Nov 8, 2001
Sixteen games into the 2001-2002 National Hockey league schedule, The Vancouver Canucks find themselves on the wrong end of "the season of surprises". In a season dominated by the pleasantly surprising starts by teams like the Calgary Flames, New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks, the Canucks sit at the opposite end of surprise. The Canucks have compiled a record of 6 wins, 9 losses and 1 tie, good for 13 of possible 32 points and last in their division. From a team standpoint, it is easy to point to the 48 goals against (second worst in the league) to see why the Canucks are four spots out of the playoffs. If you look at the play of each player individually, it is apparent that the majority of Canucks are struggling to find their game.
On the 24-man roster, only four players have brought their A-game on a consistent basis. Veteran Trent Klatt leads the way with his solid all around play. Klatt has always done the "little things" needed to win hockey games and this year he has some offensive numbers to go with it (7 goals, 3 assists and plus-5). He can be counted on in all situations night after night. Center Brendan Morrison has emerged as a creative point producer in the absence of Andrew Cassels. The numbers speak for themselves (6 goals, 11 assists and plus-1) and there is a noticeable jump and confidence in his game compared to previous years. Morrison was expected to step up coming into this season and he has delivered. Defenceman Jason Strudwick has had a strong start with a plus-3 rating. Strudwick's game is not measured in numbers as he has stuck up for himself and his teammates with some solid fights as well as takes the odd shift up on wing. He does what the coaches ask him to do and has the ultimate team attitude.
Vancouver is often considered a goalie graveyard as many goalies have come and gone in recent years, but Dan Cloutier appears to be on his way to changing that perception. He has always had the physical tools to succeed and now seems to have developed the mental maturity needed to be a number one stopper. His play has been consistently good, and that must continue to eliminate the microscope that is on the Canucks crease this year. While these four players take little solace in personal achievements when the team is struggling, at least they can look themselves in the mirror and know that they are the least of the team's problems.
There are seven players who are playing well, but just below what they are capable of. Markus Naslund has put up some good numbers considering he is coming off a serious injury, yet there are times when the Canuck captain appears to be pressing and trying to carry the team on his shoulders. Many times it is proven that trying to do too much individually has a negative effect on the team. Ed Jovanovski has been guilty of the same thing, as some of the defensive breakdowns he eliminated last season have crept back into his game. Although they may be struggling a bit, these two players have the heart and work ethic to reverse their fortunes. The experienced Todd Bertuzzi, Donald Brashear, Scott Lachance and Andrew Cassels have also been up and down this season and should provide more for the team on a consistent basis. Bertuzzi has been stalled by a suspension that was noble but counter productive to the team. Brashear has shown improvement in his offensive play yet has lost focus in his role as the enforcer, a point that inadvertently contributed to Bertuzzi's suspension. Lachance has been consistent defensively (plus-3) but has zeroes across the board in the points department. Cassels was his steady playmaking self before his injury, but must start to shoot the puck more to keep the opposing defenders and goalies honest, as they like to cheat and focus their coverage on Naslund. Newcomer Justin Kurtz has provided reliable puck movement from the back end but must continue to have a defensive presence in order to make the next step.
Continuing to evaluate the Canucks roster, you are left with thirteen players who are struggling to find their game. To be more blunt, thirteen players who are hurting their teams success this season and wasting valuable minutes far too often game in and game out. Mattius Ohlund and the Sedin twins are the most notable on this list. Ohlund has struggled incredibly and has a minus-7 rating. He has been guilty of making some poor decisions with the puck as well as being exposed in his coverage down low. He is counted on to be a number two defenceman for this team and must improve immensely to fulfill those expectations. Henrik Sedin has shown improved jump and strength in his skating this season yet he is not producing offensively (0 goals, 5 assists and minus-2) and continues to struggle in the face-off circle. Daniel Sedin has been invisible with his play (2 goals, 3 assists and minus-4) and it appears that off-season back surgery has hampered his strength and conditioning. The Sedins are a major factor to the Canucks success or failure because they are getting second line minutes as well as power play time, yet have not met the challenge. While these players are the players with the highest profile, the list of sub par Canucks goes far down the line. Harold Druken was expected to emerge this year yet has one brief trip to the minors to show for his struggles. Matt Cooke has only shown spurts of his infectious spirit and must pick up his level of emotion. Denis Pederson is relied on to provide veteran leadership and defensive strength but has supplied little if any of both. Brent Sopel missed training camp due to contract issues and has played poorly overall, and veteran Drake Berehowsky has slipped into the (coach Marc) Crawford doghouse and been a healthy scratch for several games this year.
As surprising and evident as Vancouver's struggles have been so far, they can be viewed with an optimistic view. They are not a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets, who work hard and play to the best of their abilities yet come up short due to the limited skill their roster provides. The Canucks have talent on their roster but they are not playing up to their capabilities so far. The question for the moment is will they? It is very early in the season of surprises, yet the longer this continues a much more difficult question may arise for General Manager Brian Burke. Did this group of players overachieve last year, or are they underachieving this year?
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