So far the Canucks season has unfolded pretty much as I had expected. A concerning but not unexpected slow start overcome thanks in large part to their power play and a favourable schedule. That league leading power play – operating at a better clip than last season – should still win the weak Northwest Division.
On Boxing Day the Vancouver Canucks downed the Edmonton Oilers to take sole possession of first place in the division. The Canucks displaced the Minnesota Wild, who cooperated by losing 7 straight games. The Wild’s success so far this season was one thing no one foresaw. Their recent struggles are injury related. Once they get Mikko Koivu and Devin Setoguchi back, they should still give Vancouver a healthy push for that division title, but Vancouver’s depth should allow them to win comfortably.
The Canucks have a big showdown with Minnesota on January 4th. But between now and then the Canucks face California teams four times. They begin their Sunshine State tour Wednesday night against San Jose. They play Anaheim on Thursday and Los Angeles on Saturday before returning home for a rematch against San Jose on January 2nd.
While the Canucks would love nothing more to pad their lead on the Wild before their match next week, the California teams are guaranteed to be far more inhospitable than those California tourism commercials promise. The Ducks are always physical, and you can bet that new coach Darryl Sutter will demand the same from his Kings. The Sharks and Canucks always wage war against each other, with Jamie McGinn running around doing his Milan Lucic impersonation.
If the Canucks can get 6 out of 8 points and remain relatively healthy, they should be well positioned for the showdown with Minnesota.
Here’s this week’s Slap Shots:
Who do the Canucks play after Minnesota? The Bruins. In Boston. Mark that one down on your calendar.
Chris Higgins remained home in Vancouver to begin the road trip. Whatever ailment that mysteriously swelled his foot recently now appears to be infecting his hand.
Should the Canucks be able to earn a bit of breathing room over Minnesota in the first few weeks of 2012, I would really like to see coach Alain Vigneault expand the comfort zones of several of his players as preparation for the playoffs. Give the Sedins more defensive zone starts and the odd penalty kill shift. Give Cody Hodgson more offensive responsibility. Test David Booth’s mettle and defensive game. Spread the defensemen minutes out. The Canucks need as much flexibility within their roster as they can find if they hope to return to the Stanley Cup final in 2012.
Niklas Kronwall’s devastating hit on Ryan Kesler and Dale Weise’s shoulder-on-shoulder bomb that bloodied Alex Plante were both clean hits that were appropriately dismissed from consideration for further discipline by the NHL. Yes, they were clean, but we need to eliminate such aggressive hits from the game. The purpose of body contact is to remove the puck carrier from the puck. There was no attempt by Kronwall or Weise to get the puck on either hit, just attempts to seriously crunch an opponent. This is part of the culture change players and fans must accept in coming years. The mounting injuries just are not worth it.
The holidays often turn the attention of hockey fans to the World Junior championships. 2012 first round pick Nicklas Jensen is playing for an overmatched Denmark team. He is the only Canucks prospect playing at the World Juniors. The Canucks often talk about modelling themselves after the Detroit Red Wings as a model franchise. So far so good, but if they are going to continue they need to find some prospects soon. For all their depth the Canucks currently enjoy on their NHL roster, their prospect cupboard is embarrassingly bare. This will become an issue two or three years down the road.