VANCOUVER – A deep roster and contributions from the team’s best players have pushed the Vancouver Canucks into a territory no Canadian club has occupied for almost five years.
The Canucks are a sizzling 15-1-2 in their last 18 games and have grabbed first place overall in the NHL. Climbing to the top of the heap has fed the team’s confidence, but general manager Mike Gillis says it’s way too early for anyone to be satisfied.
“Our objective from Dan 1 was to get into the playoffs,” Gillis said Tuesday. “That hasn’t happened yet.
“I don’t think anyone is satisfied. We’re constantly looking at ways to get better. That’s the attitude we’ve had on this team. I think it’s continuing, so I wouldn’t say we’re satisfied at all.”
Vancouver has a record of 25-8-5 for 55 points. Heading into Tuesday night’s games the Canucks were two points ahead of the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Vancouver has also played less games than the other three teams.
According to the NHL, the last Canadian team to be first overall after Christmas was the Ottawa Senators, who were tied for top spot with Detroit on March 24, 2006.
The last time the Canucks were first was March 3, 2003.
Vancouver has been on a torrid run since snapping a four-game losing streak with a 4-2 win over Colorado on Nov. 24. While only three Canucks have scored more than 10 goals this year, the team has been getting steady contributions from all four lines.
“We are now in a position to put complimentary players together,” said Gillis. “We’re also fortunate in that we have enough depth where if a guy isn’t playing particularly well in three or four shifts in a row, he is going to move down the ranks. That keeps a lot of pressure on people.
“There is no room for complacency in the lineup. The new guys on our team have really embraced that attitude. When you’ve been on different teams, that’s not necessary the case.”
When speedy winger Mason Raymond suffered a broken thumb, free-agent signing Jeff Tambellini took over his spot on the second line. In 24 games this year Tambellini has nine goals and 15 points.
When Raymond returned from injury Sunday, he was put on the fourth line and responded with a goal and assist in his first two games back.
Last summer the Canucks improved their blue-line with the addition of defenceman Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard. Gillis also added toughness and veteran experience by signing centre Manny Malhotra and forward Raffi Torres.
Malhotra has shone on the third line. He wins key faceoffs, kills penalties, and has scored goals when needed.
“We felt very strongly about Manny and his ability to anchor a hard-nosed, checking unit,” said Gillis.
“I feel he’s brought a tremendous amount of stability and leadership to that role. He stepped right in here and was determined to make a difference.”
Having goaltender Cory Schneider as a backup to Roberto Luongo has allowed the Canucks more flexibility. Schneider is 7-0-2 in the nine games he’s started this season, with both losses coming in overtime.
In the past the Canucks were criticized for relying too heavily on Luongo, especially late in the season. Schneider can share that load, meaning Luongo will be rested for the playoffs.
“We are confident Roberto is the best goalie in the league but he can’t continue to be super human for us to win,” said Gillis. “You have to give him an opportunity to recharge his batteries and refocus.
“That’s what we are attempting to do with Cory.”
Luongo remains Vancouver’s backbone. He was named the league’s second star for the month of December after posting a record of 8-1-1, a 2.07 goals-against average, .922 save percentage and one shutout in 10 starts.
Overall, Luongo is 18-8-3 with a 2.13 GAA.
Twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin continue to work their magic on Vancouver’s top line. Henrik had nine goals and 41 assists for 50 points in 38 games. Daniel is the team’s top goal scorer with 21 to go with 28 assists.
Centre Ryan Kesler may be the Canucks best all-round player. He has 19 goals and 35 points, plus plays on both the power play and penalty kill.
One question the Canucks still must answer is what will the team do when defenceman Sami Salo fully recovers from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in July.
Salo has been skating with the team, but there is no time table for his return. There is speculation that to stay under the salary cap, the Canucks may have to trade another player to make room for Salo.
“We have a number of options,” said Gillis. “I’m not all that eager to discuss them.
“We have no idea when Sami will be ready to play. I don’t think Sami has any idea when he will be ready to play. We are waiting to see how Sami does.”
As the NHL season nears its midpoint, the Canucks have enjoyed some clear sailing. But Gillis is constantly on watch for storm clouds.
“There is lots of stuff that can go wrong,” he said. “There is a long season left. There is a lot of work to be done.
“We are going to do everything in our power not to let anybody get too far ahead of themselves.”