, fight, and handles the puck well enough to pin the opposition defense. Hansen is a speedy forward, absolutely vital on our PK with his puck pursuit and he rarely gives up on a play, if ever, but like Raymond he struggles in the playoffs with just 4 career playoff points. How good is Hansen? Take away the offensive side of Kesler's game and the two are quite similar: JH 77 hits to RK's 60, JH's 24 takeaways to RK's 32. It's fun watching these three guys play, even if they're not the most exciting (until Tambellini picks a corner coming down the right wing) or most talented.
The two forwards I have the most trouble watching are Mikael Samuelsson and Raffi Torres. For a guy who needs to shoot the puck a lot to be successful, Samuelsson doesn't hit the net much even when he shoots (31 missed shots, 2nd to Dan). At 34 he won't be hitting the 30 goal plateau anymore and while he's currently 4th in team scoring he could finish 7th or 8th by the end of the season. He's better off on the third line because he's an atrocious passer and marginally better stickhandler. Torres is just streaky. He plays with an edge that is there one game but absent in the next. If the Canucks want to go deep these two players have to hit their hot streaks at the right time. The Canucks benefited huge when Samuelsson went on a tear with 8 goals in 12 playoff games.
And what can I say of arguably the league's best defense that hasn't been said already? The Canucks are first in the league in goal differential, quite a feat considering that none of our blueliners are elite material. It's certainly an offense by committee, not like in Pittsburgh with Kris Letang or Boston with Zdeno Chara. Ehrhoff and Edler have combined for a +19 rating and 48 points. The two skate very, very well and jump up in the play at the right times. They're so underappreciated (more on that later) that you can't imagine what sort of attention they'd be getting if they played for an East team. Moving forward, given our cap space, you wonder if we can really retain Ehrhoff, who's an UFA at the end of the year.
Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard have both made Canucks highlight reels with their patented hip checks, with each at least upending an opposition once a game. I've actually been most disappointed with Hamhuis - perhaps it's because my perceptions of him as a more physical defenceman playing alongside Shea Weber and Ryan Suter - but he plays more like Willie Mitchell without the ridiculously long stick and has better mobility. I'm appalled at times with some of his giveaways and his blocked shots total, just 29, is less than one per game. This entire season may be an adjustment season for Ballard, so the best has yet to come, but he's our best shot blocker and the way he jumps up into the play (sometimes ill-advised and too deep), really reminds me of Ed Jovanovski. His 4 points aren't reflective of his offensive capabilities and Vigneault has used him rather reluctantly on the second powerplay unit, instead opting for Hamhuis.
Kevin Bieksa was a big name in the rumour mill to begin the season but he's solidified his status as a top four guy in our lineup. No one else on our defense plays with an edge like he does, except Alberts, but Alberts doesn't have the same mobility or offensive weapons. The imminent return of Sami Salo raises some interesting questions because of the Canucks' cap bind, and while Bieksa was rumoured to be on the block to make room for the hard-shooting Salo, he's quickly become an untradeable asset again.
If we can somehow get Salo into the lineup without sacrificing Bieksa or a forward, could you imagine what would happen? This team already leads the league and they're going to get even better. The Canucks were noticeably better with Salo in the lineup last year and it gives us a chance to get rid of Rome, who serves little purpose other than to give the other five defenseman a breather or two. As awkward as Alberts looks with the puck, he's one of our most physical defenceman. Honestly, I just can't wait to get rid of Aaron Rome. I don't think he brings anything to this team that we don't already have but you had to admit he's a huge upgrade over Eric Weinrich, Ossi Vaananen, or some other extra defenceman plug we manage to get for a pick at the deadline.
The biggest reason for our success? Our away record, which at 7 games above .500 is an extra 14 points for a team that plays average hockey on the road. The reason? Roberto Luongo. Last year's road record: 13-14-1, 3.07 GAA, .894 SV%. This year: 8-5-2, 2.59 GAA, .907 SV%. Luongo's still a far superior at home than on the road, but his stats have improved. It's not where the Canucks would like it to be, since his home record is a staggering 10-3-1, 2.25 GAA, .926 SV%, but you hope that Luongo can at least find a happy medium at home and on the road when all's said and done.
<img src="http://www.lphs.ca/image/players/PavelBure-close-up.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Is this the best Canucks team ever? I certainly think so. In terms of top-end talent nothing beats the Mogilny-Bure duo, but they were never healthy at the same time and the team couldn't win any games. Mogilny's best year as a Canuck, his first, with 55 goals and 107 points, was wasted with Bure appearing in only 15 games and an atrocious Kirk McLean in net. We have a splendid first line, a spectacular second-line centre, a bottom six that can hit, skate, and score, a very capable and mobile defense, and a goalie who still has some good seasons in him. The Canucks are tops in the league in every single relevant category: 25 wins (t-1st), 8 losses (1st), .724 point % (1st), 3.42 g/g (1st), 2.45 ga/g (5th), 24.8% PP (2nd), 85% PK (6th), 56.3% faceoffs (1st). The worst part about all these league leading stats? The Canucks still don't get any respect. As of today, the Canucks' rank in all-star voting by position: forwards Henrik (23rd), Daniel (24th), Kesler (52nd); defencemen Hamhuis (25th), Ehrhoff (36th), Edler (38th); and Luongo (10th)
The only wrinkle? Of the 24 times the Presidents' Trophy has been awarded, only 7 have gone on to win titles. It's clearly not a barometer for postseason success but we're looking pretty good right now.