Jeff Paterson: 10 questions
Two games down, 46 to go.
The opening weekend of the 2012-13 NHL season is over and just like training camp, if you blinked, you likely missed it. And if you think it has raced by so far for players and fans, imagine being the coaching staff and management trying to make roster decisions based on four team workouts, a pair of scrimmages and two games.
But in this condensed season, everything is compacted, including the evaluation process and the time required to settle on a roster. With that in mind, here are 10 questions facing the Vancouver Canucks, questions that will all be answered this season.
1) Who skates on the second line?
It was already one of the key areas to watch heading into camp and became an even hotter issue with news of David Booth’s groin injury. Mason Raymond showed well in Thursday night’s scrimmage and had undeniable chemistry with rookie – and fellow speedster -- Jordan Schroeder. But veteran Andrew Ebbett has the edge on Schroeder when it comes to National Hockey League experience. If Ebbett wins the job in the middle on that line, which he has so far, he has to prove he can produce on a consistent level. And he also needs to be able to hold his own defensively when the Canucks head out on the road and he finds himself matched up against other team’s top lines.
2) What to do with two starting goalies?
It’s a luxury few other NHL teams have, but only one guy can start on any given night. With that in mind, the Canucks have to find a way to make this situation work in the short-term – and long-term if needed. Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo have handled the media frenzy like true professionals to this point, but clearly both want to be the guy between the pipes. It’s a talented tandem, no doubt, but there is a lot of money tied up at that position considering one of the two will always be on the bench. As Luongo remains part of the organization, this will be continue to be front-page news in a market like Vancouver. The Canucks have to ensure that the external focus on the situation doesn’t become an issue behind dressing room doors. They've both earned a start so far, we'll see who is in net Wednesday night against the Flames.
3) Is the power back in the power play?
After scoring four times in 11 attempts in that emotionally-charged 4-3 win in Boston last January, for some strange reason the Canucks power play was never the same. In fact, the power play produced multiple goals in just three of the final 40 games last season. The team insists it has added some new wrinkles and will be able to find the magic to make other teams pay if they head to the box. With questions about secondary scoring, the Canucks will need a potent power play to put them over the top in close hockey games. They are banking on the addition of Jason Garrison and his big shot to be a big part of making their power play among the most-feared in the league. The Canucks are 2-for-9 on the power play through two games; they went 0-for-5 Sunday against Edmonton.
4) How does Jason Garrison adapt to his new surroundings?
The team’s biggest off-season addition, the White Rock native finally gets the chance to pull on a Canucks jersey after signing here as a free-agent last July. During the lockout, Garrison skated with many of his new teammates at UBC which should ease the transition. The 28-year-old White Rock native and Alex Edler look like they’ll form the team’s top defensive pairing and Garrison will need to get a read on Western Conference foes after spending his first four years in the NHL in Florida. Garrison’s got the cannon from the point – everyone in hockey knows that. But it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to new surroundings and how he handles the defensive responsibilities placed upon him in Vancouver.
5) Is Daniel Sedin completely healthy and ready to return to form?
He says he is and we’re about to find out. The Canucks were forced to play the final nine games of the regular season and first three games of the playoffs without their leading goal scorer after he suffered a concussion in Chicago last March. And obviously, he was missed. Because of the injury and the work-stoppage, Daniel has played just two hockey games in the past 10 months. He insists the concussion is behind him and has showed no signs of rust during training camp and scrimmages. But now it’s showtime and the Canucks need their best goal-scorer to be productive right from the outset of the season. Last season, Daniel’s goal total dipped to 30 after a career-best 41 the year before. With the issues surrounding the second line, the Canucks will rely on Daniel to lead the way in the goal-scoring department and in a shortened season he doesn’t have the option of easing his way back up to game speed. It’s hard to doubt a player who’s been an elite performer for more than a decade, but he has to show himself – and the hockey world – that he has left last season behind and is ready to go. His sick pass to set up Zack Kassian Sunday night was a great start.
6) Is Zack Kassian ready to take his game to the next level?
The centrepiece of last February’s trade deadline deal with Buffalo, Kassian showed glimpses of what’s to come at times last season. Obviously, he has the size to be a power forward in the NHL. Now he needs to develop his hands to become a scoring threat and he has to find consistency that allows him to be a physical force on every shift. Having spent the first half of the season in the American Hockey League, Kassian has been playing and was given the opportunities in all situations by the Chicago Wolves coaching staff. That has certainly helped speed his development. Kassian turns 22 on January 24th. He is still remarkably young. But more and more every year it seems, the NHL is becoming a place where young players can be stars. The Canucks have to continue to mold the raw potential of Kassian to help him become the player he’s capable of being. And to help the process, Kassian has to make sure he brings it every night. A player that big needs to leave his mark on every game he’s a part of. That wasn’t the case after the trade to Vancouver - that was, however, the case Sunday night versus Edmonton when Kassian was named the games first star.
7) When does Ryan Kesler get the clean bill of health?
It’s one of the biggest questions surrounding this hockey team these days, but no one has the answer right now. The hope is that Kesler will return to the line-up well before the end of this shortened season. He’s around the team and skating on his own as he recovers from off-season shoulder and wrist surgery, but he won’t be available for a while still so the Canucks have no choice but to forge on without him. Obviously, they are a different – and better – hockey club with the Selke winner and former 41-goal scorer in their line-up. The hockey club has stated repeatedly that the priority is to make sure Kesler is completely healed and will return only when he is physically ready to ensure he can help the Canucks not just this year, but for years to come. He will be a huge boost to the line-up when that time comes, but the Canucks can’t play as if Kesler is waiting in the wings. The bottom line is he’ll be a while still.
8) Who grabs the final two spots on the blueline?
As far as their top four is concerned, the Canucks appear to have two defensive pairings that stack up with any other NHL team. But do they have a consistent third pairing or will the battle for spots on the blueline continue beyond training camp? Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev were paired together throughout camp and during scrimmages and they have started the season together. But with Andrew Alberts, Cam Barker and Jim Vandermeer also in the fold, the Canucks have nine defensemen with National Hockey League experience. Depth is always an asset and gives the coaching staff plenty of options depending on the opponent the Canucks are facing. Based on experience, Ballard seems to have the inside track on one of the spots in the line-up. His challenge will be keeping it. His time in Vancouver has had its ups and downs, but Ballard remains one of the most popular players in the locker room and seems eager to settle into the role prescribed for him. Remarkably poised despite being just 23, Tanev has looked NHL ready since his big-league debut, but can still be sent to the minors without clearing waivers which is always a factor in a salary-cap world.
9) Can the Canucks continue to cut a swath through the Northwest Division?For the past three seasons, the Canucks have claimed nearly three-quarters of all points available to them against divisional foes. Beat the teams you’re battling with and it makes the task of taking the division title considerably easier. But can the Canucks continue to mow down divisional foes the way they have in recent years? The teams the Canucks will see most in this shortened season certainly hope the tide is turning. The Minnesota Wild loaded up in free agency, the Edmonton Oilers feel they’re on the verge of a quantum leap, the Calgary Flames have a new head coach and renewed optimism and the Colorado Avalanche have some very solid building blocks in place. The division title guarantees a top-three seed in the Western Conference and home ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. There’s been little doubt about the outcome of the Northwest Division race for the past few seasons, but in an all-out sprint to the finish, things may be different this year. How the Canucks fare against their Northwest rivals will go a long way to determining whether they are division champs for a fifth straight season.
10) Who will lead the Canucks in various statistical categories?
In a shortened 48-game season, we’re all going to have get used to revised offensive totals. With the compressed scheduled and the grind of playing so much hockey in a tight time frame, expect overall offensive numbers to be down across the board – especially in the West where travel remains an issue for most teams. The best guess here is that Henrik Sedin – eight points shy of becoming the Canucks all-time leading scorer – will finish the season with a team-high 46 points. Daniel will lead the way with 25 goals followed by Alex Burrows with 22. Newcomer Jason Garrison will show that his 16-goals in a full-season was not a flash in the pan will find the back of the net 10 times in his first year as a Canuck. And Cory Schneider will post 26 victories.