Every game is important in a shortened National Hockey League season and the Vancouver Canucks’ best hope of punching their post-season ticket could be in winning the North West division title. Vancouver’s next three games are against division foes and it’s never too early to watch the playoff race unfold.
So far the NW division is one of the league’s weakest, with Vancouver and Minnesota off to slower than anticipated starts. Edmonton and Colorado are rebuilding with young rosters and Calgary is still searching for its identity.
Still, as division leaders are automatically seeded first-to-third in conference standings Vancouver can make the playoffs with a less-than-ideal season. They just need to be the best of the worst.
That wasn’t coach Alain Vigneault’s plan heading into the season, but injuries to Ryan Kesler and David Booth have left the Canucks’ second line struggling. The team is ranked near-bottom on the penalty kill and both powerplay units have failed to score clutch goals.
Two of Vancouver’s next three games are against the Minnesota Wild (Feb. 7 and 12), a team the Canucks are generally expected to beat. However, the offseason signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise make Minnesota a tougher opponent.
The Canucks then begin a three-game home stand on Feb. 9 against the Calgary Flames in a rematch of last month’s 3–2 shootout victory.
While the injury bug and poor special teams are widely discussed issues early in the Canucks’ season, practicing the basics would be best for upcoming games—winning faceoffs and hitting the net, in particular.
Only Manny Malhotra has won more than half his faceoff battles, well ahead of Henrik Sedin, Maxim Lapierre, and the slew of players taking their shift on the second line. As a team Vancouver ranks 27th in the league, at the time as writing.
More appalling is the number of missed shots so far this season. In the first six games Vancouver had 175 shots either blocked or miss the net completely, meaning only 49 percent made contact with the goaltender.
Once the Canucks resolve those issues they must find a more suitable second line arrangement. Burrows has found a groove playing centre but hardly looks comfortable, and Chris Higgins has been virtually unnoticeable.
One option is moving a defenseman to forward to balance the top-six talent. Kevin Bieksa has played on the wing during past injury-riddled games, and offensive-minded Keith Ballard is playing this season with more confidence (and fewer dumb mistakes) than ever. Six-foot-five Andrew Alberts could also be moved forward as a Dustin Byfuglien-like distraction.