Over the years many fans have made fun of Sami Salo and his nearly four dozen injuries suffered in his career. But the bottom line is Salo is very much the straw that stirs the drink in Vancouver and has been for some time. Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa are all better defensemen, but Salo is the glue guy.
Alex Edler’s game suffers the most when Salo is out. Edler’s effectiveness is greatly diminished without his regular defense partner. He often has to play his off side and he just does not make the same reads – defensively or offensively – from there. If they try to keep Edler on the left side then Aaron Rome and Keith Ballard are playing on their wrong sides. Alex Burrows is playing the point on the first unit power play (this is where they miss Mikael Samuelsson too). In doing so the Canucks top power play unit – the team’s bread and butter this season – has really struggled. And I will need an Alka-Seltzer if we have to watch Alex “Alka” Sulzer play significant minutes in the playoffs.
All of those line up changes are due to Salo’s departure. The team has been down right brutal in their games since the Show Down in Bean Town against the Bruins. They did play well enough against St. Louis, but ultimately they have really been relying heavily on the goaltenders. Roberto Luongo especially has been spectacular of late.
The Canucks should not be too concerned about this recent slip. The team has played a lot of hockey, with a lot of travel, in the last 4-6 weeks. Their schedule heading forward is much friendlier. Lots of home games, shorter road trips, and more time off between games. That should allow the Canucks ample time to practice and nurse their wounds.
The schedule also features lots of intra-divisional games. With a 9 point lead over second play Minnesota, the Canucks likely have another division championship already wrapped up. They should be able to feast upon the weakest division in hockey. Edmonton and Colorado are dreadful. Calgary is not much better, but they still believe they are in the playoff picture. And the Wild have slipped from best team in the league in early December to possibly falling out of the playoff race completely.
That the Canucks schedule is so friendly is a good thing in that they have played an awful lot of hockey in the past 18 months. If their grand visions of returning to the Stanley Cup finals are to be realized they could use a bit of a break before the playoffs start again.
Of course the flip side of that is will they be challenged enough during the second half of the season? The road to the finals will go through at least two of Chicago, Detroit, or San Jose, and St. Louis is looking awfully good right now too. By playing cellar dwellers will the Canucks have their game ramped up for the opening game of the playoffs? The Canucks are very guilty this season of playing to the level of their opponent, doing just enough to win usually. This is how bad habits develop and those could come back to haunt them come the playoffs.
The season continues to unfold as I expected. Now I hope to see coach Alain Vigneault use the second half of the season to grow his players. Put them in uncomfortable positions so that come playoff time he is comfortable in assessing his options before the playoffs instead of figuring out then. Put the Sedins on the penalty kill and give them more defensive zone starts. Reduce Ryan Kesler’s ice time and give Cody Hodgson a bigger role. Mix and match defensive pairs to prepare for the annual playoff barrage of blue line injuries.
Vigneault has been pushing a lot of the right buttons so far this season. This has pleasantly surprised me as I have criticized him for being too formulaic of a coach. I have to give Vigneault full props so far this season. But he, like his players, will be judged in the playoffs.