VANCOUVER, CANADA - APRIL 21: (from left) Ryan Kesler #17, head coach Alain Vigneault, Chris Higgins #20 and Mikael Samuelsson #26 of the Vancouver Canucks watch the final seconds of the third period in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 21, 2011 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The Blackhawks defeated the Canucks 5-0. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
With the July 1st unrestricted free agent date gone and past, and every marginal player from Anaheim to Washington snapped up on a four-year contract to Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers, we are at the halfway point of the summer. We can officially declare teams "winners" and "losers" of the free agency period without a tinge of guilt or irony.
I don't act on a whim, however. I won't openly call a team a "winner" because they "added some much needed depth and grit from a proven playoff performer in Sean Bergenheim" or summarily pretend that the Panthers won't suck as much this season as they did last season.
I admit. I'm a little hard on Florida sometimes. But that is because they have built a hockey team against every aspect of my belief in how a team should be built. I like a team to focus on organizational depth, grow players into certain roles or make trades for players undervalued by their current team to become stars. Free agency is a tool to tinker with the squad, not any way to construct a hockey team. No one player is "good enough" to turn a mediocre team into a good team or a good team into a great team.
San Jose, for instance, after trading for the exiled Dan Boyle and getting a good couple of seasons worth of production from him, somehow landed Brent Burns and Martin Havlat for two players who couldn't fit into the lineup anymore. Burns and Havlat lack the sexy-name appeal of Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, but can bounce around the lineup and play in different situations. Neither is expected to carry the load for the team right out of the gate, and San Jose are better for it. The Nashville Predators are currently locked in a battle of wills with Shea Weber and, despite being below the cap floor, refuse to overpay him because their better defenseman (ssh) is an unrestricted free agent next summer and they need every available dollar. They cut costs by letting walk some players who they figured were replaceable by the current guys in the system.
And, holy crap, look at Los Angeles, who somehow landed an All-Star for a relatively cheap cap-hit because the Philadelphia Flyers felt compelled to overpay for a goaltender. The Washington Capitals gauged the market accurately and signed a goalie as good as Philadelphia's but for only 25% worth of a cap hit. In all instances, the improved teams judged their needs correctly—Washington had goaltender issues, San Jose lacked forward depth and a two-way defenseman, and Los Angeles, well, who *doesn't* want Mike Richards on their team?
So did the Vancouver Canuck™ Hockey Club fall into the "winners" or "losers" category? For starters, we must determine their individual needs:
#1 - Second line scoring winger Vancouver got Marco Sturm, who is somehow a risky risk-free player, seeing as he'll either score 25 goals if he plays an 82-game season, or he'll score fewer than 10 goals for you if he plays a 20-game season. Goes to show you what has happened to Marco Sturm over the past few years since the Joe Thornton trade: When I wanted to check his advanced statistics, I had to search through a bunch of different teams before I remembered where Sturm had actually played. I remember him being traded from Boston to Los Angeles for a bag of pucks, but not much after that.
In the organization, the Canucks can probably move a guy like Jannik Hansen or Cody Hodgson up the depth chart, but I'm guessing that they won't really be willing to do that. Martin Havlat was available, who the Canucks could have used, but no other additions from this offseason (given the contracts or what a team gave up in a trade) really pop out of the table that have me thinking "the Canucks missed the boat on THAT one!" so they maybe still plan to make a trade.
Addendum: As I'm writing this, it seems Ryan Kesler will be out until mid-October, meaning that there's a chance Hansen or Hodgson get their due shot in the top six. I won't say this mission is a disaster until, say, December, when the health issues for the Canucks are sorted out.
#2 - Depth Mike Duco? Mike Mancari? Andrew Ebbett? These certainly aren't names that people really think about, but too much attention is paid to whether your depth guys have "bang" or "crash" or other euphemisms for "neanderthal who doesn't know which side of his stick to shoot with". Thankfully, none of these guys fit that mould, and are for the most part players who can eat five or six minutes a night in a sheltered role without giving up too many shots.
The Canucks do have options from the farm, like every team does, and they also benefit from maybe having the best third line in hockey with Manny Malhotra, Jannik Hansen and Christopher Higgins (although that may be the second line to start the season). That means that the Canucks fourth line is any other team's third line, and they don't need to stack a line full of brawlers or pluggers. So, do it. I'm pumped over this one.
#3 - Defense Check. Like it or not, Christian Ehrhoff was a terrific offensive defenseman and a very key part in the Canucks powerplay. However, Christian Ehrhoff was also lacklustre defensively, took a lot of risks, got burned on those risks many-a-time and was totally one of those guys who ate all the pretzels in the party mix on team flights. I use Fenwick against, adjusted for zone starts, to determine a player's defensive worth. Fenwick is the #fancystat name for 'unblocked shot differential' and, per 60 minutes, Ehrhoff's was 44.75. That was slightly better than former Canucks Bryan Allen and Brent Sopel last season.
Comparatively, Alexander Sulzer was 41.21, which is around the league average, squeezed neatly in between former Norris trophy winner Duncan Keith and Minnesota stalwart Greg Zanon. Aaron Rome was in Kevin Bieksa and Shea Weber territory. Keith Ballard was sitting next to Willie Mitchell. The Canucks defense is extraordinarly not flashy (and, certainly, zone starts don't tell all the story. Quality of Competition is highly important, so those three players' minutes were definitely not as tough as my adjustment makes them out to be) but it shows that the Canucks may be quite well-off defensively and have a number of efficient riches to keep the team going. Sulzer was a fantastic addition by Mike Gillis and we should all give him a round of applause, until he makes a key giveaway in an Overtime game and half of the team's fans are turned off of him forever.
As for replacing Ehrhoff's offense, since secondary scoring is going to be a big factor for the Canucks, I make a number of points about Alexander Edler's offensive improvement in the forthcoming Vancouver Canucks season preview magazine produced by Maple Street Press. Look for it, but I can tell you that the initial prognosis is good, and Edler has been improving the offensive side of his game every season.
#4 - Goaltending This is not an issue. Roberto Luongo was 2nd among starting goalies last season behind Tim Thomas in even strength save percentage, and Cory Schneider was 2nd among backups, behind only James Reimer (who has become a starter). This is not at all an issue, and any fans of the Canucks, or fans of any other team who question Luongo's ability to win are grasping at straws that have materialized out of thin air.
The only goalie to do better than Luongo last season was the goaltender who posted the best single-season save percentage in the history of the National Hockey League. Roberto Luongo is 10th all-time in playoff save percentage. He did the first thing with a battered defense and the second thing in partnership with a team that once had Jeff Cowan play on its second line.
I know the hate doesn't come from Nucks Misconduct, but I see it a lot. Anger. Frustration.
#5 - Shorter season, better travel schedule As it stands, the 82-game schedule for a West Coast team is horrible. As we slogged through the playoffs last season, the Canucks got busted up something fierce, and, as it happens every year, it makes the Stanley Cup Finals pretty unwatchable because the star players on both sides are completely beat up. It also runs too late, and it is difficult to feel all too upset about a Game 3 loss on a lovely mid-June evening in Canada's hottest summer city.
If Mike Gillis has not petitioned the Board of Governors for a more reasonable 50-game season that ends in April (he should not have too much trouble convincing Maple Leaf or Panther brass to accept those provisions) he is simply not doing his job in the interests of the Vancouver Canucks, who travel more than any other team and already have health concerns heading into the season. By the time my attention was focused on the base ball season, the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners were both completely out of the running, and by the time the Canucks season ended and we turned our hopes to another local sports, the BC Lions were completely out of it as well. And now we are halfway through the summer months and I feel like it was only yesterday I was
smashing bricks through the window of Chapters to collect my copy of Scorecasting making insensitive riot jokes about Vancouverites.
#6 - Is Ryan Kesler healthy? Please tell me Ryan Kesler is healthy As of 2:51 Pacific Time on August 2nd, Ryan Kesler is not due to start the season. This is a key issue.
Cliff's Notes: So, Cam, are we winners or losers?
We are winners in the sense that we didn't throw around any money this offseason and kept the core relatively happy. We are losers in that the forward group is definitely not better off if we start this season. Losing some of the scoring from defense will highlight some of the concerns I have for the forward group, and we may have to rename the 'helicopter line' the 'hospital line' given the propensity of the Canucks to have second line player succumb to mysterious illnesses.
The Vancouver Canucks second line I would compare exactly to the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team in the classic Season 3 episode. They are a delight on paper, but will be functionally unavailable to play come season's start.
All in all, I am not going to pass judgment on this team out of July, but there are still some issues that need resolving. We'll see what happens in August. Clear winners are Nashville, Los Angeles, San Jose, Washington, of course, along with Columbus and the rest of that Central Division. I can't say I care too much for the offseason of Philadelphia, Florida or Buffalo, who harmed their long-term prospects for short-term gain that probably won't result in a Stanley Cup. But we'll see. Crazy things happen.