Friday, March 21, 2008

The Unexpected: Vancouver Canucks

*NOTE*: I am currently writing a series of blogs discussing certain teams who I think have the best chance of winning the Cup. However, these clubs consist of teams whose expectations were low to start the season, or now, right before the playoffs. So far, I've I wrote about three of these clubs, the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers and the Calgary Flames.

The final team I will be writing about is the Vancouver Canucks. I know what you’re thinking, this club is not exactly struggling so it seems odd that I would put them in the unexpected list, but I have not heard analysts around the hockey world mention the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup. They are a team that will lurk in the shadows once April comes around, that is, until they make it deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While the Canucks aren’t particularly strong offensively (193 GF), they have the best goaltender in the NHL with Roberto Luongo and a strong defense to accompany him. On most nights, the Canucks are saved with tremendous goaltending that repeatedly gives the offense a chance to strike back. While it has proved to be a hit and miss scenario, the Canucks have the forwards to be a threat in the opposition’s zone, they just need them to realize that.

Let’s start with the team captain, Markus Naslund. At 34 years old, Naslund is beginning to show signs of aging, decreasing in points as the season’s pass. This season, he’s failed to establish himself as the team’s best player, only being able to produce 23 G and 53 PTS respectively. However, Naslund’s presence is still a must if the Canucks wish to attain the Stanley Cup Finals. Known as a quiet leader, Naslund has gained the respect of his teammates, and rightfully so. While he is struggling to produce, his presence brings out the best of everyone on that bench, which is essential going into the playoffs.

Another important forward for the Canucks is Daniel Sedin. While he works tremendously with his brother, Daniel is a special player in his own way. Establishing himself as a goal-scorer, Daniel has great hockey sense and it allows him to find open ice. While he is a threat offensively, he is also solid defensively. However, he’s dropped in the goals and points department scoring 26 G and 67 PTS so far compared to his 36 G and 84 points last season. Still, Daniel and his brother Henrik are proving to be the Canucks top scorers, producing consistently to garner the ‘Nucks some W’s under their belt.

Where there’s Daniel Sedin, there’s Henrik Sedin close by. The brothers have formed innate chemistry together, feeding of one another’s raw skill to play the puck with precision, or snipe it past the goaltender. Henrik is the playmaker of the duo, but it’s not as if he can’t score some goals (15 so far). While both the brothers have great defensive tendencies, Henrik is more reliable in that department; mainly due to the physical edge he brings to the table. Like Daniel, he too is struggling compared to last season, but they still remain one of the team’s best players.

As far as leadership is concerned, Brendan Morrison is a huge factor for the Canucks. When Morrison is in the line-up, the Canucks are instilled with pride, determination and character. The 32 year old can produce offensively as well, recording 9 G and 24 PTS in just 35 games this season after a wrist injury set him back. In Morrison, the Canucks have a good face-off man, an excellent playmaker, and a powerplay specialist. If he continues to stay healthy, he will play a vital part to the Canucks’ success in the playoffs.

While Matthias Ohlund is out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, he will be an important player once the playoffs begin. Ohlund has size, mobility, a good hockey sense and a blast from the point. While he has the tools to be a huge factor offensively, he struggles to find consistency in that department. However, Ohlund is capable of shutting down the best forwards in the league, and this makes him a crucial part to the Canucks’ defense core.

If there is an intimating defenseman on the Canucks, it’s most certainly Kevin Bieksa. To go along with his big shot from the point, Bieksa loves to initiate the physical aspects of his game. He is defensively responsible and his durability will be well appreciated in the playoffs. After returning from a calf laceration injury, Bieksa is beginning to play at full potential once again, and just in time.

The key to any Canucks success is the play of Roberto Luongo. He is the team MVP and league superstar. At 28 years old, Luongo is one of the game’s best for possessing great size, fast speed, perfect butterfly positioning and having the ability to steal games. In the playoffs last year he posted an incredible 1.77 GAA and a .941 SV% in 12 games. If Luongo can produce those types of numbers again, you can bet that the Canucks won’t have to worry about goaltending issues.

With this core intact, the Canucks have the potential to do some serious damage in the post-season. However, the main concern still lies with their offensive production. If team captain Markus Naslund can inspire better efforts from his troops, the Canucks will host an all-around solid group of players.