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The Canucks finished November with a 8-4-1 record, but there was one game everyone had their eye on: Saturday, November 20, a nationally-televised matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks. While Chicago may have lost several pieces to Atlanta and other teams, they were still the team that had eliminated the Canucks two years in a row from postseason play. The Canucks were overcoming two straight losses, a tough 4-3 OTL in Buffalo, extending their winless streak at HSBC Arena to seven-plus years, and a 3-1 loss to the Penguins, which was supposed to be a preview of two potential Cup finalists. The Hawks were coming off a 7-2 loss to Calgary the night before. It certainly was a 'measuring stick' game, a test of resiliency between two very good teams. The result? A 7-1 drubbing at the hands of Chicago, an absolute shellacking in which Roberto Luongo was chased yet again, though at times through no fault of his own. The performance, if you could call it that, raised questions of whether this Canucks squad was truly ready for the same challenges that await them in the playoffs. To answer these questions, my friend Matt Sze (pronounced 'zee'), a fellow blogger who runs SzeSpeak: The Thinking Man's Blog has kindly joined me for this discussion. JC: The Hawks showed great resiliency by bouncing back from a terrible loss in the second night of a back to back. The Canucks followed up that effort with another loss against a hot Phoenix team. Resiliency is a key component of any good hockey team and in both games the Canucks just didn't seem to have any legs. Attitude reflects leadership, so the age-old question is, was Henrik the right choice as captain? It's no secret that for most North American kids, the ultimate dream is winning the Cup. For many Europeans, it's winning Olympic gold. MS: There was no other choice. Kesler's too young and plays an emotional game, something that can work against him. I'm not so sure Daniel was a good pick to wear the 'A' but Bieksa was a great choice. He has had a long tenure with the Canucks and provides some much-needed fire from the back end. And in regards to that Cup vs. Olympic gold argument, I don't buy it. All athletes are wired the same way - it doesn't matter what the prize is, athletes play to win. As former NFL coach Herm Edwards said, "you play to win the game." Getting to the pinnacle of any sport requires hard work, so to criticize the Sedins or anybody for lacking the desire to win is unfair. JC: I'm going to have to disagree, because I still think it makes a difference... Maybe I'm just a traditionalist and perhaps Lidstrom was just an anomaly... But what about Alexandre Daigle? The guy famously said he played hockey purely for the money. MS: Well, he didn't become a number one overall pick on talent alone, but he made some bad life decisions that eventually led to an unspectacular career. JC: The Canucks have been eliminated two consecutive years by the Hawks. Because Luongo and the Sedins are the best players, they have taken the brunt of the criticism, and a lot of it isn't unfounded. It seemed as though fortunes would be reversed in last year's playoffs, but the Sedins then vanished for stretches. Can our top players elevate their play? <img src="http://cache2.asset-cache.net/xc/73882764.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=77BFBA49EF8789215ABF3343C02EA54831A838CD875A9477EF75E5B296482BCE804B3618D4BA3975"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">MS: I don't think Luongo has ever demonstrated that he could elevate his game, except in that 2007 series against Dallas, his first ever playoff appearance. He may never elevate his game to that level again, but most times it's the other guys, the supporting players, that step up their games. Patrick Kane is a key player for Chicago, but prior to that Finals against Philadelphia it had mostly been Jonathan Toews, and Kane ended up with the series winner. When Pittsburgh won the Cup, it was Max Talbot who scored the game-winner. Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, and Talbot all raised their games. JC: So what's the difference between those players who can elevate their games and those who can't? Is it emotion? Attitude? I think one of the reasons Henrik was so successful last year was because of his swagger. He had that "yeah, I'm the best player in the league" attitude. When Daniel came back, it seemed to have disappeared. MS: Right now - emotion, attitude, swagger - Henrik doesn't have it. But in the regular season I don't think there's any need for it. It's going to build up. The only guy that does show some swagger is Bieksa. The Sedins are quiet players. I think Henrik giving Bieksa the 'A' is a challenge for him to get back to his former level. Those 42, 43 point seasons may be an anomaly but he's still an effective player when his head's on straight. JC: So who's the X factor for the Canucks in the playoffs? MS: Well, obviously it's Luongo. For me, it's two players: Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen. We know that Raymond's got great speed and can put the puck in the net, but but he hasn't elevated his game in the playoffs yet. (In 22 playoff games he has only 7 points.) The other is Hansen, because he has the feistiness needed to make things happen in the postseason. I remember back in that Dallas series, Stars fans were going, "who is this guy?" JC: Gillis made an honest attempt to make this team better this offseason. If there's anything I noticed this year, it's that this team is so much faster. Speed kills, but we don't know how that will translate to playoff hockey. MS: We are faster and bigger, but I don't think we're grittier than we were last year. Torres isn't really an upgrade hitting-wise over Steve Bernier. Malhotra's an upgrade over Wellwood but he's not the sort of guy who'll just lay guys out. We really won't know the playoffs. The playoffs are tighter defensively but the Sedins are good playoff players because they won't necessarily create the room, but they can certainly find the open areas. They make space with their playmaking, not their physicality. They're 30 years old - still relatively young - and are still learning how to play better with each passing playoff series. JC: Alright, the real questions. Do the Hawks have our number? Vigneault hasn't announced who is starting Friday vs. Chicago, but I think you can't not start Luongo. Starting Schneider is a clear white towel message. MS: Ohhhh. Not right now, but certainly last year. We've been blown out only once this season. If the Canucks put up a good fight, what else do you want? Maybe the Hawks will be better in the season but come playoff time their lack of depth will hurt. Vancouver was vastly overrated last year. We were the underdogs in that series - the four best teams were Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, then Vancouver. The thing about the West is, any team can beat any team. The level of parity is so high, if you're off your game one night it can result in a disaster. If there is a mental edge, it's what they've done in the past. The Canucks have to continue to ride Luongo but also depends on how he losses the game. The team collapsed as a whole. Losses means the team has to look at itself as a whole, not just the goalie, unless there were some flagrantly bad goals. The Canucks have one of the best sports psychologists on staff. Chicago's lower in the standings. The Canucks should be better. JC: What about the Wings? We usually play moderately well against them. MS: No, they don't have our number either. We play the Wings tough, all the time. The Canucks just recently won 6-4 against them. That being said, the Wings are still the best team in the West, and in a 7-game series I'd still take the Wings because their best players can elevate their game. So far, the Canucks' players haven't. Guys like Dan Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom, and Johan Franzen are good in the regular season, but great in the playoffs. Kesler, Burrows, and Raymond weren't so good last year. Let's not let the Sedins off the hook - they should elevate their game too, but I do think they were better than Naslund and Bertuzzi. Depth is key. JC: If you look at some of the league's best playoff performers - Crosby, Mike Richards, Datsyuk, Zetterberg - these are guys who play in all situations of the game. The Sedins don't kill penalties. Part of the reason is because they don't have to, and also by blocking shots you're risking injury, but the upside is that when your team can't find their rhythm, you can get your best players more involved in the play. If I were to build a team, I'd like to have a franchise player I can play in every situation. MS: The Sedins not playing PK doesn't hurt them. If they're not on the ice because the team's constantly killing penalties then the team has to be more disciplined. The Canucks aren't built around 2 players, and that gives the Sedins the opportunity to really focus on one thing (scoring). The Sedins are great talents, but the Canucks don't have a standout talent like Ovechkin or Crosby. There is no shining star. The Canucks are built like a football team - you need everyone to perform their specific role for them to succeed. If special teams can't produce then you hope the depth can hold up. <img src="http://cache1.asset-cache.net/xc/86020661.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=77BFBA49EF8789215ABF3343C02EA54809ADCC78F7DA45A9E4E03DA6F564D905B4F7DACE93165AFCE30A760B0D811297"class="imageFloatRightFramed">JC: One thing I really noticed that year was the lack of net presence. Chicago had Byfuglien, Ladd, and Eager in Luongo's face the entire time. The Canucks have trouble against the Blues because David Backes is cemented in front of the net. MS: I agree, and that's my only bone to pick. It certainly adds yet another dimension to our potent attack. We lack that physical element. We're bigger, in fact, we always have been, but I don't think we're grittier than before. Torres can be a perimeter player sometimes too. We are missing a David Backes type. It's demoralizing for teams to have someone in front of the net you can't move. The Canucks defense was torn about by Byfuglien. Edler wasn't strong enough, Bieksa had the strength but not the frame. I think that's why Alberts could surprisingly play a big role on this team when it comes to clearing the crease. Look what Andy Sutton was able to do in Ottawa. He put players flat on their butts all the time. JC: It almost feels like this team is built for the regular season than the playoffs. If you look at how the Flyers were built last year, them going deep shouldn't be all that surprising. They had great veteran leadership and a great mix of size, talent, and grit. I picked the Flyers to upset that year because I knew they could go far. MS: I'm gonna play the devil's advocate and say it depends on who they play. Against almost all the teams they're good. The Canucks have trouble with Chicago, and I know that contradicts with what I said previously, but you just don't know how this team will fare against this version of the Hawks in the playoffs. Last year, Quenneville totally outcoached Vigneault. I think, line for line, other than that top line with Zetterberg and Datsyuk, we have the advantage in regards to the other 9 forwards, so I like how we match up against the Wings. JC: Let's talk Luongo, since he's the biggest X factor. I don't like his contract, and there are people who are already saying Luongo's overpaid, but he's still one of the better goalies in the West. What do you think? MS: Luongo's play has slipped but I think Kiprusoff's play has slipped more. A quarter of the way through the season, my top 5 West goalies are: Bryzgalov, Hiller, Backstrom, Quick, and Halak. But in the playoffs everything changes. I don't like the Luongo extension either - it's pro-rated, but I think if we could get him just a shade cheaper at around $5 million we might be able to afford to keep Bieksa. He brings an element no other defenseman on our team does and maybe he does need a change of scenery but we need players like him in the playoffs. JC: Vigneault says the window for this team to win is between now and 1 or 2 years down the road. I tend to agree with him. Canucks in 5 years - how many Cups? 1? 2? None? MS: I have to disagree with Vigneault. I think the window longer than that. Edler and Raymond are still young. The Moose is well-stocked. Granted, Luc Bourdon's untimely death set this franchise back a little, but it's more like a ten-year plan. Ideally, our top players will be ready to make a significant impact in 5 years. Look at the Red Wings. From 1980 to their Cup win in 1997 (their first in ages), they were eliminated from the playoffs 11 times, and only 4 times did they at least reach the Conference Finals. When you're building a team you're going to fail a lot in the beginning, because that's the feeling you have to know to succeed later on. Vancouver has no tradition of winning and that works against them. Vigneault is no Scotty Bowman, but at least the consistency is there. Would you rather be successful long-term or be a potential one-hit wonder like the Hawks with their cap issues? They still have yet to sign Seabrook and could only afford Marty Turco. Don't get me wrong, Chicago could still end up being competitive but it will be difficult. Maybe it's because I haven't lived through 40 years of disappointment, but we have to be patient. As long as we draft well, we'll stay competitive. It wasn't too long ago people were labelling Hodgson as a bust, but history has shown that the World Jrs. MVP, and it should've been Hodgson, no doubt, go on to have good NHL careers. (Past winners include Eberle, Malkin, Ovechkin, Parise, Cammalleri, and Iginla). The Canucks and Blackhawks face-off Friday night. We'll have to see what kind of team we really have.
September is always the toughest to swallow when you're a hockey fan because it's the only month where Opening Night feels so close yet so far away as well. At least the NFL has kicked off. But September may very well be the most important month as well because this is really where teams start to take shape. A great camp from a rookie may change the entire depth chart for certain teams like Florida and Atlanta, who are desperately hoping for a gem to emerge from their ranks to being their re-build. Even Cup contenders like Vancouver, are waiting to see if Cody Hodgson or Jordan Schroeder can make the big club and make an impact. Pittsburgh is waiting to see which of Eric Tangradi, Ryan Craig, Dustin Jeffrey, or whoever they may unearth can step into a top six role. To help you bide the time while waiting for the puck to drop, here are some grumblings... <img src="http://tomferda.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/dustin-byfuglien.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Craig Ramsay has announced that he will start Dustin Byfuglien on defense. I guess if you're going to spend the majority of the season treading water and trying to keep pucks out of the night it's more logical to use your biggest player to clear the crease rather than cause havoc in the offensive zone. People think because Byfuglien can play defense he's versatile, but he really isn't. Anyone who watched him play this year knows that he's an atrocious skater and given the emergence of young defensemen with extraordinary skating ability, like Drew Doughty, Erik Johnson, and John Carlson, you'd have to think if this is a good move. Byfuglien won't help with the transition game - instead, he's more like an Andy Sutton-type with better hands. If you look at the players who can play both defense and offense, they're mostly guys who really don't do either very well. Ian White aside, the list includes the likes of Christoph Schubert, Matt Carkner, and Wade Belak - a pretty mediocre group. Given the right environment, like lining up besides two potential Hall of Famers like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Byfuglien will succeed, but not in Atlanta. So long as Ron Wilson is behind the bench at the Air Canada Centre, Tomas Kaberle won't play... according to his father. It was a non-headline at the beginning and I'm going to sound like a broken record, but the Leafs desperately need him on the blueline. I don't think Brian Burke was ever really dangling him but I do believe at least 10 teams have called and if they have a good offer, you listen. He's a great puck-moving defenseman with a very affordable salary, which in the CBA world pretty much counts as a first round pick. Without him the Leafs won't have anyone to spring Phil Kessel on a breakaway. Kaberle is still the Leafs' best player. Jersey numbers have a way of sticking in hockey fans' heads. 99 is synonymous with Wayne Gretzky, 66 with Mario Lemieux, and 4 with Bobby Orr. In Edmonton, 4 evokes memories of Kevin Lowe, the Oilers' great blueliner during their 'City of Champions' years. When I heard that Taylor Hall was going to wear that number, my stomach did a little flip. Lowe's number is not retired by the Oilers so it's fair game, but it's a number that hasn't been used since 1992, Lowe's final season in Edmonton in which he was also captain. I'm obviously making too big of a deal out of it but I wish Hall picked a different number and blazed a path of his own. But then again, it's Lowe's number to give and no one is really going to watch the Oilers this year anyway (which makes them dangerous, actually, like Colorado and Phoenix last year). The Blues weren't very involved during free agency (they didn't have to) but did get an upgrade in goal with Jaroslav Halak. Habs fans still are still swooning over their playoff hero during a recent visit to Montreal. But let's put things into perspective: Ville Leino will not be a force in the regular season, at best a second line player, and Dustin Byfuglien won't score 41 goals in the regular season. Playoff heroics has a funny way of driving up a player's stock and more often than not those players become way overrated. The Blues should be excited because they've finally found a legitimate no. 1 goalie but Habs fans shouldn't forget that Carey Price also managed to post a respectable .912 SV%. If you're expecting Halak to be all-star material I wouldn't bank on it. Count me as a skeptic. Speaking of skepticism, Mike Modano evokes none from me. Wearing the unfamiliar number 90 and even more unfamiliar red and white, Modano has an opportunity to finish his career a winner, at home, no less. The Michigan native signed a one-year contract for one last kick at the can and the stars have lined up for him. Chicago lost quality players and the Wings have Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler, and Niklas Lidstrom back. The Wings are poised to re-take the Central Division title and a little bit of luck and staying healthy could mean the Wings could be back in the finals for a third time in four years. Modano won't have the pressure of having to score and his defensive game has improved by leaps and bounds the past 5 years. The Wings' puck-possession game suits him well with his deft hands and great skating. One of the more intriguing training camp stories this year (there's always a few - who's going to be our Sergei Shirokov this year?) has been the Stars' invite to Jonathan Cheechoo. Cheechoo's fall from grace has been well documented but if anyone can find your offensive mojo it's Marc Crawford. The Stars can score goals in bunches if they can keep the puck out of their own zone long enough with Brad Richards dishing out passes while James Neal, Jamie Benn, and Loui Eriksson finish them off. My prediction is that Cheechoo does land himself a contract from GM Joe Nieuwendyk but there's no returning to form here. I think it's case-closed that Cheechoo's 56-goal season was a major fluke and more Joe Thornton than him. I also would've rather kept Modano rather than invite Cheechoo. There's been reports (sorry, no link) that Bobby Ryan is close to inking an extension with the Ducks but it'll be on the Ducks' terms, not his. Reportedly the main holdup between the two sides is length, with Ryan wishing to become a UFA as early as possible while the Ducks hope to have him signed beyond that, ensuring that Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf won't all bolt at the same time. Thanks for the paranoia, Miami Heat. LeBron James' summer fiasco has changed free agency forever. That's his legacy. Forget about the championships, he's all smoke and dollar signs. <img src="http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/multimedia/photo_gallery/0810/nhl.rookies.to.watch/images/cody-hodgson.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">If you're banking on either Schroeder or Hodgson to make this squad, the safe bet is Schroeder. It wouldn't hurt for both to return to the AHL for more seasoning and the Canucks have zero need to rush them but at this point Schroeder has at least proven he's capable of producing at the AHL level. The Canucks recently announced that Hodgson won't be attending the rookie tournament in Penticton after doctors couldn't declare him fit to play. Alain Vigneault, never one to shy away from challenging a player's mental toughness publicly, has refused to elaborate but it doesn't take a genius to know that he's not particularly happy with this whole fiasco. But neither is Hodgson - I'm sure he's frustrated too. It's been two years since his misdiagnosed back but it's been disappointment after disappointment, some of them undeserved. He got cut because he wasn't 100%. He lost out the MVP award at the World Juniors to John Tavares even though he was more deserving. Tavares will now have at least 2 NHL seasons under his belt before Hodgson. Underclassman Schroeder is leapfrogging him on the depth charts. However, let's not panic - Hodgson still has a bright future and to give up on him now would be a mistake. Hodgson is once again a big fixture in the training camp news wire and he'll really need to impress if he wants to make it. For now, the odds are stacked against him and it'll be another long test of his character. Oh, and Sidney Crosby hits home runs.
I was lucky enough to attend last night's game and after Shane O'Brien's weak holding penalty a fan sitting in front of me stood up and yelled, "where's Gary Bettman?" If that didn't sum up the game, I don't know what did. A disappointing 5-2 loss puts the Canucks behind 2-1 in the series, but perhaps more concerning was the way the Canucks handled themselves. Some believe the loss can be attributed to the Canucks' more physical play, but I don't think that was it. I don't think it was the Hawks that got under the Sedins' skin either. I think, quite simply, the Canucks just didn't have an answer to big Dustin Byfuglien (with a name like that it still baffles me how it's pronounced "BUFF-lin"). Credit to Byfuglien though, Vancouver's new public enemy number one, especially after he pretty much flipped off the crowd after scoring a goal, for realizing how hated he is in Vancouver and totally embracing the role. No player on Vancouver's roster could match Byfuglien's physicality and the fact that he played with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews certainly created some room for him. While he definitely was a huge factor for the Hawks' win, the referees certainly were THE factor. I have never ever seen or been to a game where officiating has been this bad. Let's call a spade a spade - had the game been called more fairly the game would've been closer, or even produced a different outcome. Alain Vigneault side-stepped questions about the officiating, and on one hand I understand that 1) he doesn't want to get fined, and 2) he's not going to make any excuses for his team. But it's times like these where I wish players and coaches were given more free reign to sound off. By fining and reprimanding players there's zero accountability with the league and its officials (the Stephane Auger incident was sort of swept under the rug) and I don't need to remind everyone that the discipline office is anything but. The league, refs, and Bettman sit nice and smug on their little high chair and when someone speaks up against them they're quick to punish them. <img src="http://d.yimg.com/a/p/sp/getty/c5/fullj.0d17be1458e00e6d3c1de2fd186c3cb2/0d17be1458e00e6d3c1de2fd186c3cb2-getty-98501666rl20_kings_canucks.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">The only player that I thought could have the same effect Byfuglien had on Roberto Luongo (who had a so-so night - he fought to control the rebounds all night and cost him the second goal) was Steve Bernier. After logging close to five minutes in the opening period with a couple of strong shifts with Kyle Wellwood, I thought he was going to score a goal for sure, after all, I was wearing his jersey that night. But alas, Big Steve found himself in Vigneault's dog house again, and had just one shift in the second and just another 2:18 in the final period for a grand total of 7:36 of ice-time that night. I am a little baffled, and I do know better than to question one of the league's best bench bosses and a former Jack Adams winner, but physicality and size was obviously something that was missing in the game and I felt Bernier could've really at least made the night a little harder to bear for Antti Niemi. Bernier's not known to be a good skater or good puck-handler and did have some trouble getting the puck out of his own zone, but I don't think he was alone that night in that department. Alex Burrows finally lit the lamp and a lot of people criticized him for his unnecessary penalties, especially the one on Brian Campbell. Burrows has been playing well and he's finally getting the bounces. Unfortunately, even though his goal could've provided a big momentum shift, it clearly wasn't the case as the Canucks came out flat in the third and Marian Hossa made them pay. Speaking of coming out flat, whatever happened to Pavol Demitra, the Slovakian Superman? Ask him to play for his country and he's suddenly one of the world's top players, but ask him to play in a pressure-packed situation at home against a rival and he decides not to show up. He was barely visible on the ice last night except for a lazy penalty in the first. It's a little concerning to watch the team squander a 2-0 lead and then take a 5-2 loss, and some wonder if the mental fortitude that escaped the Canucks last year is escaping them again this year. Daniel Sedin in particular was rattled by the mouthy Dave Bolland. Kudos for O'Brien and Burrows stepping in and I forgive them for the misconducts, because let's face it, the game was long lost at that point and those two seemed to be the only players that were doing something about the harassment the Sedins were getting. Game Four is at GM Place and expect the Canucks to come out flying. How the Canucks handle themselves in that game will really tell us what sort of team we have.