Steve Bernier battles Nabokov November 29, 2009 (AP Photo/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sam Leung)

Roadside assistance required

With their loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Tuesday, the Vancouver Canucks dropped to 2 games below .500 on the road.   Could  some roster changes be far behind?

Ex-Canuck Mattias Ohlund helps clear traffic after Antero Niitymaki makes a save (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/J. Meric )

Not that anyone is pressing the panic button yet, seeing as how the club is not far removed from a 7 game winning streak.  But on their current road trip, the Canucks are 2-3, with one of the wins coming against one of the leagues worst teams, and the other versus a team that had lost 9 straight games.

The fact is that the Canucks are a different team on the road, and it’s showing now more than ever.

Of course, I’ll be one of the first individuals to defend the Canucks ineptitude on the road by pulling the ‘injuries’ card.  It has never been lost on me that Willie Mitchell is our top shutdown defender, and I hope he continues to wear a Vancouver sweater for years to come.  Following a hit from Evgeni Malkin January 16th, Mitchell has been suffering post-concussion symptoms, including headaches.  While a number of Canucks defenders have picked up the slack, it’s nearly impossible to replace what the minutes-muncher brings to the table.  It is projected that he will be back after the Olympics break, but just ask anyone with the last name Lindros how tricky these kind of injuries are, and you see it’s just that – projection.

Willie Mitchell employs the body on Zach Stortini on Boxing day in Vancouver (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck)

Any Vancouver hockey fan knows that every year, a certain amount of games for Sami Salo have to be written off in lieu of injury, -this season being no exception.  They also recognize that when he is healthy, he provides the team with veteran qualities that are hard to replace.  He is patient with the puck, almost always makes a great first pass out of their zone, and his bomb from the point makes goaltenders nervous.  His calming influence on the blueline was noticeably absent in their first 4 games of the current road trip.  Even when things get scrambly, particularly behind Luongo and in the tough areas along the end boards, he remains poised.  He returned from a groin injury against Tampa Bay and during 25 shifts played over 24 minutes, with 4 shots on goal.  Canucks fans are  all crossing their fingers his health prevails down the stretch.

As tough as Kevin Bieksa is, even he can't play with a severed left ankle tendon (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Kevin ‘Boom Boom’ Bieksa must have nightmares about sharp, slicing blades.  His misfortune with errant skate blades has been epic, if not outright freaky.  In particular, the months of November and December are ominous ones for the intense, yet well-humored Grimsby, Ontario native.  November 3rd, 2007 had the 5th round draft pick lacerate his calf, subsequently missing the next 47 games.  The following November (13th), he broke his foot, though only missing 7 games.  Bad luck struck again last December, with a left ankle tendon laceration.  He is sporting a walking cast, and still sidelined indefinitely.  Though Shane O’Brien has elevated his game in several aspects, Bieksa’s nastiness in front of Luongo is sorely missed.  He causes opponents to have their head on a swivel should they crash Roberto when he is patrolling.

The official trade deadline is March 3rd, though there is a roster freeze in effect starting Friday while the Olympics take place.  Of course, General Managers (including Mike Gillis) still have the ability to enter talks with other teams regarding prospective deals.  Considering Gillis’ past performance, I don’t expect more than 2, possibly 3 moves come the deadline, but something must be done.  With the Canucks penchant for sustaining injuries heading into the postseason, and particularly on defense, it should behoove Gillis to pull the trigger to add some defensive depth.

Given Vancouver’s situation in the standings (currently 6th in the Western Conference, 2nd in Northwest), they are ill-advised to stand pat.  Were the playoffs to begin today, the Canucks would face the Colorado Avalanche, with the Avalanche holding home advantage.  Unless Vancouver can get and retain top spot in the Northwest, they will likely will spend the majority of whatever playoff hockey they play on the road.  Considering the Avalanche’s home record (19-8-2), combined with their superior road record (Colorado: 15-11-4,  Vancouver:  12-14-1), the glass certainly looks half-empty for the Canucks.

Should the Canucks road woes continue prior to the Olympic break, it’s highly likely that my next blog will be focusing in on possible names on the tradeblock, and potential suitors from around the NHL.

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