Raymond Kirk: Canucks are in unfamiliar territory heading down the stretch.

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With nineteen games remaining in the compressed NHL Regular Season, the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in unfamiliar territory heading to the homestretch. The NW Division Title, a foregone conclusion the last few seasons currently belongs to the red hot Minnesota Wild, and the Canucks currently find themselves battered, bruised and in a sixth seed position, only four points secured of a playoff spot.

As the Canucks head into a three games in four nights road trip to Phoenix, LA and Colorado, wins are critical to keep any hope of winning the NW Title once again and to do so, the Canucks will have to do so with a makeshift lineup, as forwards Ryan Kesler, David Booth, Chris Higgins, Steve Pinizzoto, Zack Kassian and possibly Tom Sestito will all miss the first game tonight against the Coyotes.

Feel sorry for the Canucks? One can, but ask any Ottawa Senators fan if it’s possible to watch key player after key player go down with injury, and still maintain a level of success. Easy? Not a chance, but the Senators are doing what many said was impossible, keeping their playoff spot and looking mighty impressive in the process, showing that great coaching, veteran leadership and spot on team system play can lead to overall team success.

The Canucks, in my opinion, have had it far too easy, for far too long, often coasting down the homestretch of the season, a playoff spot and home ice a foregone conclusion. The biggest key, many March and early April evenings was wondering if the Canucks could find a level of desperation required to match a much more desperate hockey club, needing wins and points to keep their own playoff hopes alive. It burned Vancouver last season, running into a desperate LA Kings club who had been forced into playoff mode 6-8 weeks before Vancouver. We all know how that story played out.

Like any Canuck fan, it’s great to see the team play President’s Trophy caliber hockey, winning game after game and planning playoff parties in March. This year will require more effort, determination and a commitment to playing a sound team game for this club to not only have playoff success, but to guarantee a playoff spot come late April. In my opinion, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world that could happen. I would much rather see this team have to fight and claw now, while wounded, knowing a healthy Kesler et al will be coming to help with the cause as the season winds down.

GM Mike Gillis has been reportedly working hard to acquire a player or two that can help this team down the homestretch, with the trade deadline less than two weeks away. If the Canucks can find a way to battle through this adversity set in front of them now, they may be in a better position for success when it matters most, six weeks from now, than they were coasting to a first round desperate opponent they faced one year ago.

Your thoughts? Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

Raymond Kirk: Canucks are finding themselves consistently inconsistent.

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Eighteen games into the 2013 season, the Vancouver Canucks have shown me two things so far that are of great relief and yet deep concern as a fan of this hockey club. When on their game, they are every bit as lethal and deserving of being regarded as one of the league’s best teams, and when they are off their game, save for the mostly sensational goaltending they have received night in and night out this year, they are average, at best.

Back-to-back President’s Trophy winning seasons were well earned by the Canucks; however, from almost the midpoint of last season, this club showed us the maddeningly frustrating side of them, relying on pure skill that would only show itself for brief stretched and sublime goaltending to win more hockey games than they would lose. Good enough to coast away with a sizable lead in the mediocre at best Northwest Division, but obviously not good enough to compete and win against the best clubs when it mattered most, being unceremoniously dumped by the LA Kings in round one of the 2012 playoffs. The Kings, who played inspired sixty minute hockey for the last quarter of the season, rode that complete sixty minute game all the way to a Stanley Cup Championship, and the Vancouver faithful were left to once again wonder “what if?”

There is no question that this Canucks team is deep, with a well of riches up front, on the blueline and between the pipes that would leave many a team envious. Yet the Canucks are beginning, in my eyes, to trouble me with trying to establish just what the identity of this hockey club is? It is not an old club, by any stretch, yet the core has been around for seemingly forever, and it is too much of veteran team to not be able to play sixty solid minutes on a consistent basis. The only good stretch of the season came in a spell a couple of weeks ago when they were able to put together a winning streak, mostly against Northwest Division clubs who have a hard enough time getting out of their own way. Even through that streak you would be hard pressed to find many full sixty minute efforts in which the team’s skill and will were at an even level.

Much has been made of this team needing to ‘turn on the switch’ and compete when it matters most. I’ve been of the opinion that over the last couple of seasons, without another real contender to push the Canucks for the Northwest title, the team has settled into playing ‘comfortable’ hockey, not really needing to find a level of desperation in their game to fight for a division title, let alone a playoff spot.

Too many games see this team fall asleep for long stretches of a game, appearing lost out of the gate, or storming out quickly, grabbing a lead, and then laying off the gas pedal and depending on either Luongo or Schneider to bail them out game after game. When they are on their game, they are fast enough, skilled enough and deep enough to hang with anyone in the league, yet this is beginning to happen with less frequency.

At 10-4-4 it’s not time to push the panic button on this season, yet the schedule has been relatively easy. By comparison, the roster has been fairly healthy, and enough games have been played for everybody to be out of training camp mode. Yet the record, in my eyes, should be much better and the wins gained should be much more impressive. They’ve had just one win in regulation this year against a Western Conference foe that made the playoffs last season. That’s it, that’s all. And that’s of concern to me. With home games coming up against two Western teams who made the post season last year in the Phoenix Coyotes and the defending Champion LA Kings, it is time for the Canucks to not only show us, but themselves, just why no one should forget why they are considered an elite team in the first place. Elite teams should not need to be pushed to find their A game, so it’s time to put up or shut up to show why they should still be in that conversation.

Your thoughts? Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

Raymond Kirk: Kesler the key to long term success, despite two losses since his return.

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Ryan Kesler: Photo: CBC.ca

The record may only be 0-1-1 in the two games since Ryan Kesler made his much anticipated 2013 Vancouver Canucks debut, coming off of shoulder and wrist injuries, yet the effect he has already had and will continue to make is significant to the Canucks and their aspirations of chasing Lord Stanley this spring.

There may be a lot of talk about the Sedin twins, the depth of goaltending, the offense from defence, overall team depth, but in my opinion, a healthy Ryan Kesler is the piece that makes the whole puzzle work. You need to look no further than the 2011 playoffs, when Kesler all but took the team on his back for long stretches in Round 2 against the Nashville Predators, and Round 3 against the San Jose Sharks before he was injured yet again, and was not the same force because of it in the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. Kesler, when healthy, is arguably one of the very best two-way players in the NHL, and could very well have added a Conn Smythe trophy to his Selke award. He is the heart and soul of the hockey team when healthy and on his game, and after only two games, his presence has been significant, in helping make a listless powerplay not only effective, but looking dangerous at the same time. His faceoff game has been sorely missed, especially now with the loss of Manny Malhotra for the rest of the season. Kesler will continue to take big minutes as he works himself into game shape against the best forwards in the world, and in doing so, will cause opposing Head Coaches to game plan against him, which will open up even more opportunities for the Sedin twins against different defensive pairings. There is not one Canuck that can bring all the tools to the table that Kesler possesses when he is on top of his game, and that just makes a tough team even tougher to play against. A fresh and healthy Kesler will be critical for the Canucks to make a deep run in the postseason this year, and seeing a fresh, healthy and motivated RK17 in mid February is great news for this organization.

It will take time for the team to adjust to having Kesler in the lineup, and determine just who will be most effective to play with him. The Sedins and Burrows to me are a lock to stay together, as the old adage goes, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.” Myself, now knowing that it sounds like David Booth is ready to make his own season debut on Tuesday against the red hot Blackhawks, I would like to see the reunion of “The AMEX Line” with Booth, Kesler and Higgins skating together. It’s impossible to say just what kind of impact Booth can have without playing a game yet this season, but this line has familiarity on its side, and has displayed good chemistry in the past and I feel can be just as effective once again.

This would allow Jordan Schroeder and Mason Raymond to continue to play together, and I would like to see Zack Kassian get a shot on the wing with these two. Kassian has hit a bit of a wall in the last week or so, and needs to rediscover the aspects of his game that had him the toast of the city in late January. he is a big body, better hands than I expected and, although not as fast as Schroeder or Raymond, can move well for a big man, and if he plays to his strengths, I think he could open up a lot of ice for the speedy duo who have been nothing short of a pleasant surprise this young season. Raymond has to be hands down Canucks comeback player of the year at this point, and this trio could potentially be one of the most dangerous third lines in the NHL.

The unfortunate victim of lineup depth in this equation is Jannik Hansen, as I would see him on a fourth line with Max Lapierre, and take your pick of Dale Weise and Aaron Volpatti. Hansen is such a coup for this organization I feel, as he is speedy enough to play with top six forwards, is a tenacious forechecker and can chip in offensively. It does not seem fair to see him “wallowing” on a fourth line, but this is the price you play to play for an organization that has aspirations of winning it all, and not just making it to the playoffs. You need a forward like Jannik Hansen, that almost everyone in the league would love on their second or third line, to provide that depth and hustle to the lineup. To allow your Head Coach to effectively roll four lines, and not just when you are up or down by two or three goals in the third period. And if things are not going well, like stretches last evening, the Head Coach has the luxury to mix and juggle lines, and have effective players take key minutes, on any given night, to give your team the best chance to win.

For a team with a 8-3-3 record, it has been a frustrating season at times for Canucks fans, with, inconsistencies in the overall game, not possessing a killer instinct with a lead, and a defence that seems to make the game much more difficult than it needs to be. The fact that the record is what it is, is a testament to the remarkable goaltending the team has received, from both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, and also to the depth that this franchise has, that many other teams simply do not. A healthy Ryan Kesler can make this a much more dangerous hockey team as it heads into the second quarter of this shortened season.

Your thoughts? Thanks for reading.


Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

Raymond Kirk: Luongo and Schneider Refuse to Make This “Controversial”.

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It is well chronicled what the Hawks have done to Vancouver in the postseason, and vice versa, and how that team, more than any, helped to polarize the goaltending position in the ‘goalie graveyard’ that is Vancouver. Against Chicago, Roberto Luongo became a mere mortal to many. A goaltender who could not win the big game and who let teams get in his head. It allowed fans to begin to wonder about 1st Round pick Cory Schneider, and whether or not he could be the cure that finally ails the goaltending dilemma in Vancouver.

It was against Chicago where Alain Vigneault gave Schneider his first opportunity at postseason success. I wondered aloud, if Luongo lost game seven that season, if then that may have been his last hurrah in Blue and Green, and just who knows what the final result then may have been if Alex Burrows didn’t put the Chelsea Dagger in the Hawks season that magical Game 7 OT.

Fool me once, shame on you….fool me twice? Surely, after Luongo was supplanted as the starting goaltender once again in the postseason, in favour of Schneider it had to be the end of Luongo’s time in Vancouver. Schneider had finally won the job, Luongo would be traded, at his request, and fans would get ready to fall in love with Eddie ‘The Stork’ Lack as Schneider began his first full season as undisputed #1.

Then, something incredible happened. Fans, to me, became incredulous in this age of high priced, whiny millionaire superstars, at how calm, cool and collected Roberto Luongo handled the trade speculation through the summer of 2012. No demanding a trade. There’s been no sulking and no digs at the organization he came within a win away of winning a Stanley Cup with. Free agency passed, and many people became aware of @strombone1 an anonymous twitter handle that many began to speculate was fact, none other than good ‘ole Bobby Lou. And if in fact it is (and being honest, I know I’m not alone when I say I am certain it is so) then Roberto Luongo allowed his personality, quick wit, and sense of humor shine. Hilarious reading, and if you are not following on twitter, you are missing out.

Perhaps, I began to hear Canuck nation say, we misjudged the person? Misjudged his character! And I began to hear, amongst the Canuck faithful I know around here, that they may actually miss the guy once he left town and that there could be seller’s remorse at play here. That perhaps offensive ineptitude and a myriad of injuries to key players had just as much to do with not winning a championship. Fans began to hear from fans in Leaf Nation, among others, that they would embrace having one of the best goalies in the world play for their team. Many began to really wonder if it’s true; that you don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone.

I’ll be completely honest here. Roberto Luongo always has been and always will be loved by me, as one of the greatest players to ever don the jersey of the Vancouver Canucks. Does this make me not like or appreciate all that Cory Schneider has done in his 8 plus seasons with the franchise? Absolutely not. Unfairly, he has toiled in the minors and in a ball cap on NHL benches for FAR too long. All he has shown in his body of work, over the last 3-4 years, and 60 starts, is that he is ready to be a #1 NHL goaltender, and a better than good one. I had written off Luongo being in Vancouver this past summer, and was ready to embrace the Schneider era. Yet, here we are. And just what now, are you supposed to do?

I don’t have a good answer here. But I know it’s not fair to Roberto Luongo or to Cory Schneider. As a fan I feel blessed, as EVERY single game, night in and night out, I honestly don’t care who is getting the tap on the shoulder, as I expect to see one of the best goaltenders in the world give the Vancouver Canucks an opportunity to win a hockey game.

Mike Gillis has a problem. And the only reason it’s a problem, and not a full scale crisis, is because he has two goaltenders who have handled this situation better than anybody could possibly hope to expect, in this player – owner ‘give me more’ era. If Luongo is seething that he has not been moved, I sure don’t know it and the same can be said of Schneider who finds himself sitting on the bench yet again. The two athletes have handled themselves, and the situation, with utmost class, for years now. But something HAS to give.

Is Schneider’s contract moveable? You better believe it is, and there would be just as many suitors, if not more, for the simple reasons that he makes less money, for substantially less years, and is younger. Do I blame Mike Gillis for this mess? Of course, you have to point the finger here, as he has not pulled the trigger on a deal. But when you are trying to sell a Rolls Royce, no matter how many miles on it, you do not settle for people’s offers to purchase for the going rate of a Cavalier. It will be the most important, defining transaction in Gillis’ tenure, and good on him for not catering to public and media pressure, and just simply taking the best offer if that offer isn’t fair in value at all.

I’ve given up on guessing. I’m just glad that we have two consummate pros in Luongo and Schneider, who have handled a situation as awkward and unpredictable as I have ever seen, in my time watching hockey. Until something happens, I am going to continue doing what I’ve done the last few years. Be thrilled with the quality ‘tender I see in net and be ready to yell LOUUUU or DEEESCHNEID every time they make a ridiculous save.

Your thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter: @RayRay2233


 

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Your thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter: RayRay2233