If any General Manager was asked if they would trade a shot at the Stanley Cup in exchange for a rough start to the following season, the majority would likely jump at the opportunity.
Though there are no “genies in a bottle” that would offer this kind of trade-off, I use it to illustrate the position the Canucks find themselves in this season. Having gone as deep as a team possibly can in 2010/11, injuries sustained in that run have affected the team profoundly. Three players that immediately spring to mind are Mason Raymond, Manny Malhotra and Ryan Kesler (the caveat being that Malhotra was injured prior to the playoffs, but couldn’t train all off-season). How the Bruins (Johnny Boychuk) escaped without a major suspension for the hit from behind on Mason Raymond in the Finals still eludes many hockey pundits. But we’re here to evaluate the aftermath of the long playoff run, which has Canucks fans wondering what kind of team to expect, especially over the next dozen games or thereabouts.
A quarter of the way through the season already, the Canucks rest in 11th position in the Western conference, one game above “five hundred” hockey. Statisticians tell us that this pace is not good enough for a playoff position, though any Canuck fan will tell you that it’s simply not good enough, period. Yes, we’ve had enough of a sample size to know what to expect from the team, but the real X-factor here is the teams’ overall healthiness. Watching Ryan Kesler play, it’s obvious that he hasn’t fully recovered from his hip surgery during the summer. Normally, his fore-check is so tenacious that often defenders find themselves losing the puck before they ever recognize someone is hot on their trail. So far this season, the Canucks’ 5-on-5 play has left many wondering where all of their even-strength goals have gone. For a team that needs the puck for their cycle and ‘tic-tac-toe’ plays, the fore-check just hasn’t put it on their sticks enough.
Mason Raymond, another piece of the speed puzzle, is getting close to returning, which could be just what the doctor ordered. Very often paired with Kesler on the 2nd line, his speed and ability to close the gap on defenders quickly could be a kick-start for Kesler’s return to form as well. Raymond has been starting out slowly, taking shifts as a defenseman during practice and scrimmages, and had some incidental contact with Aaron Rome.
For me, I need to start getting bumped. I need to start feeling more comfortable and getting into more game-like situations. Today was a good step. I need to skate tomorrow, do more and we’ll assess the situation after that. Do I feel comfortable just yet? No. And I have no timetable.
At the quarter point of this NHL season, the Canucks find themselves someplace they haven’t been very accustomed to in the standings – under the playoff cut-off line. Hopefully, as they begin to return to a more healthy level, the points and the standings will take care of themselves.