Friday, January 18, 2013

Sedins among the league's Cup-less best

**UPDATE: See this article get a shout out on CanucksArmy's "Afternoon Headshots: Januay 21st" (scroll to the bottom).

Way back in August, I posted an article regarding Roberto Luongo's standing among the most successful goalies in NHL history never to win a Stanley Cup.  Going by regular season wins, he ranks dubiously at the top among active goalies and third all-time.  So because playing in Vancouver for an extended period of time just tends to have this championship-less effect on players, how do the Canucks' other high-profile vets rank among active players without a ring?

The numbers are decidedly less striking than Luongo's, but at 747 career points, Henrik Sedin's production ranks him 9th overall in that regard.  Trailing him by 29 points is Daniel at 13th.

At the top of the list are Daniel Alfredsson (1,082 points), Joe Thornton (1,078) and Jarome Iginla (1,073) – three players who, like the teams they play for, have their very best years behind them.  So too may be the case for the Sedins, but I think consensus could be had around the league that Vancouver remains a higher probability for a Cup this season than Ottawa, San Jose or Calgary.

Who, then, among this list of mostly aging NHL stars,¹ stands the best chance of beating the Sedins to a championship?  If the past two decades of NHL hockey has taught us anything, it's that the Red Wings and Devils are to be considered near-annual contenders.  In that case, could Todd Bertuzzi do in Detroit what he couldn't as a member of the West Coast Express?  And not that Ilya Kovalchuk particularly cares about the NHL, but the Parise-less Devils aren't completely out of the question.

Nonetheless, it appears that Henrik and Daniel have the edge over their fellow luckless veterans.

If, for whatever reason, you need that statement quantified, you can look to any of the recently-updated betting odds online.  Bovada has the Canucks as 9:1 favourites, ranking them third behind the Penguins (8:1) and Rangers (8.5:1).  (The odds-makers clearly have a more positive take on the Canucks' second line than anyone in Vancouver does.)

But the fact that the Sedins are on this list at all underlines this slowly creeping notion that Vancouver's team is, to a certain degree, aging.  While Zack Kassian and Nicklas Jensen have been promising, any major contributions from them are still a few years out.  Giving Cory Schneider the crease certainly helps in lowering the core's average age, but the Canucks remain, undisputedly, the Sedins' team. 

Simply put, the Canucks live and die with the Sedins.  And life has been pretty good with the twins (when was the last time in team history Vancouver has been such routine Cup contenders), but they can't play at their current level indefinitely.  At 32 years of age, common wisdom suggests they have two or three elite-level seasons left in them.  Possibly more, but it is a rare breed of player that ages as such.

It is now...ish or never.

The Canucks' second line will inevitably return this season, at which point, the Sedins will have another legitimate shot at adding a championship to their already-prestigious NHL mantels.  The Daniel Alfredssons of the league are simply out of luck.


¹With the exception of 29-year-old Kovalchuk, all players on the list are 30-plus.

*Read the online discussion regarding this article on the forums here.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Steve Nash and Mark Messier: Basketball for Canadian Dummies

If Steve Nash were the type of person that required a lot of attention, he would have quite a dilemma.  As a skinny, white Canadian incapable of dunking, he commands an undeservedly miniscule amount of fanfare in the NBA.  Meanwhile in Canada, where the reverse is true, the average sports enthusiast's puck-riddled brain wants to, but cannot properly, appreciate his genius.  Yours truly, included.

So when the Lakers point guard became the fifth player to record 10,000 career assists on Tuesday night, I scrolled through the NBA record books pretending to know exactly how prestigious it was to be in the company of one Mark Jackson (third all-time).

While the other three players to reach 10,000 helpers – John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson – yield a significantly higher profile than Jackson, those names simply do not mean much in Canada.  They don't, at least, to me.  So rather than continue feigning NBA expertise, I gave into my 2 a.m. stupor and... wait for it... turned to the NHL record books in hopes of understanding the basketball milestone.

A hockey-based analysis of an NBA achievement.  In honour of the the country's greatest basketball export, it was the most Canadian response I could think of.  If Nash's statistical ranking were applied in an NHL context, where would he rank?  Is he an Adam Oates?  Dare I suggest, a Ron Francis?

Well, at fifth overall, his hockey doppleganger appears to be Paul Coffey at 1,135 assists.  For those of you appropriately questioning the validity of this endeavour, I propose to you that 10,000 assists in the NBA are uncannily akin to 1,100 in the NHL.  (One-thousand would be a nice, round number, but the extra 100 seems to account for what appears to be longer careers in the NHL.)  An elite passer in the NBA should boast somewhere around a 10.0 assists-per-game pace, while the same such player in the NHL hovers at about a-tenth of that rate.  Meanwhile, both leagues typically operate on an 82-game schedule. 

Five players in the NBA's 10,000-assist club.  An equal five in the NHL at 1,100.  And just as Wayne Gretzky put his record-setting total permanently out of range, so too has John Stockton.  Way to help this ridiculous comparison along, sporting gods. 

Unlike Coffey, however, Nash is still pluggin' away at his trade.  With 8.9 assists per game at 38 years old, his current output remains three-tenths above his career average.  (Forget Paul Coffey; Nash is clearly the NBA's response to Gordie Howe.)  At that rate, he will have passed Johnson and Jackson by the end of the season for third overall.  Depending on how many years Kidd has left, Nash has an outside chance at second-best all-time... better known as Ron Francis stature.  Unfortunately, third means Mark Messier for Canada's basketball legend, a fate no one even remotely from Vancouver deserves.

But nevermind that (or any of this, if you lack a sense of humour).  Point is, we need to celebrate Nash as we would any of hockey's equivalents.  The reasons are exactly 10,014 and counting.


Monday, January 07, 2013

The Higgins-Ebbett-and-Booth effect

Fist pump with my Sunday morning coffee.  It's over.  Cue the angelic chorus... The endless tweets.

Cue the renewed storylines that everyone has an opinion on by now.  When and where will Luongo go?  Is Schneider a capable NHL starter?  What's Kesler timeline?  How many goals will Garrison score?  No doubt, these questions are crucially intertwined with any continued success the Canucks hope to have come glorious puck drop.  With the lockout preventing these storylines from actually playing out, the anticipation has compounded.

But behind every headline are the unsung stories that could ultimately mean just as much for a team.  Case in point: It is unlikely that after acquiring Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne last off-season, Los Angeles fans had any idea that their most important player that year, far and away, would end up being Jonathan Quick.

So while we'll justifiably continue our anticipation of the trade, don't forget these next three storylines (in no particular order) that you may not have given as much consideration thus far.

Andrew Ebbett to the rescue

Last season, Ebbett competed for a job that no one hoped he'd win against Cody Hodgdson.  Indeed, that two-man race ended with him spending the majority of the campaign in a suit and tie.  While Hodgson was an immediate hit, little attention was paid to Ebbett's success when he did figure into the lineup.  Granted, it's not the biggest sample size, but in the 18 games he played last season, he was on pace for 22 goals.  Needless to say, that would be a welcome pace with Kesler out of the lineup.

Barring a significant asset at centre in exchange for Lu, it appears the diminutive forward is a lock for opening night this time around.  Though he'll be competing with yet another rookie hopeful for second line duty, Ebbett's experience seems to give him a clear edge over Jordan Schroeder.  Let the vertically-challenged battle begin.

Chris Higgins' contract year

If you're going to write about a Canuck entering a contract year, most people want to talk about Alex Edler.  But seeing as we're trying to unearth the upcoming season's unsung stories, what better player to start with than 2012 "unsung hero" Chris Higgins.

After playing a supporting role as a deadline acquisition in 2011, the Canucks rewarded him with a two-year, $3.8 million deal.  Higgins returned the favour with a nearly identical points-per-game (0.61) and cap hit ($1.9 million) combination as Burrows' (0.65 at $2 million).  That said, Higgins was literally just as much of a bargain as Burr was last season, which says a lot.  And just as the Picourt, Quebec-native cashed in with a four-year, $18 million deal last September, Higgins is also due for a raise, should he maintain his pace.  (Mind you, I doubt anyone expects Gillis to pattern a similar deal for him.)

For that reason, expect the utility winger to play with the same urgency he showed last year, pre-bacterial infection and all that general unpleasantness.  That's good news for the Canucks, who are a  better team with Higgins, who – when healthy – seems to be their most consistent forward.

David Booth's secondary scoring

Way back in July, when lockouts were not yet part of our daily vocabulary, BTD ran an article about Booth holding the unlikely key to Canucks success in 2012–13.  With Kesler out long-term, the former 40-goal star-in-the-making would be the highest-profile forward not named Sedin or, arguably, Burrows on the team.  As such, he would shoulder the burden of secondary scoring.

Fast forward six months and the story remains unchanged.  Unlike Higgins, Booth is no good to the Canucks in the bottom-six and he is no bargain.  Gillis put him in a Vancouver uniform to score goals and he'll pay him at least $4.5 million for three more years to do so.

While a mediocre Booth isn't absolutely detrimental to the Canucks, a lot more of this will go a long way.  How long?  Put it this way.  The 2010–11 Canucks showed the league that having two elite goal-scorers in front of a stocked back-end is a nearly unstoppable combination.  If/when Kesler returns, imagine what they could do with three 40-goal scorers playing in top form.  That said, there is a lot riding on Booth living up to his cap hit.

Maybe even a Stanley Cup.


Friday, January 04, 2013

Still something to prove for RNH and company

When Ryan Nugent-Hopkins confirmed that he and his shoulder would be available for the World Juniors this year, it appeared that Canada would be without excuse.  (Not that they ever are.)  The blissful effect that an NHL lockout can have on Canada's gold medal hopes at the World Juniors has been well-reported for months.  In Nugent-Hopkins, Canada was supposed to have a Patrice Bergeron 2.0 – the type of player that, thanks to the lockout, would catalyze utter dominance, a la 2005.  With even more offensive upside than Bergeron had as a 19-year-old, it seemed the sky was the limit for where the Nuge could take Canada.

That was all just 24 hours ago.  As it currently stands, Canada will play for bronze for the second consecutive year.  What exactly happened?  Given the country's expectations for Nugent-Hopkins, in particular, it might be all too easy to center the blame on the Oilers star.  Having gone pointless against the United States in their semifinal loss, it's safe to say that Canada required more of their captain.  But if we're going to uphold the 2005 comparison, Bergeron's supporting cast was, in a word, immaculate (Perry, Getzlaf, Richards, Carter, Phaneuf, etc, etc.).  Nugent-Hopkins may have been held off the scoresheet, but Canada's roster as a whole failed to perform against the Americans.

From tournament get-go, it was apparent that this Team Canada was a work in progress.  Virtually anything they did in their own zone was alarming and their powerplay was worse still.  Too often Canada's defence seemed incapable of a proper breakout or proper coverage.  Crossing either blueline seemed a chore.  Fortunately, they were able to hone their game against Germany and Slovakia, after which they did improve.  So much so that they manhandled Russia after holding on against the States the first time around. 

With a couple days off for bad habits and lazy plays to settle themselves back into Canada's repertoire, however, they followed a perfect game against Russia with their worst performance of the tournament. 

Often times, Canada gets away with their B-game at the World Juniors, even against the US.  But Canada was as bad as American goaltender John Gibson was good.  And that ultimately put the game – and tournament – away for Nugent-Hopkins and company. 

Nevertheless, it can be hard to keep things in perspective as Canadian hockey fans.  This country's juniors have so consistently spoiled us in previous World Juniors that playing for bronze embitters us far too easily.  This Friday, Canada will attempt their 15th consecutive medal.  Let that settle in until you feel pride in this country's junior program again.  It is a phenomenal accomplishment in any tournament for any sport.

So as much as it seems like it, this World Juniors is not yet over.  There is still pride to be won.  Nugent-Hopkins remains the tournament's best player and will have to play the part if Canada wants to beat Russia a second time on Friday.  Bring it home, boys.


Thursday, January 03, 2013

The NHL and Pride Rock: A summary of locked out Canucks in Europe

NHL circles have been abuzz for the past couple of days as the league's highest-profile players competing abroad have either already returned to North America or are planning to do so shortly.  Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza promptly ended their European tours following Canada's Spengler Cup triumph, while Cory Schneider and Matt Duchene have put their team on notice

If the NHL were the Lion King, this would be that opening scene where all the animals are flocking to Pride Rock.  In anticipation of something big.  You know... Ahhhh-sabenyaaaa...

Anyways, the implication is clear.  NHL play is nigh.  So with the expectant return of Canucks players competing overseas, their performances abroad can now be guaged with some sense of finality.  Because we can still only speculate the lockout's end, this may, in fact, be jumping the gun, but hakuna matata right?

Not including Mason Raymond, who hasn't yet played for his new Swedish team, the Canucks have had six players compete in Europe.  In order of their signing, they are Nicklas Jensen, Dale Weise, Jannik Hansen and Cory Schneider.  Just in case you haven't been among the more compulsive of us, checking up on our displaced heroes game-by-game, here's what they've been up to all this time:

Nicklas Jensen; AIK (Elitserien)
32 GP, 12 G, 4 A, 16 Pts, 16 PIM

It was asserted early on that the Canucks' youngest Dane is remaining in Sweden regardless of the lockout.  For developmental purposes, it's not the worst idea, but you have to imagine that team brass have to at least be reconsidering the notion several months later.  Jensen quickly took Sweden by storm, scoring eight goals in his first 15 games with AIK.  While his pace has slowed considerably, his 12 goals still accounts for nearly one-sixth of his team's total (AIK sits third-last in Sweden).  The fact that he is also tied for sixth in league goal-scoring as a 19-year-old tells you that he might just be the Canucks' surest thing since Hodgson (yes, I said the H-word). Case in point, 2:25 of this video.

If he's made available for international play, look for him to dominate for Denmark at their Olympic qualifying tournament against such competition as Slovenia and Ukraine in February.

Dale Weise; Tilburg Trappers (Eredivisie)
18 GP, 22 G, 24 A, 46 Pts, 77 PIM

The first Canucks roster player to sign abroad, Weise sent blogs and discussion boards in a tizzy after scoring eight points in his first two games.  The whole tough-guy-turned-Dutch-superstar schtick really was too good to pass up for the few legitimate outlets actually covering his stint with Tilburg.  In reference to having chosen number 88 (his birth year) with Tilburg, Pass it to Bulis declared him "the Eric Lindros of Holland".

For as much comedic relief as Weise's wild success provided, however, some bona fide credit is due to the fourth-liner.  When he first signed, it appeared anyone could have really cared less.  Ultimately, he made people back home actually notice a marginal player competing abroad by leading the league in scoring.  Someone tell Gillis to sign linemate Josh Prudden, pronto! 

But what I really wanna know is what on earth happened when he got 30 penalty minutes for "abuse of officials" last week?

Jannik Hansen; Tappara Tampere (SM-liiga)
18 GP, 6 G, 10 A, 16 Pts, 39 PIM

Not long after the Dutch Lindros signed in Europe, Hansen followed suit.  After collecting a season-high three points in his debut with Tappara on November 1, the Danish winger has been steadily producing at nearly a point-a-game pace.  To put that into context, fellow NHLers Valtteri Filppula, Jussi Jokinen and Mikko Koivu – all of whom enjoy a far higher profile than Hansen – are scoring at similar rates in the competitive SM-liiga.

Currently on a five-game point streak, Hansen was even moved to centre recently after 17-year-old Aleksander Barkov left for the World Juniors.  Looks like the Canucks can end that search for a third-line centre... 'm I right?

Cory Schneider; HC Ambri-Piotta (National League A)
8 GP; 4 W, 4 L, 3.22 GAA, .913 Sv%

While rivals Boston and Chicago had Bergeron, Seguin and Patrick Kane competing in Switzerland early in the season, the Canucks lacked a legitimate star to follow abroad.  Enter Cory Schneider and the dual citizenship unbeknownst to nearly anyone.

In Weise's case, nobody anticipated cared if he would dominate the Dutch league, whereas that was the exact expectation for Schneider in Switzerland.  The only problem was, quite simply, Ambri-Piotta.  Schneider's new team was (and still is) second-last in the league, a fact that is clearly reflected in the netminder's statline.  Despite a respectable .913 save percentage (including four 40-save performances), his GAA is sky-high at 3.22. 

Nonetheless, when he wasn't getting danced by Kane in shootouts, Schneider was lifting his team into respectability.  In eight games, Schneider is .500; by comparison, Ambri-Piotta was 7-19 previously.  Having Matt Duchene defect from Sweden shortly after Schneider's debut certainly didn't hurt either.

Outside of league play, Schneider was also lent out to HC Fribourg-Gotteron for the always bizarrely-formatted Spengler Cup.  Splitting starts with Benjamin Conz (of 2010 World Junior fame), he went 0-2.  After allowing two goals on 17 shots to HC Vitkovice Steel in group play, he was lit up by Duchene and the Team Canada juggernaut in the semifinals.

Hopefully it won't be too long before Schneider has a team to match his calibre playing in front of him.  So here's to Schneids exacting revenge on Kane in NHL play.  And to Weise continuing his 2.5 points-per-game pace with the Canucks.

Vancouver needs its Dutch Lindros.