Coming into the season, the Vancouver defense core was envied around the league. Things were so strong on the back end, Mike Gillis felt justified in letting stalwart, career-Canuck Mattias Ohlund go via free agency. Now, nearly 70 regular season games later, with Kevin Bieksa returning after a lengthy recovery from a skate cut, this D is closer to the one that so scared Western Conference teams in the pre- season, but will it be enough to make a deep run into the playoffs?
Perhaps the one problem this squad faces is the lack of a shut down defenseman. It’s a hole left gaping wide by the continued absence of Willie Mitchell, who would normally eat up 20-plus minutes of ice time against the opposition’s top players if he wasn’t still experiencing symptoms from the concussion suffered back in January. Mitchell doesn’t guarantee wins, but he’s a settling influence and a rare animal: a big, tough blueliner who plays a smart game. Without him, the top six sag just a little. Why do you think Luongo is sitting on four shutouts at this point in the season, instead of nine? Why his goals against average in the past 10 games is nearly double where it should be? NHL coaches exploit those lapses faster than a Sami Salo slapshot. In an extended series against teams like Chicago, San Jose or Detroit, Vancouver will find themselves in tough without a big, tough presence in front of Luongo to scare the bejesus out of the other guys’ forwards.
Bieksa shores up the blue line for sure – he’s not been spectacular, but he’s looked solid in his first few games back. In that dominant first period against the Flames, Juice even jumped up into a rush in just his second game back. You know, to bolster up the NHL’s second-highest scoring offense. But as tough as this guy is, he’s not big enough to wrestle with Dustin Byfuglien, Joe Thornton or even Todd Bertuzzi.
A man who is big enough is Andrew Alberts, the one guy Gillis did manage to pick up at the deadline. Alain Vigneault has been sitting Shane O’Brien in order to get a good look at the new guy. Sadly, he hasn’t looked like top six; he’s barely looked NHL. He was out of position on Phoenix’s first two goals on “The Road Trip”, and got out-muscled and out-hustled by John Tavares to put Vancouver down 2-0 and 4-2 against the 27th-place New York Islanders. The latter of those Tavares plays came with 7.2 ticks left on the clock in the second period, after the Canucks had clawed their way back to within one.
Instead of making an 11th third period comeback, Vancouver watched the 20-year-old pile up five points, more points than any other rookie in that storied franchise has ever scored. Pat Lafontaine,
Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, even Mike Bossy – they didn’t get on the scoresheet five times in a single game in their first year. The Nuck defense, led by the twice-guilty Alberts, let Tavares have his way. Inexcusable.
Don’t even get me started on #41’s pylon impression against the Senators. Jason Spezza, with a head of steam at centre ice, saw Salo to his left and Alberts to his right. No hesitation. He went straight for Alberts, and just plain embarrassed the big man.
The defense isn’t a disaster — Aaron Rome has been a pleasant surprise. With injuries to Mitchell, Bieksa and Salo, Rome has seen a lot more ice than AV had ever intended. He’s played good strong defence, and even sprung a few breakaways, including Kyle Wellwood’s memorable game-winning goal against the Red Wings in Detroit.
Salo and Christian Ehrhoff have been great on the offensive points. It’s a good thing, too, or we’d also be talking about the coaching staff’s inability to make it work with veteran quarterback Matthieu Schneider. Alex Edler hasn’t duplicated his 10-goal performance from last season, but he’s been good.
Shane O’Brien is no Mitchell. He’s slower than a top four blueliner should be, he can’t find shooting lanes nearly often enough, and every once in a while he gets run around and ends up wearing the goat horns. But he’s a damn sight more reliable than Alberts. O’Brien needs to be in the lineup for the stretch run, or we risk more losses to teams like NYI. San Jose? Detroit? Phoenix? Don’t even think about it.
This Canucks team isn’t looking to win games 2-1 like it was two or three years ago. But the Black Hawks showed us last year that 7-5 isn’t going to go our way most nights. It’s a simple recipe, really. Tighter D, or much earlier tee times than most Vancouver fans would like to see.