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Summer Reading: Blue Skies From Pain

Ah yes, the "Achille's Heel" of last year's team. The Canucks had a Top Five team defensively not so long ago, so the concern with falling to 19th in goals against this past year is justified. Team defense is just that though, so let's not assume that it is just the eight guys below who are at fault. Who am I kidding, right ? The bigger question is, who gets the "Casual Kev' " treatment from Botchford now that Juice is a Duck ?

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

If there is one place in the line up that takes up the column inches it has to be the blue line.  OK, maybe it is second to the goaltemding ( executive decision, instead of including the net in this one, it will have it's very own Summer Reading post ), but we love to talk about the blue line.  Almost as much as we enjoy blaming the denizens of the blue line for goals, and / or games when something untoward happens.

As a kid, I played the wing ( and even a little goal on occasion ), and enjoyed the bang and crash of hunting defensemen.  Even back in the 70's, it was about who was faster.  Sometime around bantam though, I had a coach turn me into a defenseman.  It is a much harder position.  The angles taken and the millisecond to decide that angle, while taking in where everyone else is, is much more daunting than taking the puck and skating up the wing with it.  That is a large part of why defensemen take longer at the NHL level.  Consider the talent they have to deal with on a nightly basis.  "Here you go kid, stop the best players in the world..." no pressure !

For this one one, since this was the position I played way, way back when, I thought the inspiration should be personal as well.  This is one of my favorite songs.  And this is one of the best versions of it too.  There is a reason this clip has been viewed almost 25 million times.

The song is about missing a cherished band ( team ? ) mate who passed on too early.  While I am certainly not equating death with the trading of Kevin Bieksa, in the end, the song is about change too.  Like ( I have been told ) how the death card in the tarot is not always bad, change is inevitable in life, and often good.  I certainly hope Kevin Freaking Bieksa is not the missing piece for the Ducks.  But I hope he still has a good career.  In the end, he was the guy that just made sense to be dealt, and he was a pro about it on the way out.

It is no surprise for me that defensemen take longer to learn to play the game.  Everyone takes as long as they take to get to that level of playing in the NHL, however, and though the truism about defensemen holds, it is not absolute.  Christopher Tanev went from Rochester Institute of Technology to the NHL, and looked cool ( in the most literal sense of the word ) while doing it.  Frank Corrado will get his shot at the brass ring this year, as a guy like Dan Hamhuis enters into the final year of his deal, and is now the "old man" of the blue line.

It is all where you are on the career trajectory.  Let's take a look at the eight guys that will make up the Canuck blue line core.  For those that care about that sort of thing, the blue line will average around 26 years old this year.

- Frank Corrado, 22.  Frankie's career has echoes of Juice, as both are 5th round picks ( Frankie in 2011, Juice 10 years earlier ).  Mr Corrado has had a goal in each of his NHL "years", with 15 games in '14, and 10 last year, while Juice exploded in his first full year after a half year as a rookie, with 12 goals and 42 points.  That is a lofty goal, but the kid does look polished enough in his time so far that he merits the confidence this year.  The production may come later, but he has a heavy enough shot that he is skilled at getting it through.  Don't be surprised if he sees some PP time on the second unit.  Also, he has a bit of that Tanev cool in him, so don't forget to be surprised at how good he is defensively ! ( OK, that last part was perhaps wishful thinking.  You know how it is with rookies.  All supposition with no evidence yet. )

- Lucas Sbisa, 25.  The Whipping Boy. So, what did he bring to merit that ? A team leader in games played ( 76 ) , hits ( 151 ), second to Tanev in blocks with 128, he seems to have brought exactly what was advertised.  If anyone is a poster child for the way fans might remember the negative over the positive, it may be this guy.  This is not to downplay those bad plays, in the least.  He was a -8, by far the worst on the team. I get the hullabaloo. I just think he is the only "hard rock" on the blue line now that Juice is gone, and you need a guy like that.

- Chris Tanev, 25.  Tan Man. Iceman.  The man with the unique entry to the team has been a revelation ever since he first saw NHL action in the playoffs in a hockey mad city going to the Finals and didn't really miss a beat.  He is not the offensive dynamo, though his 2 goals and 18 assists last year are not insignificant, and he seems to get better and better at joining the play.  Look at these numbers. 170 blocks led the team.  But he had 23 hits all year.  His game is all about positioning, making that first pass, and cool under pressure.  He may be the smartest defenseman on the team. An advanced stats darling, he helped Edler have a huge bounce back year, while looking more and more an elite defender in the NHL.

Yannick Weber, 26.  The Swiss national had a monster year on the scoreboard, on a team that had trouble scoring from the blue line.  Going into a possible arbitration, it looked like the Canucks were going to lose a versatile ( 66 hits, 62 blocks, 11 goals, 10 assists last year ) player who can fill several checks ( power play, right handed, can play up and down the pairs ), but the perceived dillydallying by the GM actually turned out just fine.  Weber is betting he will have another good year and cash in next year, when the team ( here ) where he wants to stay has more money to spend, and thinks he has found a home.  Hard to argue. He is a good complimentary part of the group.

- Matt Bartkowski, 27.  The New Guy.  He comes with reports of speed and is supposedly responsible enough defensively.  Checking his stats, he does have 24 points in 131 career games with Boston.  All assists, although he has had 169 shots.  Let's hope that first goal comes soon.  He will also lay the body a bit, with 88 hits in 47 games last year, and 263 for his NHL tenure.  I find myself trusting the judgement of Jim Benning on this one.  He knows this player pretty well.

- Taylor Fedun, 27. Little known fact about Taylor Fedun.  He has the same birthday as Bartkowski, as both were born on June 4th, Bart in Pittsburgh, Fedun in Edmonton.  Most know Mr Fedun for the horrifying injury he sustained on an icing call, because that play did more to change the rule than any other single play.  He was an undrafted player who signed in Edmonton after four years at Princeton, and was showing promise before his career was halted for a while.  Now, after 7 games ( 4 assists ) for the Sharks last year, the Canucks saw enough to make him the eighth defenseman.  I'm OK with him replacing Ryan Stanton on the depth chart.

- Alexander Edler, 29. Ahhhhh yes, the "#1" defenseman for the Canucks.  He personified the turnaround from the scorched Earth, finger poking general assholeishness that personified Tort's year to the quiet, do your job, play "real good" style of Willie Desjardins that Edler responded to like everyone thought he would.  8 goals, 31 points, and a +13, while contributing 94 hits and 126 blocks is in line with the production we expect from Edler, and it seems that he is starting to get those thundering hits cranked up a bit more often.  He and Tanev will anchor the top pairing once again.  That is a good thing.

- Dan Hamhuis, 32. Hammer.  The Smithers native is the elder statesman now, and while he will be going into the final year of his deal, but let's not convince ourselves before a puck is dropped that all of that means goodbye after this year.  Don't bet on it.  Hammer needs a better year, as I think he expected he would have more than one goal.  He did have 22 assists, but was also only an even for the season.  Plus / minus is what it is, but this is a career +83 guy, who hasn't been even or minus since 2009.  He did start getting some chemistry going when he was eventually paired with Weber, but a contract year, and one less than he is capable of in the rearview like that ?  Expect a motivated player this coming season.  Who knows after that.  It may come down to how much money is enough, and how badly do you want to stay at home ?  Or maybe he is just a great piece to move at the deadline.

It is important to remember ( and a rare in article self back slap from...myself....Mr Linden pretty well said the same thing while enduring the always fun gauntlet of TSN1040 callers today...) the Canucks are not, in the literal sense "rebuilding" ( as I have often said when it comes to the "rebuild" thing ) . I expect they want Corrado to do well as the rookie this year.  You look around the league, and blue line or forwards, or even goal and especially centre, teams are playing the kids more and more these days.  Relatively speaking, even with the change in leadership, the Canucks are still closer to the Red Wings example than the someone like the Leafs ( sorry Sean ), in that they marinate their prospects in the system and keep the system the same on both teams.

It is why an Alex Biega could look pretty good in a short term replacement, and it is why they are probably confident in how Frankie will do.  The player is always the final arbiter with their play, but having the holistic "total team" approach does seem the best way to get them smart and move them up.  We will see how that works with young Mr Corrado this year.

When you look a the potential of the blue line above, the top pairing is obvious, as Edler and Tanev have shown their skills as a top pairing.  The second and third pairings will probably not be figured out until the preseason is done.  They need some more help, of course, and can improve themselves. The teams that were behind the 19th overall Canucks in Goals Against Per Game and still made the dance were the Ducks at 20, and the Islanders at 23.  The Cup winners were 2nd overall.  Room for improvement is a given in light of those numbers. The Canucks don't have the firepower ( on paper at least ) the Ducks and Isles do.  They will do it this year with team defense.

With a bunch of guys in their mid twenties, Dan Hamhuis on a contract year, and a rookie in the Top Six, there will be ups and downs.  But there is also a bunch more speed with Bartkowski, and I have a feeling that Taylor Fedun might be a Masterson nominee this year ( OK, long shot I know, that is why I said "feeling" ;-) .  Perhaps the blue sky will outweigh the clouds.  Honestly, if they hover around 10th or so, I'll be pretty happy.