Raymond Kirk: Three things to be encouraged by, discouraged by & improved on.
Today’s blog is all about ‘three’. Three things to be encouraged by, discouraged by, and what needs to be improved, through three home and three road games this season.
The Encouraging Signs
- As great a story as Zack Kassian has been, with 4 goals in 6 games, my number one most encouraging thing I have witnessed thus far is the “rebirth” of much-maligned speedy winger Mason Raymond. Night in and night out, Raymond has looked to be the most consistently dangerous Canucks forward. Using his speed is something Raymond has always done, but so far, he has combined that speed with much better strength and puck awareness, staying on his feet, using his vision to create opportunities for his linemates, and paying the price to go to the tough areas to generate offense. There is a long ways to go, but Raymond is skating with a purpose and being rewarded for the obvious hard work he has put in since his brutal injury at the hands of Johnny Boychuk in the Stanley Cup final a year and a half ago.
- Zack Kassian. Hands up everyone who figured that ‘The Kassassin’ would have a team leading four goals through the teams first six games? Going into the year, I hoped that Kassian would at best develop this year into a dependable, big third line winger, who would throw his weight around and help bring size that is sorely lacking to the Canucks forward ranks. Now settled into the second week of the season, Kassian finds himself holding a lucky lottery ticket in his hand as the third Sedin, grabbing first line minutes and power play time. Winning fights, scoring goals that are not tap-ins, and not hurting his team in his own end of the rink, Kassian is developing into a power forward in front of our eyes, and once Kesler and Booth finally return from their injuries, will only help to bolster what is, when healthy, arguably still one of the most potent offenses in the Western Conference.
- The 5-6 Defensive Pairing. OK, hands up once again who said they believed that the pairing of Chris Tanev and Keith Ballard would be the Canucks most dependable defensive group a week and a half into the season? Granted, this is probably just as indicative as to how shaky the top two defensive pairings have been (which will be touched on shortly) however, it has been a pleasant surprise to see just how well Tanev and Ballard have gelled this year. Tanev is, in its simplest terms, steady. I don’t know if he will ever score a goal in his life, and right now, I really don’t care. He is almost ALWAYS in the right position, stick on the ice, uses incredible hockey IQ and I as a fan, trust him every time I see him on the ice. And Ballard, to be honest, looks and feels like he is just starting to enjoy hockey again. It has been a tumultuous two plus years in Vancouver, with injuries that were never on his resume before, to banishments to AV’s doghouse. He has looked like a player without a home in Vancouver, but with Tanev, it seems like he is finally just beginning to relax, and focus on playing hockey. And perhaps it’s just me, but he appears to have found a gear in his stride that just hasn’t been there since he arrived in Vancouver with great anticipation. I still don’t see a fit for him on this blue line come next season, but if he can even remotely make himself look trade-able come the offseason, what a feather in the cap it would be in the organization if he could be moved for an asset…any asset, instead of being a buyout casualty that 99 percent of Canuck Nation would have put odds on to start the New Year.
The Discouraging Signs
- The dreaded 2-0 lead. Blowing a 2-0 lead three times a season seems too many for a team that wants to be considered elite. To have it happen in 6 games is just flatly unacceptable. At home against Edmonton and Calgary, and then once again on the road in LA, the Canucks, through luck or good fortune, found a way to stake their claim to a 2-0 lead, only to find their game crumble around them, and go into that dreaded ‘protect mode’, forgetting to do the little things that found them in a lead early in the first place. Great teams don’t play scared. The Canucks, early, have played scared to win. Not getting pucks deep, not finishing checks, poor defensive decisions have lead to three games that, with one more goal, would have likely sealed the deal. Instead, they came away with only 4 of a possible six points in those games, but more discouraging, is the 5 points they have allowed Western Conference foes to gain in the process.
- Jason Garrison. I considered giving him a pass here, but his play has, quite frankly, been terrible, especially the final two games in the road trip. The much heralded big shot has hit the net with less frequency than the popular (and missed by many) Sami Salo, and defensive zone play has been equally as spotty. Granted, it’s early, but I’m sensing that many are seeing the same similarities here in Garrison’s beginnings with Vancouver as we saw with the aforementioned Keith Ballard when he made his much anticipated and much scrutinized Canucks debut. Garrison, who battled injury through the lockout, is playing with pressure he has put squarely on himself. Playing at home, family and friends, a contract to justify and a rabid fan base holding their breath with every attempted shot, along with learning a new team, system, defense partner and Conference has Garrison playing a tight game. I’m confident it will come, but this early into the season, I am classifying his play as a big disappointment.
- Lackluster, indifferent play. From the Sedin twins, Chris Higgins, Max Lapierre, Manny Malhotra, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, and so on, and so on. It was believed that the core veteran players that have been Canucks for years would take the bull by the horns and play responsible, smart, competitive hockey come puck drop on the season. I’m adamant that this year needs to be considered an anomaly, as you cannot just create mid season tempo if you haven’t played all year without a proper camp. But the Canucks have been outshot, and outworked most nights, against teams that were in the same boat they were in, going into a year with a one week training camp. No excuses. It appears that players such as Burrows and Higgins are starting to round into form, but the level of desperation needs to be much higher, especially when playing in tight games, where that one more goal, big hit, or huge penalty kill can make all the difference in the world.
What Needs To Be Improved
- Special Teams. One word; Atrocious. The power play looks lost, and is a momentum killer, while the penalty kill is showing just how much it misses Ryan Kesler. Even the ones they kill look dangerous, and feed into the emotion of the opposition who must feel, as we do watching at home, that it’s just a matter of time before they break through with a big goal, which has happened too many times thus far. The power play, save the Anaheim road game, has had chances to salt away games with a big tally, and has come up empty handed. There are too many veteran players and quality players for these trends to continue, regardless of how early it is in the year.
- The goaltending dilemma. In my opinion, the Canucks either need to declare that they are not moving Roberto Luongo during the season, or make the deal, and quickly. Schneider and Luongo have both handled the elephant in the room with professionalism and class, and I do believe that it is not as big a deal in the room as the media wants to make it be. But Luongo has been a star, for many seasons, and does not deserve to play once a week. Schneider has paid his dues, for many seasons, and deserves to have the ball to run with, with no need to look over his shoulder. And the team and coaching staff deserve to not have to have the same questions asked over and over. If it’s announced that there will be no deal during the season, I am completely fine with that. Any team would love to have a #1 they can throw out on any night, and feel you have a chance to win. But it’s a distraction that the team just does not need to have for much longer, and it’s time to turn the page.
- The health of the heart and soul. Ryan Kesler has never been more missed than he is right now. Hank may wear the ‘C’, but Kesler is the glue. I know that after missing nearly a year of hockey, it is not likely that RK17 will jump right in and be a dominant force. But I wouldn’t bet against him if he did. A royal pain to play against, Kesler eats minutes against the best of the best, is a warrior on the penalty kill, a constant net presence. He has a great shot, forces top D pairings to respect his game, which opens up more chances for the Sedins when they are in the ice. Quite simply, a healthy Kesler is the best Canuck, most nights. I wonder if he has really been healthy since the Cup Run playoffs against the Predators and first few games against the Sharks. At that point, he was beginning to look like one of the best all-around players in the world. A healthy Kesler, in game shape or not, makes the Canucks a very dangerous team.
The Canucks, as bad as it has seemed, have managed to take points in 4 of 6 games, in 9 nights. They have had to play well below par to do so. Players will continue to round into form. Kesler and Booth WILL be back. The goaltending will be rock-solid more often than not. It’s early, but in this story of threes, I will leave you with this question. If the Canucks can score three goals a night, how many games out of ten do you think they win? Three is the key. And this team is definitely good enough to get three more than they have to this point.
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