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  1. As Canucks fans continue to live in the here and now, digesting every morsel of Vancouver playoff hockey, it's easy to forget the stepping stones that brought them this far. Mike Gillis, Alain Vigneault, and Rick Bowness have proven the cream rises to the top So often in professional sports, media and critics either directly or indirectly raise the question: What have you done for me lately? For the moment, let's fail to adopt that mentality, and recall a former General Manager for the Vancouver Canucks, Brian Burke. For that matter, let's involve another, Dave Nonis. While it's impossible to say what would have evolved were they to stay longer, the results they produced are irrefutable. The Western conference finals we are witnessing involve a solid number of players that these former GM's brought in during their tenure. You may recall one of them from the third period of Game One - With the game on the line, this Hart Trophy candidate laid his body down to block a slap-shot. Sure, he didn't score a goal or register a point in the game, but his importance to the outcome can't be understated. By now you must realize I'm referring to Daniel Sedin, one half of the oh-so-important tandem Burke brought in. He fervently worked the phones and 1999 Draft floor to obtain the 2nd and 3rd picks to ensure Henrik and Daniel would play together, in Vancouver. Keith Ballard works on his slap-shot under the tutelage of Assistant Coach Rick Bowness (photo courtesy of Harry How/ Getty Images) It would be an understatement to say that, prior to the Sedin-era, the Vancouver Canucks organization had challenges developing talent from within. Suffice it to say that Shawn Antoski, significant though he was in a trade, didn't pan out. Even 'can't misses' such as Petr Nedved, wound up improving their game, but only once they were dealt to another organization. Even more specifically, only now are they seeing dividends from investments developed in Manitoba in the farm system with the Moose. Cory Schneider is the first real bonafide Canuck goaltender produced in quite a span, thanks largely in part to Dave Nonis, who also saw promise in Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows. For reference, we need only look back on Troy Gamble, Mike Fountain and Kevin Weekes (the latter brought in via trade). Now, players such as Cody Hodgson and Sergei Shirokov that have been called up to the parent club show similar promise as the next generation of in-house talent. Sergei Shirokov (#25) and Jeff Tambellini (#10) stretch during Western Conference Finals practice at Rogers Arena Ultimately, although GM's have a lot to do with the process, there are others involved that drastically alter the final product that a team ices. One cannot acknowledge the contributions of Burke and Nonis without giving kudos to the Ownership group. Francesco Aquilini, the Managing Director of the Aquilini Investment Group has, like the Vancouver Canucks team he owns, grown and progressed. He hand-picked Mike Gillis, a retired player and player agent, which raised eyebrows across the league. But like so many of his other business decisions, Aquilini paved the way for a seeming stroke of genius. Gillis was instrumental in keeping Henrik and Daniel Sedin away from the free agency market. He flew to Sweden and negotiated identical $30.5 m deals hours before the July 1st deadline. He immediately set his sights on Roberto Luongo, whose four-year contract, signed by Dave Nonis, was coming to an end. Luongo imposed a Sept. 13 deadline before ceasing negotiations for the upcoming season. Several days after, Gillis signed Luongo to an historic 12 year, $64 million contract. Gillis also signed unrestricted free agent Mikael Samuelsson, and emerging Kontinental Hockey League prospect, Sergei Shirokov (pictured earlier). The Canuck Way will soon examine other integral components responsible for the exciting product we see before us in the 2011 Western Conference Finals.
  2. No matter how they got here, or what direction they want to take in the future, the Vancouver Canucks are literally playing the most important game of their lives. Only three times in history has an NHL team erased a 3-0 series deficit to advance to the next round of the playoffs. There has been a lot of talk about the Canucks' chances of earning the dubious distinction as the fourth team to facilitate such a collapse. Rife with drama and storylines, this series has seen it all, from big controversial hits, to starting goaltending controversy, and questionable officiating. But it all takes a back seat to the drama in store tonight at Rogers Arena in Vancouver at 7:00 pm PST. A lot of experts agree that momentum clearly is the advantage the Chicago Blackhawks carry into Game 7. But the Canucks aren't without positive signs - they outworked the Blackhawks for most of Game 6, as well as controlling the tempo and play through the majority of the game. Rather than recap all that's been, I'd like to shift focus onto Four Keys for the colossal Game Seven. Key 1: Setting the tone Getting off to a fast, motivated start, complete with energetic, hard-hitting physical shifts has been integral to both teams' success so far this series. More than any other night, it's imperative for the Canucks to wrest momentum back in their corner. The Canucks were able to surprise the Blackhawks physically in the first three games, with Alain Vigneault doing an excellent job rolling through his deep lines, and establishing a solid forecheck. With the element of surprise gone, it'll be extremely important for the third and fourth lines to deliver effective hits, getting Blackhawk defenders worrying about what is coming, not what they're going to set up. Alex Burrows was one of the best Canucks in Game 6, and will need to put it all on the line tonight against the Hawks (photo courtesy of Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images) Key 2: Sedins re-establishing the cycle game A very positive sign in the second period of Game 6 was the amount of time that Daniel, Henrik and Mikael (Samuelsson) spent in the Blackhawks zone. Their cycling of the puck is what made them so effective and dangerous in the regular season, and they appeared to be wearing down the Hawks defenders with it. Both teams have done a good job collapsing down low to limit the rebound chances, but Vancouver could gain a decided advantage if the Sedins force Chicago to expend valuable energy chasing the puck down low. Key 3: Goaltending performance There is no question in my mind that Roberto Luongo will be starting Game 7. Subsequently, despite having played for Olympic Gold, and playing in some large playoff settings before, this is the game of his life. In only his first year of a 12 year, $64 M contract, the stakes couldn't be higher. Win or lose, it's up to Roberto to prove he can come through when it's all on the line. He did it before against the Dallas Stars, but fair or not, tonight will completely shape the rest of his career, given his past performances against the Blackhawks. Key 4: Officiating Unfortunately, the officiating has been suspect the last 3 games, and has been a hot button topic, not only in Vancouver, but League-wide. The Blackhawks have enjoyed a 22-12 edge (in powerplay chances) over the last four games, and hockey pundits agree that GM Mike Gillis had reason to be irate after Game 6. If the officials decide to punish the Canucks with more penalties, and miss calls like the one on Dave Bolland slashing Henrik Sedin's stick in half, it could be a very frustrating game for Canucks' fans. Expect the boo-birds to come out if the officials call the game similarly to Game Six. At the end of the day, though it's little solace for Canucks fans, the hockey world will benefit from what should be an intense Game Seven. This is what hockey is all about, and every youngster in love with the sport dreams about playing a significant role in a deciding Game Seven. Will it be elation, or utter dejection for Canucks fans following this pivotal game in the series and franchises' history? Kevin Bieksa might have set the stage the best: "Sometimes it takes all your lifelines to earn $1 million. That's where we're at. We've used our 3." Wishing the Canucks every fortune here from The Canuck Way, I'm Larenzo Jensen
  3. Amidst all the story lines heading into the Canucks and Blackhawks third straight post-season match-up, Ryan Kesler's maturation process is perhaps the most under-reported. Ryan Kesler battles Anton Babchuk for position during the last game of the season (photo courtesy of AP Photo) I recall the solemn and hushed tone in Kesler's voice as he was interviewed by reporters some 10 1/2 months ago. He was being asked whether players on the team, himself included, were playing hurt in the playoffs. Whether he was choking back tears, or was simply frustrated beyond belief, no-one save for himself knows the real truth. Speaking of truth, I will admit that Kesler has been one of my personal favorites, but after listening to Alex Burrows answer the same question, I will also admit Kesler's response showed some immaturity. As time would tell, Alex Burrows was playing with a shoulder that required off-season surgery, that would force him to miss the first 11 games of the season. The difference being that Ryan Kesler dwelt more on the fact that he was injured, while Burrows refused to use it as a crutch. He said that in the Playoffs, everyone plays hurt, -it's just the way hockey is in the spring. Canucks fans are hoping they'll see Kesler celebrate like this more than once during this year's playoffs (photo courtesy of Rich Lam/Getty Images) Using Alex Burrows to illustrate Kesler's development is interesting in itself, because although Kesler got a taste of the NHL first (28 games 2003/04), he and Burrows both started to get regular duty during the 2005/06 season. But Burrows is four years older than Kesler, having paid his dues in the East Coast Hockey League before making the transition to the American Hockey League. Last year, Kesler scored 25 goals and recorded 104 penalty minutes. During the playoffs, he played 12 games, with 1 goal and 9 assists. Not long after Kesler's interviews where he spoke to being injured, Mike Gillis sat down with him during team exit meetings. He showed him a clip of Jonathan Toews battling for the puck during their series with the Canucks. He got cross-checked, then another to be knocked down. He got up, and shortly thereafter, the Blackhawks scored. This year, Kesler scored 41 goals, and recorded 66 penalty minutes. Many hockey pundits will agree that Kesler is the best 2nd line center in the NHL, and on many teams, would pivot the top line. For the Blackhawks, Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell will be charged with the task of shutting down the Sedin twins along with Alex Burrows. While not carved in stone, it should mean that Kesler will draw the Brent Seabrook and Chris Campoli pairing on defense. Whether Joel Quennville decides to match Patrick Kane's line centered by ex-Canuck, Ryan Johnson, or go with his checking line of Brian Bickell, Jake Dowell and Michael Frolik, also is unknown. Regardless of who he plays against, Canucks fans should find Kesler's growth from last season a very interesting subplot. When you tie for first on your team in scoring, and fourth overall in the League, you're bound to get some attention. The Canucks playoff hopes could literally hinge on whether he's grown and matured enough to handle the spotlight. Strap in for more Playoffs done The Canuck Way! Thanks for reading, I'm Larenzo Jensen
  4. The February 28th trade deadline came and went, with the Vancouver Canucks adding without subtracting. With the additions of Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre, the Canucks now find their forward ranks replete with depth and character. Roles once filled by Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows as agitating, shift disturbing defensive types, have been filled by Lapierre and Higgins. General Manager Mike Gillis added the two players without surrendering a roster player. Instead, he moved 3rd round picks to both the Anaheim Ducks and the Florida Panthers, as well as minor leaguers Joel Perrault and Evan Oberg. "I think we added experience and we added a little bit of a different element than we possess on this team currently." New Canuck recruits, Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre Higgins, though currently out of action with a broken thumb, is likely out another 10 games. Though he will debut on the fourth line, there is the opportunity for him to bump up to another line. Higgins, though with only 11 goals and 23 points this year with Florida, had three straight 20 goal years with the Canadiens. "It wasn't predicated on Mason's play at all. What we wanted to do was to strengthen in areas we didn't currently have," Gillis added. Lapierre, who was brought in to center the fourth line between Tanner Glass and Jeff Tambellini, has worked under Alain Vigneault before. He played three seasons of junior hockey in Prince Edward Island, and he credits Vigneault with improving his play within a system. "He was in the NHL before he came to junior so he helped me a lot in my development when I was young and I'm glad to be back with him." He played 5:41 in his first game with the Canucks Tuesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and was a minus one, with two penalty minutes. Maxim Lapierre studied under Alain Vigneault for 3 years in Prince Edward Island Lapierre and Higgins were teammates for three seasons in Montreal. "I have always been a pretty versatile player who can be used in a variety of different situations," Higgins explained. "I am just looking to build chemistry with whoever I am playing with in Vancouver. If I can score some goals, that would be great, but I am just looking forward to finding my niche on the team and being able to contribute every night." Canuck fans were head over heals for this boisterous hit on Jakub Voracek by Dan Hamhuis (photos courtesy of AP Photo) As he quite often does, Alex Burrows added a little humor. In his response to having another Francophone joining the club, he quipped: "It's always good to add a few French Fry guys. There's too many Swedes in this dressing room." Of course, in our household, there's still only one "Little Frenchie". But we certainly are curious to see what dynamic the newest Canucks add.
  5. The trade deadline is approaching. It's a little less than a month away, just 27 days left before frantic phone calls are made and triggers pulled too fast. It's my second most favourite NHL-related time of the year, just behind July 1, because I get to whine, complain, yell, laugh, praise, and wonder how close Pierre McGuire can creep up to Darren Dutchyshen before Dutchyshen completely loses it on live TV (I swear it's going to happen someday). It's also a great reason for me to stay home, glue my butt to the couch, and watch TSN until my eyes melt. So exciting. <img src="http://2010vancouver.ca/mikegillis.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">But are the Canucks even major players this year? Given that the Canucks are first in the West and in virtually no danger of falling out of the top eight, the team is obviously a buyer. But this is a team that never has been major deadline players under Mike Gillis. Over the past two trade deadlines, only three trades have been made, all of them last year. In Gillis' first season, the Canucks' last trade before the playoff run was a minor league swap (Mike Brown for Nathan McIver, who was waived by the Canucks the day before and claimed by Anaheim). It was never believed that the Canucks would be major players anyway, having signed Mats Sundin on December 18 and thus having little cap room to do anything else. To Gillis, signing Sundin was the equivalent to a trade deadline blockbuster, but without having to lose any long-term assets. Last year, the Canucks made three separate swaps, the only substantial piece being Andrew Alberts (the others by Yan Stastny and Sean Zimmerman), who was much maligned last year but has improved tremendously this year. Are we in store for another low-key trade deadline? I don't think there's any reason to suggest otherwise. The Canucks are interesting in adding pieces, not losing them (those Ehrhoff trade rumours are ridiculous and not worth discussing, and Schneider's staying), and while the pipeline is now replenished with some attractive pieces, it doesn't seem as if Gillis is willing to part with any particular player. Despite rumours of Cody Hodgson being on the move, I think largely fueled by a public semi-feud between the two camps regarding Hodgson's back injury, i would be shocked if Gillis gives up on his first ever draft pick. It was a pick that Gillis himself believed was a step in a new direction, a direction that shied away from "safe" picks which had been so common with Brian Burke and Dave Nonis, to players that had the right high-end mixture of talent and character. Losing Alex Edler to back surgery was a big blow but even by placing his remaining cap hit on the LTIR it doesn't open enough space for the Canucks to acquire anything substantial anyway. Like Sundin, the return of Sami Salo could be considered the Canucks' big deadline acquisition. In the playoffs, there is no salary cap, and if Edler and Salo can return by the opening round, the Canucks' six-man group, as noted before the season started, is the league's deepest. <img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/79/Zenon_Konopka.jpg/220px-Zenon_Konopka.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">But that doesn't mean Gillis shouldn't work the phones to plug two glaring holes: a injury-free, regular fourth-line centreman and a veteran player with plenty of playoff experience. Ideally, the two holes can be plugged by a single player, but if Gillis had to pick it should be the former. While experience is considered a luxury, it sure can be overrated. The team has already established its leadership group going forward and will rely heavily on the Sedins, Kesler, and Luongo to show what they can do to avoid another second-round exit. The Sedins will now enter the playoffs with over 60 games of playoff experience each and with few substantial roster changes over the past two years, most of the current Canucks will already have over 20 games and two separate playoff runs under their belts. So who can fill that fourth-line role? Not many. The first requirement is that the player be an impending UFA. It's important to acquire a player that is not signed beyond the 2010-11 season unless it's a two-way deal, which gives Gillis an escape plan should a rookie (Hodgson, Schroeder, Bliznak, Bolduc, etc.) be favoured for a roster spot next year. The second requirement is that the player has to win at least 50% of it's face-offs. While the Canucks do have three of the league's best centremen, having a dependable fourth will help. In the grand scheme of things the Canucks may not necessarily need him to win, but every play counts in the playoffs and it might give the team a better night's sleep if they didn't have to use Tambellini or Glass in a defensive zone face-off after an icing call.The only player that fits the bill, as Ben Kuzma has noted before, is the Islanders' Zenon Konopka, a big, strong fourth-line centre who is ranked sixth in the NHL if face-off %. Konopka's been on my radar for awhile as a fourth line player with some major sandpaper (250+ PIM last year) but his face-off ability is something that has gone under the radar the past two seasons, in large part because he was under-utilized by Rick Tocchet in Tampa Bay. He'll cost a mid-round pick, a minor price to pay. But how busy the trade deadline will be depends entirely on the market. There are four obvious sellers (Edmonton, Ottawa, New Jersey, and the NY Islanders) but none have any real attractive pieces, the most high-profile being Alex Kovalev, but he comes with a major red flag and seems destined to finish his career in the KHL. There are another four teams (Columbus, St. Louis, Florida, and Buffalo) that have an outside shot at making the playoffs but probably won't and will most likely be sellers at the deadline as well, especially Florida, which is slowly beginning it's rebuilding process. There is, of course, Toronto, who really should be a seller by this point already but haven't declared so, perhaps out of some misguided sense of self-worth, but have a great trade piece in Tomas Kaberle. That leaves 21 teams that are potential buyers. That's a lot, but we can narrow down the list even more. There are three teams that cannot afford to add salary due to ownership issues: Dallas, Phoenix, and Atlanta. There are two teams that have traditionally been non-buyers, Nashville and Carolina, who may be major players only if ownership gives the green light (unlikely). <img src="http://www.timescolonist.com/sports/1566473.bin?size=620x400"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Vancouver and Detroit are in a good position to finish in the top two spots in the West but don't have any cap space to add anybody from outside the organization. Like I said before, Salo's return is Vancouver's big move and Detroit would love to have Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary back. Pittsburgh and Boston are headed towards the postseason but have little cap space to work with, which means Ray Shero probably won't find a winger for Crosby (again) and the Bruins are already pretty deep. San Jose, Chicago, Calgary, and Montreal are in danger of not making the playoffs. All four teams already have or currently trying to create some space for deadline deals. San Jose (Torrey Mitchell) and Montreal (Cammalleri, Markov) may have space to work with due to injuries, while Chicago (shuttling Nick Leddy back and forth from AHL) and Calgary (waiving Ales Kotalik) are making personnel changes. It's a TBD situation for all four but it'll be difficult. The Wild, Flyers, Rangers, and Capitals can perhaps add one extra body of note. The Capitals may choose not to make a move considering that Alex Ovechkin is "saving himself" for the playoffs (not buying the theory) and the Rangers eagerly await the return of Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan. The Ducks and Kings have roughly $4 million in cap room, giving them some good options, and both teams could use more help. My bet would be on the Kings to make the big splash but given their disappointing season thus far you have to wonder if Lombardi should stand pat and give the current Kings a vote of confidence and emotional boost. If my math is correct, that leaves two teams: Tampa Bay and Colorado. Greg Sherman is one of the league's most secretive GMs and who knows what he's up to, but my bet is that he doesn't do anything substantial. He's obviously a very smart GM and it would be wise for this young Avs team to grow together as a group in the playoffs. His only noteworthy deadline deal last year was swapping young players (Wojtek Wolski to Phoenix for Peter Mueller and Kevin Porter) and not acquiring a seasoned veteran, one of which (Scott Hannan) he has already dealt this year. That leaves Tampa as the real, true, major buyer at the deadline. It's been a fantastic season for Steve Yzerman and company and they seem destined to win the Southeast. A great season with tons of attention on superstar Steven Stamkos and stable ownership means that their pockets will be looser. But they have to be careful. Nothing erases memories of a good season faster than a quick exit in the first round (ask the Thrashers, who finally made the playoffs as the Southeast champs in 2007, made a huge deal of acquiring Keith Tkachuk, but bowed out in 4 games after being outscored 17-6 and become the butt of everyone's jokes again) so the Lightning would be wise to avoid this pitfall. Coming soon: a look at the players most likely to be moved.
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