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20 questions after 20 games

Tuesday, 12.11.2013 / 5:16 PM / Features
By Jeff Paterson
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20 questions after 20 games
To help pass the time before the Canucks play again, it seems like a good time to reflect on the first quarter of the schedule and play a rousing game of 20 Questions.
To help pass the time before the Canucks play again, it seems like a good time to reflect on the first quarter of the schedule and play a rousing game of 20 Questions.

But this version of the old classic has nothing to do with a breadbox and by posing the questions -- and providing the answers -- I’ve saved you the stress of trying to determine whether you’re seeking an animal, vegetable or mineral. No, in this version of 20 Questions every single answer is relates to the Vancouver Canucks first 20 games of the season:

How does the schedule affect any assessment of the Canucks at the 20-game mark? Without question, the fact the Canucks have played 13 of their first 20 games on the road has to be taken into account when grading the hockey club. At 7-4-2 on the road, the Canucks have done more than hold their own in the early going. And now they get their share of home cooking and a chance to put the luggage away for a while and open the second quarter of the schedule with a six-game homestand.

What have the Canucks learned about life in the new Pacific Division? That, as expected, it’s going to be tougher than the old Northwest Division. The balance of power in the NHL is clearly out west and the Pacific Division looks like a beast. The Canucks best game of their opening 20 was a 4-2 victory in San Jose and they’ll need to keep a copy of that gameplan at their disposal and refer to it often. If they play the way they did that night against the Sharks, they can have success against other division foes. But they have already seen that there will be no easy nights in the Pacific and the return to division post-season play is will produce some epic match-ups at season’s end.

What’s with all the strange goals that were scored in the first 20 games? Another tough one to answer. But there is no doubt there have been some bizarre bounces in Canucks games this season. The Canucks have seen more than they’d like go in at their end (Lars Eller, Joe Thornton, Corey Perry), but the Canucks have benefitted from a few as well (Ryan Kessler off the end boards in Philadelphia and Alex Edler scoring from centre in Pittsburgh). I’m a believer that those types of bounces even out in the end, so we’ll have to see how the season unfolds. But it’s hard to imagine any stranger goals will be scored the rest of the way than the wild ones offered up in the first 20 game stretch.

Is John Tortorella a changed man? It’s impossible to know for sure, but 20 games into the season there has been very little bombast from the new bench boss. He’s been blunt in his assessment of both team play and individual performances, but the new coach has managed to maintain his composure in his daily dealings with the Vancouver media. Sixty-two games remain and there will surely be some challenges ahead. But through the first 20 games, Mount Tortorella certainly hasn’t erupted and really has barely blown off any steam.

Can the Canucks get past the ‘Curse of 1’? This phenomenon is tough to explain, but in all seven of the Canucks’ regulation losses this season, they have scored just one goal. They haven’t been shutout and they haven’t lost a goal-fest. One and they’ve been done. But more than one and they’ve been virtually unbeatable. The numbers show when the Canucks score more than one goal, they’ve picked up at least a point in the standings (11-0-2).

Is Mike Santorelli the best bargain in the NHL? According to salary tracking website capgeek.com, the answer is yes. Taking into account salary, point production and time on ice, the website has formulated a list it calls Bargain Hunters and Santorelli is at the top of the heap. With 12 points and averaging 19:36 of ice per game at a cap-friendly $550,000 this season, Santorelli is giving the Canucks the best bang for their buck league-wide. And not far behind, defenseman Ryan Stanton finds himself tied for 10th on that list.

Who’s been the Canucks best defenseman? Kevin Bieksa. The veteran has done a nice job at both ends of the ice. He has nine points – all assists (and eight of them on the road). He leads the team in hits (39) and plus/minus (+9) and is third on the club in blocked shots (31). And he’s done all of that while playing with a controlled aggression that has seen him make just seven trips to the penalty box.

What’s been the key to the league’s best penalty kill? Hard work is the easy answer. But beyond that, you have to look to some of the unsung heroes. Chris Tanev leads the Canucks in average short-handed ice time (2:40) while guys like Brad Richardson, Mike Santorelli and Chris Higgins have all done a nice job especially with veteran penalty killer Alex Burrows sidelined for a dozen games.

Will Brad Richardson set a new career-high for goals in a season? It’s impossible to know, but he’s put himself in position to raise the bar he set in his second season in the league when he netted 14 goals for the Colorado Avalanche (2006-07). Richardson has five goals in his first 20 games as a Canuck which puts him on pace for 20-goals in his first full season in Vancouver. And while his production may ebb and flow over the course of a lengthy season, he’s certainly had the kind of start that will allow him every opportunity to take a run at a new personal best.

Has Eddie Lack earned more starts with his play? It’s hard to know what the plans are for the likeable Swede who has been among the team’s most-pleasant surprises. Coming off hip surgery and without NHL game-action on his resume prior to the year, Lack has certainly shown he belongs at this level. With 17 sets of back to back games, the rookie is likely to get 17-20 starts and that’s probably a solid workload for a first year goalie. But one of the questions facing the Canucks heading into their season was about their goaltending depth. The early reviews are in and Eddie Lack has given the Canucks the kind of goaltending they had hoped for. He’s won two starts and given the team a chance to win the other two.

Where has Jason Garrison’s offense gone? This is perhaps the most-perplexing question being asked about any individual through 20 games. Garrison scored the team’s first goal of the season and added another goal two nights later. Through eight games, the defenseman was rolling at a point-a-game clip with two goals and six assists. Since then, however, a lone assist is his only offensive contribution. The team’s power play struggles provide some of the answer, but a player who shoots the puck the way Garrison can needs to find a way to pepper goalies and either beat them cleanly or have them give up rebounds that teammates can convert.

What can be done to jumpstart the power play? While much debate swirls about who should man the points, the Canucks need to examine the production they get from their forwards while operating with the man-advantage. Of the top 30 power play goal-scorers in the league so far this season, 29 of them are forwards. That’s not to discount the role of blueliners in the process, but in today’s NHL most power play goals are scored by forwards. The Canucks have to figure out why their top-end talent can’t pull the trigger while working with an extra skater.

What has happened to the slap pass? Once a staple of the Canucks power play, Henrik faking a slap shot and then sliding a pass to Daniel in the high slot for a redirection has for some reason vanished from the Sedins’ playbook. Perhaps it’s time for a revival. So many teams defend by collapsing down low which means more traffic in front of the net and more bodies to get pucks past, but Henrik used to be able to draw defenders to him and then find a seam to slip the puck to his brother. The slap pass won’t always work, but it has been an effective tool for the twins in the past and maybe the Sedins should retrace their steps.

How do you assess Alex Edler’s first 20-games? This one’s a trick question since the big Swedish blueliner has only played 17 games (he was suspended for three). So to be fair, Edler gets three more games before any 20-game judgement can be rendered. There is no question there is more to give at both ends of the ice. With just 2+4=6, his offensive numbers are off his usual pace and he has yet to take control of a game from his defense position. The suspension may have impacted his physical play, but Edler needs to find his comfort zone again and figure out a way to leave his mark on the opposition and on hockey games.

Do the Canucks need Henrik Sedin to score more goals? DDYes. As the team leader with 20 points in 20 games, the Canucks captain is off to a solid offensive start to the season. But only three of his points are goals and that puts him on pace for 12 on the season. He scored 11 in a 48-game season a year ago. One of the game’s great playmakers, Henrik plays such important role on the hockey club that he needs to be a threat to score a little more often. Once a 29-goal scorer, the ability to put the puck in the net is certainly there but sometimes it seems it needs some coaxing. Henrik has taken passing to never before seen levels during his time in Vancouver, but a goal here or a goal there could make a huge difference in the tight games the Canucks are so often involved in.

Who’s been the most unfortunate Canuck in the first 20 games? This one is a toss-up between Jordan Schroeder and David Booth. Neither has been able to stay healthy enough to contribute to the cause. Schroeder came back from off-season shoulder surgery only to injure his leg in the preseason and then again in the regular season. Booth, too, spent the summer trying to get healthy in the wake of last year’s serious ankle injury. But he was slowed in the preseason by a groin injury which has held him back during the regular season, too.

What has stood out in the first 20 games? The Canucks have been terrific in close hockey games going 7-1-2 in one-goal games so far this season. Only league-leading Anaheim has more points in one-goal games. But the fact the Canucks have been involved in 10 of them shows just how tightly contested so many NHL games are. There will be plenty more in the months ahead and the Canucks are going to have to continue their mastery in the one-goal games.

What areas require the most attention after 20 games? The easiest answer is the power play. It simply has to find a way to produce. Beyond that, the team’s performance in shootouts needs to be examined. The Canucks have been to three of them and managed to win just one. Their shooters are 2 for 12 on the season and in a conference where every point gained is so important, the Canucks need to step up their shootout success – or perhaps they can do more to avoid them altogether (they’re 4-0 in games settled in overtime).

Who’s been the biggest surprise? Mike Santorelli has been a terrific surprise given the role he’s played and the way he has handled it, but he had a body of work at the NHL level and needed to rediscover his game. Ryan Stanton had played one game in the league prior to joining the Canucks, yet he has looked right at home since being claimed off waivers from Chicago in the days ahead of the season opener.

Who has the most room for improvement? As outlined above, both Jason Garrison and Alex Edler are certainly capable of delivering more offense. But when it comes to sparking the Canucks and making them a better hockey team, Alex Burrows is the guy to keep an eye on as the team heads into the second 20-game portion of its schedule. Hobbled by an opening night injury that kept him out of the line-up for 12 games, Burrows is still looking for his first goal of the season. If he can find the scoring touch he’s shown in recent years, he gives the Canucks balance and depth and will make them a much more dangerous team.