Posted by: viewfromacouch | September 7, 2010

Canucks Off-Season Reflections: With autumn closing in…

I had been waiting until Kevin Bieksa was traded to comment on the Canucks’ off-season dealings, but as each day goes by without that happening, it seems more and more likely that it won’t. And like Willie Mitchell before me, I’m getting impatient. So… Where to begin? This was my assessment at the end of last season:

Changes need to be made. Big changes, especially on defense. But this team is not that far away. The Canucks have never had forward depth like they currently enjoy, and it’s been quite a while since they had young players showing such promise. This is still a relatively young team that will get younger next year, and they’re currently set up to contend for the next half decade at least. Tough as they may be to find right now, there are a lot of positives to be taken out of this season. Overhauling the defense in one summer is a lot to ask, but it’s what Mike Gillis must do. We shall see if he has what it takes.

As it turns out, he does and he doesn’t. Now, that’s not entirely his fault. The task assigned to him — to bring in three top-six quality defensemen and jettison Bieksa — was nigh impossible. And yet, until Sami Salo went and hurt himself with the second third-most embarrassing injury of his career, he was on course to do just that. … Maybe.

With school back in session this week and training camp just around the corner, what better way to get caught up than with a freshman facebook?

THE NEW GUYS

Keith Ballard

I’ve already written at length about the Ballard trade, but needless to say, I like it. Ballard is a hard-hitting speedster who will pair well with Christian Ehrhoff. Put the two of them behind Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler and you might have the fastest four-man unit in the league. It was a stiff price to pay for his services, but now is the time to go all-in. While he’s never been able to match the offensive output of his rookie season, he’s also been stuck on bad teams. Riding shotgun on one the league’s top offenses should give his numbers a boost.

Dan Hamhuis

Hamhuis will be in tough to fill Mitchell’s shoes as the team’s go-to shutdown defender, but he brings other elements that Willie does not. Namely: durability. While Vancouver’s defense corps will take something of a hit in quality by replacing Salo and Mitchell with Ballard and Hamhuis, it is infinitely more dependable. Health was becoming too much of a risk on the back-end, and in Hamhuis the Canucks are adding a player who has missed all of nine games in his entire NHL career. Comparatively, Aaron Rome missed more games than that last season alone, and he was one the lesser injuries on the Canucks’ back-end.

Just like Ballard, Hamhuis has a penchant for throwing hip-checks. It should be fun watching the two of them tear it up this season.

Manny Malhotra

Malhotra is the rock of stability the Canucks’ bottom-six forward group has been missing ever since Kesler graduated to scoring duties. Kyle Wellwood did what he could, and his contributions should not be slighted — but he was never the right fit. The third line lacked a defined role, torn between a checking unit and a third scoring line. The results were mixed.

While the Canucks will again hope for some scoring punch from the third line, it’s now set to be composed of checkers who can score, as opposed to scorers who can learn to check. The difference is subtle, but critical. Wellwood, Bernier and the like all had to be taught to play responsibly. They were young players forced to change their game to survive. At age 30, Malhotra is exactly what you’d expect from a third line centre, no assembly required.

Like Wellwood, he’s a face-off wizard whose winning percentage on the draw was tops in the league for the 2010 playoffs. Unlike Wellwood, he’s got blazing speed and scored at a decent clip last season. Should Cody Hodgson or Jordan Schroeder make the team this year, having a veteran like Malhotra play alongside them should help mitigate any rookie growing pains. Overpaid though he may be at $2.5M per year, his contract expires as soon as the Canucks will need that money: when Hodgson and Schroeder’s deals are up in 2013.

Raffi Torres

Let it be said immediately that I hate detest loathe this man. No “Canuck Killer” has infuriated Vancouver hockey fans quite like Torres. Be it his success with the Oilers, his soul-patch facial fuzz, his ridiculous mohawk, his wildly original and unique tattoo, or his habit of shouting profanity after scoring clutch goals, so much of this man’s essence makes me want to jam my fist through his exceptionally punchable face. But all of these things (save the tattoo — unforgivable) make him an effective player.

Raffi Torres is a natural irritant, and just like Malhotra, he’s the exact type of player Vancouver has needed on the third line since Alex Burrows followed Kesler to the top-six. This is a player who scored nearly 30 goals for Edmonton in ’05/’06, and he should inherit a sizable chunk of Wellwood and Bernier’s powerplay time. While he can’t be expected to score at that rate, it’s also not required of him. Having spent some time as a top six forward on weak teams, Torres comes to Vancouver as a depth player on a favourable contract. At the very least, he’ll make the Canucks a pain to play against.

Jeff Tambellini

Shameful admission: I had hoped Vancouver would draft Tambellini with their first-round pick in 2003. Ryan Kesler, their actual pick, has since become my favourite player in the league. Tambellini? Not so much. He’s still a decent player, mind you. A prolific scorer at the AHL level, Tambellini hasn’t been able to translate that success to the NHL just yet. He had a hot start to the season last year for the Islanders, but was pulled from the line-up when his game cooled off. With Burrows slated to be out with an injury to start the year, a hot start may be all the Canucks need of him. Should he fail to make the big club, he replaces Michael Grabner’s production in Manitoba.

Bill Sweatt

Having already signed his older brother Lee earlier this year, the Canucks wasted no time in acquiring Bill just three days after he became available. A college hold-out who played all four years at Colorado, Sweatt was dealt from Chicago to Toronto in the Kris Versteeg deal after refusing to sign with the Blackhawks. He didn’t sign with Toronto either, but who can blame him? The Canucks paid a pretty penny to acquire his services, but they stand to gain a quality young player by doing so.

Sweatt was the fastest skater available in the 2007 draft, and though his offensive upside is limited, his speed and defensive awareness should make him an ideal third line player. It’s unlikely he’ll start the year in Vancouver, but his signing is based entirely on future potential. He still has much to prove before he can begin earning his bonus-laden NHL deal, but there’s plenty of cause for optimism with this player. Even if he never pans out, it cost the team nothing but money to pick him up. It’s like getting a first round pick for free and not having to wait four years for him to develop.

Joel Perrault

What can be said about Joel Perrault except nothing? The man is a complete unknown. He has an outside chance at cracking the line-up as a fourth line centre, but the competition for that spot will be fierce. Despite his one-way contract, I suspect he was signed to bolster the Moose. It wouldn’t be the first time Gillis has signed someone to a one-way deal to provide organizational depth in Manitoba. Jason Krog says hello. But who knows? I said the same things about Aaron Rome last year, and he was a complete surprise. Speaking of which, all roads lead to…

Aaron Rome

He may not belong on the list, as Rome is not a newcomer to the Canuck fold, but his re-signing got lost in the shuffle of the Hamhuis/Ballard hubbub. It’s important. On a team that’s suffered as many injuries on defense as Vancouver has over the past four seasons, they need a #7 D who’s good enough to be a #6 when called upon. Rome provides that. Last season he was able to step into the line-up and go mostly unnoticed. Contrast that with Andrew Alberts, who was always noticeable for all the wrong reasons. Rome is calm with the puck, has a solid outlet pass, and gives the Canucks a cheap, quality depth option for the next two years.

PROGNOSIS

It’s hard not to be impressed with what Gillis has accomplished this summer. This has been undoubtedly the best off-season in franchise history, and it was so gratifying to see a general manager in this city actively address the team’s glaring weaknesses. They’re the early favourite in the West this year, and with good reason. While Chicago and San Jose have lost significant pieces this summer, Vancouver has only got better. On paper, they’re as good a team as this city has ever seen.

“Is this the year?” It could be. They’ve given themselves the chance, and really, that’s the best you can hope for in the off-season. And maybe it’s not so bad that Kevin Bieksa is still around. When it all goes inevitably wrong, at least we’ll have a scapegoat.

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