Monday, April 21st, 2014

Raymond Kirk: Slow start doesn’t mean it’s time to panic…yet.

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On Saturday, January 19, 2013 there were millions of NHL hockey fans that woke up from a sleep that felt like Christmas Eve…the NHL season was officially open for business, and the excitement and anticipation was as high in Vancouver as any other city, as fans began to see how this year’s version of the Canucks would begin their campaign. Knowing that they would begin the year with two thirds of the second line in the infirmary, and one too many goaltenders to man the crease, I felt that there seemed to be way too much fear and angst over just how “good” this team would be out of the gate, which was puzzling to me, seen as it is a club that is coming off back-to back President’s trophy seasons, unchartered waters for this franchise. Saturday, to me, would tell the tale, and I figured that with two weekend home games against two teams, the Ducks and Oilers, who both missed the playoffs last season would be a good way for this team to begin to find their skating legs, and hoped for minimum three points, and at worst, a split heading into their first full week of the season.

Monday, January 21, 2013 arrived and the Canucks were winless, being humbled in their home opener by the Ducks 7-3 and blowing a two goal lead and falling to the young Oilers 3-2 in a shootout. Cory Schneider had been lit up in less than half a game, Roberto Luongo received cheers and “Louuuuus’ in Vancouver he never thought he would hear again last summer, and fans and media (especially media) alike were screaming “the sky is falling” in Vancouver. The GM “dropped” the ball on the Luongo trade, the defence looks lost, there isn’t enough offence, which goalie is the starter…and so on, and so on.

I am not going to sit here and spin optimism, looking back at the debacle of a weekend it was in Vancouver, but I am also not going to cave in to the notion that the sky is falling and that this team, minus a couple of bodies and with too many goalies, is incapable of winning hockey games, and at a more than consistent level.

I knew to expect the unexpected when this shortened 48 game season began. A five day training camp and no preseason games is a recipe for unpredictability if I have ever seen one. I have seen enough solid preseason’s as is, where the team could do no wrong and looked like they could go 82-0 out of the gate, only to play, well, October hockey in Vancouver, and leave the fans wondering just who these imposters were on the 23 man roster. I have seen teams stumble and bumble through September only to come out of the gate red hot and leave people wondering just how far they could go. (Hello, 2010-2011 Colorado Avalanche) So with no games to play until they mattered, it should have been looked at as a crapshoot at best that a world-beater would look like one against an also-ran at this stage of the season. One has to only look at the box scores to see how some teams look like the world is their oyster one minute, and then look like they would have trouble making the AHL playoffs the next day. All one has to do is look at the debacle that Oilers fans will be discussing come Wednesday, as their mighty young guns played poised in skating out of Vancouver with a 3-2 win, only to go home and give up six goals in half a game in their home opener against San Jose as I write this now.

The good – If I saw one thing that was a really encouraging sign this weekend, it is that newcomer Jason Garrison already appears to have found some chemistry with the new 30 million dollar man, Alex Edler. If this grouping can play consistently in their own end, play with the size and strength that they both bring to the table, and can continue to put up offensive numbers as they were able to do this past weekend, the Canucks top 4 looks to be in great shape, for years to come. I loved the Edler extension. He has the ability to play Jekyll and Hyde as well as any Canuck on the team, which is maddening at times, but big Defensemen with the capability to be a difference maker night in and night out do not grow on trees, and when you have them, especially when they are homegrown, you keep them. This top 4 on the blueline (Bieksa, Hamhuis, Edler and Garrison) are all locked up, along with starting goaltender Cory Schneider, for years to come. You win , and win consistently, with stability on the back end, and although there isn’t maybe an “elite” Norris Trophy winner on that back end, I feel that Edler has the best opportunity to do so, as he is still young, and has an upside that many GM’s would love to have in their organization. It won’t be perfect every night, but the goaltender and top 4 blueliners who will log more than two thirds of a game are as good as just about any teams in the game, and that is a big plus for this franchise moving forward. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that we were able to see glimpses of the player that Zack Kassian could be for this organization. There were a few defensive miscues in his game; however, the positives far outweighed the negatives here. He was arguably the best player on the ice in a Vancouver – Edmonton game the other night, and that is saying something. Winning puck battles, using his size and speed, dropping the mitts and more than holding his own with Ben Eager in a fight (although I will stand by my belief that it was not the time or place for that fight to occur at that time) and finding the back of the net are all good signs that Kassian can produce at this level.

The bad – Defensive zone awareness and lack of a back check in the neutral zone were killers this past weekend. I did not expect the team to play air tight hockey coming out of the gate, but apparent lack of knowing where the pressure was coming from, and how to handle a counter attack were very discouraging signs through the Ducks game, and parts of the Oilers game. Every team has an “elite’ player or two, who will find ways to make you look bad on occasion and that’s their job. But it was appalling to see the breakdowns that occurred in these two games. Good system play will cut down on quality scoring chances, and when you give up grade A chances on a regular basis, you are playing with fire. Calgary Flames broadcaster Rob Kerr said it best about a week prior to the beginning of the season. He predicted that the first week or so of this NHL season would produce a ton of offence, and quality scoring chances, comparing what we would see to a quality World Junior or WHL game; Lots of skill, lots of talent, and not enough execution in the game plan due to lack of practice and training, which would lead to quick offence and lots of mistakes. This was very evident these past two games, and in almost any game you watch in the NHL so far.

The ugly - The goaltending on Saturday, which has led to nothing but social media fodder these last four days, was about as bad as it could get. The teams, and Cory Schneider’s worst nightmare came true on Saturday night, with Schneider being pulled after allowing 5 goals on 14 shots, wearing a goals against average in the double digits and a save percentage in the .600′s. The team played poorly in front of him, and you could feel when it was 3-2 that they needed that one big save, and it never came. Then, when 5-2 came, AV had no choice but to call upon Luongo to make his season debut, in a way that no one wanted to see. there has to be a ton of credit given to both Schneider and Luongo. No one knows what is being said behind closed doors, but these two could not be handling this difficult situation any better. Schneider owned his effort, and pledged to work hard and be better his next time out, and I have all the faith in the world that he will do so. His body of work after the past two seasons gives me no reason to believe why he won’t. And Luongo, who could be pouting, angry, complacent, has been anything but, and played “OK” in relief work on Saturday, and played more than well enough to win against a skilled Oilers club on Sunday. For the record, I felt that AV was correct in playing Luongo in the second game, as he has started both his goaltenders almost every time this team has played games on back-to-back nights. Of course Schneider wanted the net on Sunday. But extra practice time, watching a game from the bench, and having a couple days in between starts before a “redemption” game for him on Wednesday against Calgary should be all he needs to get back in between the pipes, and delivering the type of effort that has become the norm around here.

Looking ahead, the Canucks play on Wednesday evening against the 0-2 Calgary Flames, who are also down two thirds of their second line, in Roman Cervenka and Jiri Hudler. A day off on Monday and a practice on Tuesday, with brand new lines for everyone to digest should have the Canucks hungry and motivated to grab a much needed win and prepare to head out on their first road trip of the season with a 1-1-1 record. Beware of the Flames, however, who are equally desperate for a win and have more than enough firepower (Iginla, Cammalleri, Tanguay etc) to fill the net, if the Canucks allow them to dictate the play and pace. The Flames have felt for the last few years that the Canucks are their biggest rival, and I hope they bring a snarl to their game. A disgruntled and already desperate for points Division rival should involve the Canucks quickly in this game. Player by player, the Flames do not match up with the Canucks, but they have an all-world goaltender in Mikka Kiprusoff (who also is looking pedestrian two games into the season) and if they outwork Vancouver, the Canucks will find themselves in trouble. I am curious to see how Kassian plays, coming off perhaps his best game in Vancouver, and now living the dream, playing on a line with the Sedin twins. Alex Burrows will center a line of Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen. Jordon Schroeder will finally make his Vancouver Canucks debut (two games too late in my opinion, as I indicated last week) and center a third line that includes Mason Raymond and AV’s new player du jour Dale Weise, and the fourth line will feature Manny Malhotra centering the so-far disinterested Maxim Lapierre and Aaron Volpatti. (who was a pleasant surprise, in my opinion, over the weekend) it is not uncommon to see AV juggle lines, but a complete shuffle of all four lines this early tells me that AV expected much, much more from this veteran group out of the gate, and line juggling often is as much about making players aware of where they are on the ice, as it is in trying to increase offence.

The Canucks will finish off the week on Friday, with their first road game of the season against the Anaheim Ducks. Yes, those Ducks of Saturday past, who could do no wrong while the Canucks, did no right. They are the perfect team to play first on the road as I see it, as they are already owed one by the boys in Blue and Green.

Overall, I will give this team a mulligan, coming out of the gate to an 0-1-1 record. With two days in between games now, however, the time for the real Vancouver Canucks to show up comes Wednesday, against a team they should beat at home. If the Canucks come out flat at home on Wednesday, and look flat against a team that they have already been humbled by on Friday, well then, I will look up to see just how close the sky really is to falling. Your thoughts?

Thanks for reading.

Raymond Kirk

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

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