Gotta love them Canes!

by Jason Kurylo

Canucks celebrate a goal versus Carolina. Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com
Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

By now, the Vancouver Canucks are probably circling home games against the Carolina Hurricanes as soon as the NHL publishes the season schedule. For the second time in as many visits, the Hurricanes provided just what the Canuck doctors ordered to get off the schneid.

On February 3, 2009, Vancouver had lost eight straight games, and some guy named Mats Sundin was being blamed for pretty much every sorry period of the skid. The Canes had lost three straight games in Vancouver, but given the Canucks’ recent penchant for dropping games they should win, pundits were not confident going in.

Well, the top points-getter in Maple Leafs history responded with a goal and an assist, and Alexandre Burrows scored a short-handed goal with 82 seconds left on the clock to give the Canucks a 4-3 victory. Roberto Luongo recorded his first win in six games after returning from a groin injury.  Ryan Kesler scored his third goal in two games after suffering an embarrassing 11-game slump. The Canucks would subsequently go on a wicked tear, and enter the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams.

So fans of this year’s Cup favourites shouldn’t be surprised by this snake bitten Canucks team beating the tar out of the Southeast Division cellar dwellers, 5-1.

Cory Schneider got his first start of the season tonight, which came as a surprise, as Luongo almost never sits on the bench for a home game when he’s not injured. It turned out not to matter – Schneider was never truly pressured by the woeful “offense” of Carolina. Sure, he stopped 32 of 33 shots – the only one to get by him came as Patrick O’Sullivan slapped one home on a two-on-one break. Schneider was solid, however, keeping rebounds to a minimum and letting his D-men do the heavy lifting most of the night.

Mason Raymond scored his first two goals of the year, one skating on the top line when Daniel Sedin found him streaking through the slot in typical Sedinian fashion. The other came on the man advantage: Mikael Samuelsson’s shot was bobbled by Cam Ward, and Jeff Tambellini put a no-look pass through a series of skates to give Raymond a wrister for his first of the year.

That same Samuelsson also scored his first goal of the year after Kevin Bieksa made a great read to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone. Sammy added two assists for good measure. Perhaps the Swedish Olympic team sent him another Dear Johan letter after the California road trip? Whatever, the man came through tonight with a solid effort despite being demoted to the third line.

Ryan Kesler again had several great chances early, and again he booted the puck. With an open net in the first period, he rang the puck squarely off the post. On a two-on-one in the second, he failed to even get a shot. Late in the third, however, Kesler took a soft power play pass from Christian Ehrhoff about fifteen metres out and rifled a one-timer into the top corner past Cam Ward.

Henrik Sedin had two assists tonight, tying him with Brad Richards and John-Michael Liles for the league lead with seven.

As mentioned, none of this comes as a shock against the AHL-quality roster of the Carolina Hurricanes. What was a surprise? How about the guy who opened the scoring. Andrew Alberts put home his own rebound from three metres out, finishing after some hard work by Manny Malhotra. Yes, true believers, Andrew freakin’ Alberts, for a few minutes in game five, had more goals on the season than Mason Raymond, Mikael Samuelsson and Ryan Kelser combined.

A truer test of this Canucks team comes soon – they play three games in four nights, including one against the dirty rotten stinkin’ Chicago Blackhawks, starting Tuesday. Look for Schneider to get at least one of those starts. And remember to break out the Sharpie when next year’s schedule comes out. You know, to circle the home date against the Canes.

Follow Jason Kurylo on Twitter. :: Subscribe to his hockey podcast, Pucked in the Head, on iTunes. :: Find out why the Carolina Hurricanes are just so awful.

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Here we go! Areas to watch as camp gets underway.

This morning at the University of British Columbia, the Vancouver Canucks will open training camp on the 2009-2010 season. The off-season has been a productive one for general manager Mike Gillis and now the body of that work will take the ice to try and earn jobs on a team that is being regarded a real contender in the Western Conference this season.

Here’s a look at the key issues as camp opens this weekend.

Will he or won’t he and do you care?

Mats SundinLet’s get this out of the way right off the top since Mats Sundin doesn’t seem to want to make a decision. As far as I am concerned if Sundin doesn’t show up for his physical today, and he won’t, it’s time to turn the page on him and I hope the Canucks feel the same. Congratulations to Mats and his new bride on their recent marriage, and I’m sure Mats is having a lovely time in wedded bliss, but I don’t want the ‘will he or won’t he’ circus that preceded his arrival last year. I also don’t want a Mats Sundin who will use regular season games to get into shape.

Bruce Dowbiggin of the Calgary Herald who was a guested on the TEAM 1040 yesterday, told Dave Pratt and Don Taylor he had been told that Mats wasn’t all that thrilled with his time in Vancouver, particularly with his ice time. Well Mats, if you had shown up in shape, we would have loved for you to get more ice time and be more effective for us, believe me.

Sundin doesn’t have the legs to compete like he once did. I would rather see a younger player be brought on to the roster and broken in than watch a former star of of the game play to half his capacity while he gets his legs.

Mike Gillis has maintained that Sundin, 38, would have to be in training camp from day one, so let’s hope he sticks to that deadline, and moves on.

Who’s got Roberto’s back?

Cory Schneider

With Roberto Luongo glued between the posts until your first born graduates, gets married and makes you a grandparent, the question turns to who will back him up. The Canucks signed Andrew Raycroft to add to the mix and of course Cory Schneider is still in the mix. The debate is who should go where? Schneider is obviously going to be moving on at some point. He’s a blue chip prospect who has nothing left to prove at the AHL level and could be a valuable piece to any trade package used to address another need. So, do you send him back to the AHL and let him play, or keep him here and hope that when he gets game action he showcases his talents? As with anything Mike Gillis does, he’ll take his time and let the situation unfold before him, but the goaltenders will certainly be an interesting group to watch.

No rest for the defense

Besides locking up his franchise player Roberto Luongo, Gillis’ biggest accomplishment in the off-season was adding layers of depth to his already talented stable of blueliners. Last season when Sami “Don’t sneeze on me” Salo (Just kidding Sami, kind of) the Canucks breakout game and power play suffered. This year with the addition of Christian Erhoff and Mathieu Schneider, the Canucks have some back up depth in those areas. As the Vancouver Sun’s Elliott Pap reports Schneider may not be ready for the regular season opener, and won’t be rushed back following off-season shoulder surgery, so that depth is already coming in handy.

However, there are lots of other battles on the blue line and something will have to give, especially with the club still needing another top 6 forward in many people’s opinion, and still needs to get to the cap, leaving some room to avoid the situation the Calgary Flames found themselves in last season. The chips to make that deal will likely include one of the 15 training camp defensemen looking to make the team, and with as much depth in camp as there is, only about 5 of those players can be considered locks.

The Hodgson watch

Cody Hodgson is the most anticipated prospect the Canucks have had in a long time. A back injury currently hampers the progress of the talented young forward who has the potential to become the next Trevor Linden of this hockey club. Asked recently whether Hodgson is a lock to make the team, Gillis wisely answered that he’ll have to earn his spot just like every other player. Going into camp  Hodgson will no doubt be given every chance to compete, but the back injury which was reported as no big deal at one point is now about 6 weeks old, and we’ll have to see how it holds up through the rigors of training camp. The Canucks will play it safe with Hodgson, and ease him in slowly.

Where art thou scoring?

With Pavol Demitra on the shelf to start the year, and Mats Sundin doing whatever he’s doing, the Canucks only real weakness may be up front. The Sedin’s will be as consistent as they always are, and Burrows will be given the start on that line. Mikael Samuelsson, acquired a s F.A. from Detroit and the redesigned Steve Bernier could really help things by playing key roles. Ryan Kelser will look to advance even further in his development as a player, but without Demitra will need some offense added to that second line. There are also prospects Sergei Shirokov and Michael Grabner to keep an eye on, as well as Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen, Kyle Wellwood to look to for offense. With more scoring expected from a restocked blue line, as well, the team could have some time to let things settle, before going the trade route if they need to.

All in all it’s going to be an exciting and competitive camp for the Canucks, with many interesting battles taking place for roster spots. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

Hollywood Homecoming

Mats Sundin couldn’t have had a Hollywood writer contrive a better story for his homecoming to Toronto for the first and possibly last time as an NHL player.  The build-up to the match up at hand were all surrounding the return of The Maple Leafs’ prodigal son.

ACC welcomes back former Captain.

ACC welcomes back former Captain.

Sundin was welcomed with some mixed reactions when he first stepped foot on the ice of the Air Canada Centre.  There was a lot of emotion and tension as Sundin skated prior to the game.  Fans and Sundin alike didn’t know how to react, didn’t know how each other was thinking.

Regardless of what was going through the heads of the patrons of the ACC, the players on the ice on both benches, the one predominant issue of the night was “The Prodigal Mats Returns”. For thirteen years, Mats Sundin toiled, succeeded, and endured in a Leafs uniform. For ten of those thirteen years, he was their captain.  The tension at the ACC was unbearable until they played the tribute video.

Teary-eyed as he took the faceoff, Mats felt the love of a city that once put all their hockey hopes and dreams on his shoulder.  He has come back, with another team, and although he was the enemy, both Mats and Toronto, embraced each other once again.

Last night, was an E-True Toronto Love Story.  In his own words, Mats Sundin said, “The ovation from the fans was very special. I’ll remember that the rest of my life.”

Even with all the hype that surrounded the return of Toronto’s once former favourite son, the game itself was entertaining to say the least.  The Canucks battled back to a shootout victory with no other than Mats Sundin scoring the shootout winner.

A perfect ending to a perfect homecoming for #13.

Just some musings from the mud.

LotusBlossom

The return of Saint Roberto and other observations

The return of Saint Roberto

Today Canucks fans around the world are thanking the hockey gods for the much heralded return of their saviour,  Saint Roberto Luongo. They’ll be looking for the Canucks goaltender to lead them out of the land of mediocrity they have slipped into in his absence. Just over a week ago, they also thanked the gods for Saint Mats, who was supposed to instantly make this team a contender for Lord Stanley’s cup. That hasn’t exactly bared fruit to date, and some fans have already called the move a bust and have called for Alain Vigneault’s head on top of it all. [Read more…]

The salary cap is leveling the playing field

So Canucks fan, admit it.

You heard me…admit that when you heard that Mats Sundin had signed with the Canucks a little part of you felt like yelling “In your face New York!” Poor Larry Brooks of the New York Post had Vancouver pegged for dead.

Thus, with the NHL holiday roster freeze going into effect Friday night at midnight and lasting through midnight Dec. 27, Sundin – who has a $10M offer on the table from the Canucks that he obviously is in no hurry to accept – is likely to remain unsigned until late in the month.

So did I. I get and respect that Sundin took his time deciding if he wanted to play this year. But once he decided and the longer this went on, I figured the Canucks were being kept around as insurance and as a bargaining tool.

In a pre salary cap era, the Vancouver Canucks would have had no chance of gettting Mats Sundin, because the the New York Rangers, or other teams would out bid everyone. Not knowing what really happened behind the scenes, it appeared on the surface that Sundin’s first choice was to sign with New York. It would also appear that the Rangers couldn’t clear enough cap space to make this happen, thus making the choice of the Canucks too good to pass up.

It’s kind of ironic that the Canucks honoured Trevor Linden the night before the announcement, who’s involvement with the current salary cap deal was monumental. Perhaps in an unintentional way it was Linden’s gift to the fans.

At this point Sundin is a rental player. There is no guarantee he signs for another season, and the Canucks won’t be on the hook for another year if either party wants to go in a different direction.

The signing has given the Canucks two lines that can score overnight. If the defense can get and stay healthy, and Luongo recovers and gets on a roll, this team could be a force to be reckoned in the west. With the cap room Gillis enjoyed now gone, and further tweaks to the roster will have to be through trades.

For years the Canucks were always the wiling partner who just couldn’t shell out that extra to lure free agents. Fans sat by and watched as the Colorado’s, Detroit’s and New York’s of the world loaded up already stacked rosters. Now the salary cap has leveled that playing field, and that’s a great thing for the league, and on Wednesday it was a great thing for Canucks fans.

Just ask the New York Rangers.