Last season I thought the Canucks had enough to win the Stanley Cup, only to see them crumple in Game 6 of the second round to the Hawks. This season the Canucks are even better, so I want to pick them again, but all the while the little voice in my head is shouting, “Don’t do it!”
The Canucks are a deeper team this year than they have ever been before. Six players with 20 or more goals dot the lineup and one of them is seeing more time on the third line now. They’ve had career years from Henrik Sedin (and even Daniel, to a degree), Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson.
They have one of the world’s best netminders in Roberto Luongo who, in a down year, will still likely hit 40 wins and have a save percentage above .910. Call him overrated and I’ll call you crazy: I’d rather have Luongo in net than at least 20 other NHL goalies.
They have a decent, albeit beat up, defense corps. Willie Mitchell doesn’t look like he’ll be back any time soon and Shane O’Brien has conditioning issues, but the Canucks still rank within the top 10 in shots-against per game.
But there’s something about this team that worries me and leaves me reticent to choose them again.
The latest troubling news comes from the thinning blueline, as Christian Ehrhoff tweaked his knee in Sunday’s win against Minnesota. As good as Pavol Demitra has been since starting his season in January, Ehrhoff was hands-down the best off-season acquisition by Vancouver and one of the most shrewd pickups in the entire NHL.
Acquired along with Brad Lukowich in a San Jose salary dump during the summer, Ehrhoff came in for a couple of middling prospects. Now he is the glue keeping the defense together, leading the line in time on ice, plus-minus (sixth in the league), bringing in key penalty-killing and power play minutes, while setting career highs in goals and points.
Ehrhoff is a big-time minute-muncher who plays strong at both ends of the ice. He’s the best all-around defender they have and if he’s forced to miss any time, Sami Salo will be the one to take his spot. As good of a year as he’s having, Salo isn’t as dependable or durable.
The Canucks are as likely to disappoint as the infamous San Jose Sharks. By now, it’s pretty much expected the Sharks will fall short, but the Canucks haven’t been heavily favored like San Jose in recent years, so they haven’t had as much out-of-market press following them into post-season exile.
As good and as deep as the offense has been, one look at the playoff precedents set by these players is enough to make you second-guess any prognosticated success.
Kesler had only four points and was a minus-2 in 10 playoff games last season; Demitra hasn’t been out of Round 1 since 2002 and has scored only two goals in his past 12 playoff games; the Sedins, who both broke out with point-per-game performances last spring, are minus post-season players for their careers; Raymond has four points in 23 career post-season games between the NHL and American League; and even Ehrhoff went pointless in six games last season and hasn’t scored a playoff goal in four years.
Not to mention you can expect growing pains from youngsters Jannik Hansen, Michael Grabner and Steve Bernier, and the fact Kyle Wellwood isn’t the kind of third line center championship teams employ (he isn’t the type of guy who’ll grind out a clutch goal when it’s least expected). Add to that Luongo’s unnerving tendency to blow up; he has allowed four or more goals six times in his past 15 starts.
However, the Canucks are also as likely to impress and surprise as Phoenix or Nashville. Aside from the troubles Luongo has had at times this season and flying in the face of all the team’s drawbacks listed above is the fact they are the best Vancouver squad ever iced. The whole team seems to be ready to take one giant leap forward; and what better playoff year for Luongo to shush his naysayers than the one in which he also led Canada to Olympic gold?
I can’t decide how far I think Vancouver will go this year; the Canucks are an enigma and I don’t believe there is another NHL team comparable to them.
But one thing’s for sure, if they are the unlucky ones to line up with the Red Wings in Round 1, it will make the decision a whole lot simpler.
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