Posted On Thursday, 03.01.2012 / 3:58 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Gragnani excited to make Canucks debut

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks continue to roll out their trade deadline acquisitions Thursday, with new defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani playing his first game in a battle for first place in the NHL against the St. Louis Blues.

As debuts go, there might have been easier outings for the 24-year-old, but he's eager to get going against a big, physical Blues team that comes in on a four-game road win streak and just one point behind in the Western Conference standings.

"I can hardly sleep I'm so excited to be here and might be one of the happiest guys on Earth right now," Gragnani, who was part of a four-player trade with Buffalo on Monday that also saw Zack Kassian come to Vancouver, with popular rookie Cody Hodgson and defenseman Alexander Sulzer going the other way.

"It’s the best team in the NHL, so who wouldn’t want to play here?" said Gragnani. "It's probably one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my career. I'm extremely excited and proud to be here. … Everything is positive for me right now."

The Canucks hope that includes Gragnani's plus/minus rating. Along with a reputation for being a good puck-mover and a power-play specialist, the defenseman comes to town with questions about his defensive play. He was plus-10 in 44 games with the Sabres, but only played once the last five weeks, watching as a healthy scratch despite a breakout 7 points in seven playoff games last spring.

In Vancouver he will start on the left side of a third pairing with Aaron Rome -- he practiced on the right side, where the Canucks have a shortage, but will move back over against the Blues -- and also man the point on a power play that has fallen out of first place after managing just one goal on 12 chances over the last five games.

"Obviously my first job as a defenseman is to play 'D,'" said Gragnani, who played one season for Canucks coach Alain Vigneault as a 16-year-old in junior. "I'm going to try to bring a lot of energy, puck-moving, and a little bit of offense."
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Posted On Saturday, 02.18.2012 / 12:42 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Mixed allegiances for Hodgson, Franson

Like lots of kids in Toronto, Cody Hodgson grew up cheering the Maple Leafs.

Not many, however, were almost born watching them. And it’s a safe bet none celebrated that occasion 22 years later by playing them.

The Vancouver Canucks center will celebrate his 22nd birthday against the Toronto Maple Leafs team he was almost born watching.

Hodgson said his mom was watching a game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens on Feb. 17, 1990 when she went into labor. After going straight from the rink to the hospital, Cody was born the next morning, and subsequently raised in a family filled with Leafs fans.

“Growing up there and being a Leaf fan for a lot of my childhood, a lot of my boyhood idols were Leafs players – Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and those guys, legends in the city,” said Hodgson.

But all of his family’s long-time allegiances switched, Hodgson said, as soon as Vancouver drafted him 10th overall in 2008. So there will be no Frankenstein jersey blends of the Canucks and Maple Leafs in the Hodgson household when the two teams meet Saturday afternoon.

“No it’s all Canucks jerseys now,” Hodgson said. “Ever since the draft, they’re always supportive no matter where I go or what team I play for.”

For Hodgson it’s just another game, even if the one 22 years ago wasn’t.

“You just go out and compete and do what you can to win the game,” said Hodgson, who can help extend Vancouver’s win streak against the Leafs to 10 games dating back to 2003. "You try to treat like it's just another game."

It definitely won’t be that for Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson and the large contingent of family members that made the six-hour drive southwest from his hometown of Sicamous, B.C.

Like Hodgson, Franson grew up cheering the Maple Leafs. He just did it in Canucks country, which makes for an odd dynamic on a weekend that started with Franson being honored by another local hockey team.

The Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League inducted Franson into their Ring of Honor on Friday night, even creating a bobblehead in his likeness for the first 500 fans at the game, which naturally led to some good-natured ribbing in the Leafs’ locker room.

“Oh yeah, I’m taking heat, but that’s fine,” said Franson, who won a WHL championship with the Giants in 2006 and a Memorial Cup in 2007. “I’m honored to be in this position and I’ll take some heat from the boys anytime for that. They've treated me with nothing but respect and I can’t say enough about the Giants, they’ve been a class act from Day One and I wouldn’t trade my three years here for nothing.”

Franson was also excited to see his younger brother Cain, an 18-year-old forward with the Giants, play live for the first time in years, but admitted Canucks fans won’t be happy to see his family Saturday.

“There will be a lot of Leafs jerseys coming from Sicamous, everyone will have one,” said Franson, who is making his first trip to Vancouver with the Maple Leafs after being acquired in a trade with Nashville last summer. “The Leafs have been in my family a long time.”
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Posted On Saturday, 02.18.2012 / 12:27 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Projected lineups for Maple Leafs, Canucks

The Toronto Maple Leafs have their hands full trying to hold onto eighth place in the Eastern Conference against a Canucks team trying to stay close to Detroit atop the western standings. Not only is Vancouver 8-0-3 in the last 11 despite not always playing its best hockey during that stretch, but the Canucks haven’t lost to the Maple Leafs since 2003, a stretch they’ll try to extend to 10 wins Saturday.

Here’s a look at the expected lineups for a 4 p.m. start Saturday in Vancouver:


Vancouver’s forward lines will start against Toronto the way they finished against Colorado on Wednesday, with Cody Hodgson moved back up to the Triple-H third line with Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen that produced the winning goal.

Daniel SedinHenrik SedinAlexandre Burrows
Mason RaymondRyan KeslerDavid Booth
Chris HigginsCody HodgsonJannik Hansen
Manny MalhotraMaxim LapierreByron Bitz

Dale Weise is ready to return after missing four games with a minor injury, but for now appears to have lost his fourth-line spot to Bitz and will be scratched.

Assuming coach Alain Vigneault was being honest when he said Kevin Bieksa, who was hobbling slightly around the hallways while his teammates skated on Friday, will play against the Leafs, the only change is Chris Tanev’s call up from the AHL and insertion onto a third pairing that has struggled at times lately.

Dan HamhuisKevin Bieksa
Alexander EdlerSami Salo
Aaron Rome – Chris Tanev

Andrew Alberts and Alexander Sulzer, who skated with Hamhuis in practice, are the expected scratches. As for Keith Ballard, who has missed four games already with a mysterious head/neck issue that sounds a lot like a concussion, he isn’t expected to make a road trip that starts the next day, after suffering a setback trying to skate on his own during a team day off Thursday.

“Didn’t pan out the way he wanted and the way our medical staff wanted,” said Vigneault. “Keith told me this morning he’s got ‘upper-body symptoms.’ It's from the neck up so we're going to keep him behind here and try to sort that out.”

Roberto Luongo is back in goal, with Cory Schneider backing up and confirming the roles would be reversed to start a six-game road trip Sunday in Edmonton.

The sight of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson out on the ice turning laps before the Zamboni was even off it in Vancouver on Friday was a welcome one for Maple Leafs brass concerned he might have suffered a high ankle sprain four days earlier.

Instead of missing a month, though, it looks now like Gunnarsson won’t be out much longer than the mandatory week from being placed on injured reserve, and could be back as early as Tuesday, but perhaps more likely Thursday.

In the meantime, the Leafs already have a glut of defensemen to sort out, one that left Luke Schenn a surprised healthy scratch in Edmonton on Wednesday.

“It’s never fun sitting out,” said Schenn, who has also had to deal with seeing his name in trade rumors around the NHL. “Sometimes it’s from the approach of get a player going. If that’s what it is them when I get back in, make the most of it.”

Coach Ron Wilson confirmed Schenn would get back in against the Canucks on Saturday night, but said the decision to sit him was also about getting fellow defenseman Mike Komisarek, who was chatting with general manager Brian Burke after practice Friday, playing time in back-to-back games after the veteran sat out four of the previous five as a healthy scratch.

“With seven, eight defensemen who are NHL capable the hard part is keeping everyone involved,” Wilson said. “Luke had been off for a couple of games. … He’s just got to keep the game simple and be physical.”

While the back end rotates, the Leafs forward lines are expected to be the same:

Joffrey LupulTyler BozakPhil Kessel
Clarke MacArthurMikhail GrabovskiNikolai Kulemin
Matthew Lombardi – Tim ConnollyColby Armstrong
Darryl BoyceDavid SteckelMike Brown

Joey Crabb and Jay Rosehill are the healthy scratches

Schenn moves back onto a pairing with rookie Jake Gardiner, who Wilson said may be the “most consistent defenseman the last 15 or 20 games.”

"He gets back to pucks and he makes good decisions with the puck," Wilson said. "He's fearless physically – and he's not a very big guy – but he uses his body really well, he protects the puck and he just bumps it along. He's been well coached along the way. And he's very reliable back there. He's going to make a mistake every once in a while, like everybody in our League, but he's minimized the mistakes and he hasn't made the kinds of mistakes you would expect someone so young – he hasn't made many of those rookie mistakes."
Keith Aulie - Dion Phaneuf
Jean-Michael Liles - Cody Franson
Jake Gardiner - Luke Schenn

Carl Gunnarsson remains on injured reserve, while Mike Komisarek is expected to be a healthy scratch.

After alternating the last few starts with Jonas Gustavsson, James Reimer gets a chance to follow up his 29-save, 4-3 overtime win in Edmonton on Wednesday with another start Saturday. Reimer has given up three or more in his last four starts, with the only two wins in that stretch both coming against the lowly Oilers.
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Posted On Saturday, 02.18.2012 / 12:04 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Tanev gets another look for Canucks

Canucks defenseman Chris Tanev has been called up from the AHL to play against the Maple Leafs on Saturday, but the move has nothing to do with Keith Ballard’s head injury or Kevin Bieksa’s surprise day off the ice Friday.

With Bieksa expected to play despite limping slightly off the ice during what his coach called a “maintenance day,” Tanev’s recall is more about assessing the 22-year-old’s ability to fill a long-term hole on the right side of the defense than filling any immediate gaps on a team already carrying two spare defenders.

“It’s another opportunity for us here with the trade deadline nearing to continue to evaluate some of our personnel,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “Obviously the two points are very important but we’re still trying to sort different aspects of our team, where the pieces might fit in, and Chris is somebody that’s on our radar.”

Tanev wasn’t on anybody’s radar three years ago. Since then he’s gone from Tier-2 Junior in his native Toronto, to one year of NCAA hockey, to playing Game 7 in last summer’s Stanley Cup Final after signing with the Canucks as an undrafted free agent out of college.

He showed remarkable poise as a rookie, but was sent down after three games this season, in part to play more after some early stumbles and in part because he was the only one of nine defenders that didn't require waivers. He’s been up for only one game since, filling in for Sami Salo in January after the others defensemen struggled to shift to the right side.

Now he’s back for a longer look. With Ballard not ready to travel, the plan is to take Tanev on a six-game road trip that starts Sunday in Edmonton, and use the time to determine if he’s ready to fill the biggest depth hole Vancouver has left before the impending Feb. 27 trade deadline: right-side defensemen. 

Tanev doesn’t have much to say about such implications, but it’s safe to assume a player Bieksa once said could play the game with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, isn’t phased by much. His third-pairing partner for Saturday, Aaron Rome, says that's part of what makes it so easy to line up alongside Tanev.

“We joke with him that he’s sleeping out there, but it’s like he’s playing the game in a rocking chair,” Rome told “It comes so easy to him, just his body language and everything. It’s great to see, especially for a young guy. I was actually thinking about it today in practice how easy he is play with. He moves well out there, he’s good with positioning. Maybe he’s not the flashiest guy but he’s patient, and maybe he’s not the biggest, most physical guy, but he closes quick on guys, he gets the puck away and he’s really easy to read off.”

The Canucks hope Tanev makes it easier to read their needs before the Feb. 27 deadline.
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Posted On Wednesday, 02.15.2012 / 10:13 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Avs' Mueller scratched

VANCOUVER -- Colorado forward Peter Mueller was a late scratch for the Avalanche against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night with a torso injury.

Mueller, who has 5 goals and 7 points in his last nine games, missed practice in Colorado on Tuesday for what was described as a maintenance day. He took the pre-game skate Wednesday night before being scratched.

Mueller missed all of last season and 40 games this season because of a concussion. The 23-year-old returned to action on Jan. 12.

Colorado is also still without top forward Matt Duchene, though he is travelling with the team and close to coming back from a Dec. 29 knee injury.

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Posted On Wednesday, 02.15.2012 / 4:57 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Canucks still looking for right third-line mix as Higgins returns

VANCOUVER -- Canucks forward Chris Higgins returns to the lineup after missing six games and losing more than 10 pounds because of a bad reaction to medication for back-to-back staph infections. But he won’t be back on the American Express line -- at least to start.

Rather than return to a second line with fellow U.S.-born forwards Ryan Kesler and David Booth, a trio that has done well in limited time together, Higgins will debut on a new-look third line with Maxim Lapierre and Jannik Hansen.

How long that lasts, however, remains to be seen.

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault has juggled lines consistently while looking to both spark a team that hasn’t played as well as its current 7-0-3 run might indicate -- only two wins since Jan. 7 have come in regulation -- and trying to find a playoff-worthy third line capable of playing more of a checking role.

"If you look at our template from last year, which was pretty effective, we had two offensive lines with (Henrik) Sedin and Ryan Kesler and a real strong line with Manny (Malhotra) and whoever would play with him," Vigneault said Tuesday, adding he had "a couple more weeks" before the trade deadline to figure it out.

"That enabled me to play them head-to-head against one of the other team's top lines, which freed up either Ryan or Hank to play against a third or fourth line. When we're capable of doing that, it can make it real challenging for the opposition. So we're still trying to figure out where the pieces fit, whether that's the ideal way of doing things or if there is something else out there."

Part of the problem this season is Malhotra has struggled coming back from a career-threatening eye injury that required more surgery and limited offseason training. The other problem is what to do with promising rookie Cody Hodgson, who added an offensive element as the third line center (tied for fourth among first-year scorers with 31 points and second with 15 goals despite playing just 12:45), but has been spending more time on the fourth line of late.

Here are the rest of the expected lines as the Canucks try to extend a 12-0-2 run against the Avalanche that included a shootout win in Colorado 11 days ago:
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - David Booth
Chris Higgins - Maxim Lapierre - Jannik Hansen
Manny Malhotra - Cody Hodgson - Byron Bitz
Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Andrew Alberts - Aaron Rome
Roberto Luongo is back in goal and hoping to avoid a seventh-straight shootout, a run that includes beating the Avalanche in the post-overtime tie-breaker. Cory Schneider is the back up.
With Higgins back -- he said he's put gained eight of the 11 or 12 pounds he lost -- the Canucks sent energy forward Mike Duco back to the American Hockey League. Dale Weise also returned to practice Tuesday after missing three games after blocking a shot, only to take a puck off the face and be forced to leave early for stitches. He was back on the ice for an optional morning skate Wednesday wearing a visor, but won’t return against the Avalanche.
There hasn’t been much of an update on Keith Ballard, who will miss a fourth game with what is either a concussion or neck injury. He has been riding an exercise bike the last couple of days.

David Jones - Paul Stastny - Milan Hejduk
Gabriel Landeskog - Ryan O'Reilly - Peter Mueller
Daniel Winnik - Jay McClement - Chuck Kobasew
Cody McLeod - David Van Der Gulik - T.J. Galiardi
Kyle Quincey - Erik Johnson
Jan Hejda - Ryan O’Byrne
Shane O’Brien - Tyson Barrie
Jean-Sebastien Giguere is back in net after Semyon Varlamov stopped a career-high 41 shots in a 3-2 overtime loss to St. Louis on Sunday.
Colorado center Matt Duchene returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since suffering a knee injury Dec. 29 and joined the team for its three-game road trip, but won’t play when it kicks off in Vancouver on Wednesday.

Ryan Wilson played as a seventh defenseman against the Blues on Sunday, with T.J. Galiardi out of the lineup as a healthy scratch and just 11 forwards in it. But Galiardi will get back into action as the Avalanche try to avoid being shut out by Vancouver for a third time this season after losing 3-0 and 6-0 in their first two matchups. Wilson is expected to sit against the Canucks, allowing rookie Tyson Barrie to play his fourth NHL game in front of more than a dozen family and friends ferrying over from Vancouver Island.
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Posted On Monday, 02.13.2012 / 10:08 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Morris scratched with groin injury

VANCOUVER -- Phoenix defenseman Derek Morris was a surprise late scratch for Monday night's game at Rogers Arena with a groin injury.

Spotted talking on his cell phone outside the arena just 35 minutes before the game, Morris had a good chuckle when asked if it had anything to do with the impending trade NHL deadline. The 33-year-old took the morning skate and was expected to play.

"Just old, bumps and bruises," Morris told before confirming the groin injury.

Morris, under contract another two seasons with a $2.75-million salary cap hit, has one goal, nine points and minus-10 rating 48 games.

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Posted On Monday, 02.13.2012 / 5:42 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Ballard still out, still being evaluated

VANCOUVER -- The Canucks aren't sure why yet. All they know Keith Ballard is out indefinitely.

The veteran defenseman missed the final two games of Vancouver's four-game road trip after a hit led to headaches -- and the possibility of a concussion -- and still wasn't back on the ice as the team prepared to host the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday night.

Coach Alain Vigneault said Ballard was still being evaluated.

"We're not sure if it's neck-related or concussion-related, so docs are checking into the neck and if that's causing the headaches that he has now and then, or if it's as simple as it being a concussion," Vigneault said. "He's out until we figure out exactly what we got."

The line between head and neck injuries -- and relationship between the two -- has been blurred of late, with news Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby was suffering from a soft tissue injury in the neck, which could have masked themselves as the post-concussion symptoms first believed to have sidelined him.

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Posted On Monday, 02.13.2012 / 5:28 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Higgins skating, eager to return to Canucks' lineup

VANCOUVER -- Chris Higgins rejoined the Canucks for Monday's morning skate -- at least what's left of him.

Higgins has lost more than 10 pounds in his ongoing fight with staph infections, which caused him to twice miss games in December and left him unable to play the last five games because a poor reaction to medication made it hard to keep any food down.

The good news for Higgins, who also missed games while with Florida last season with a staph infection, is the latest absence was more about treating the infections than another return of them. That has him feeling somewhat confident the worst is past.

Higgins, who skated on his own three times before joining teammates, won't play against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday night, but could return as early as Wednesday against the visiting Colorado Avalanche.

"It was just something that could have happened due to the medication I was taking for the back-to-back staph infections," Higgins said. "It was one of the reactions that was possible from taking medication for such a long time."

Higgins, who was among the Canucks' best forwards early this season, missed two games in early December when his foot swelled up after a three-point night for him and an eight-point outing for the second line. He returned for eight games before missing another three when the infection returned, but struggled with his energy levels after that, failing to score in 11 games in January while battling the draining effects of medication.

Higgins talked about finally getting back to normal before being a surprise late scratch in the last game of a recent home stand, and then missing all four games on the road.

"I'm just glad it's behind me, and looking forward to feeling normal again, like I did before the staph infections in December, and even the month of January was pretty tough for me physically. Hopefully my energy and weight comes back quickly," he said.

Higgins has already regained most of the lost weight -- a relatively enjoyable rehab.

"Going up in weight is more fun that trying to shed it," he said. "I'm enjoying desert after meals and don't have to worry too much about how many calories I'm taking in."

Now he's only focused on shedding his reputation the last two months.

"I don't want to be known as the sick guy, that's kind of sticking with me," said Higgins, who has 10 goals and 26 points in 45 games. "I want to shed that image."

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Posted On Monday, 02.13.2012 / 4:20 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Coyotes go for sixth straight with LaBarbera in net

VANCOUVER -- Mike Smith is the hottest goaltender in the League and the NHL's First Star of the Week, but the Coyotes will try to continue their sizzling streak without him Monday night, turning instead to backup Jason LaBarbera against the Canucks, who are on a roll of their own.

LaBarbera is 4-1-0 against a Vancouver team he played nine games for in 2008-09, but Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett said the decision was more about getting Smith some time off to work with Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke. Smith, who hasn't lost in five February games while posting a 1.19 goals-against average and .962 save percentage, has started 11 straight, and 16 of 17 since returning from injury on Jan. 3.

"It's a combination of a four day break mentally and physically and two days to work with Sean Burke and tune things up," said Tippett, whose Coyotes don't play again until Thursday in Los Angeles. "It's important for any goaltender, and when you are playing so many in a row it's hard to find those times where you can tweak your game."

Phoenix has used its first five-game win streak of the season to move into eighth place in the tight, tough Western Conference, but has little margin for error against a Canucks team that hasn't lost in regulation since mid-January amid a 6-0-3 run of their own.

LaBarbera knows how dangerous their attack can be, but looks forward to facing it.

"I don't know about local knowledge, it's just exciting for me to play here," he said of past success. "I grew up here, got to play here and it's a fun building to play in."

For the Canucks, defenseman Keith Ballard will miss a third straight game with what could either be a concussion of neck injury -- coach Alain Vigneauilt said the team still isn't sure -- and Chris Higgins is skating again but not quite ready to return after an adverse reaction to medication for recurring staph infections caused him to lose more than 10 pounds.

So expect the Canucks to start against the Coyotes the same way they finished in a 3-2 shootout loss in Calgary on Saturday, though the way Vigneault has been playing Yahtzee with his forward lines, they may not finish that way.

Here are the projected lineups:


Ray Whitney - Martin Hanzal - Radim Vrbata
Lauri Korpikoski - Boyd Gordon - Shane Doan
Mikkel Boedker - Daymond Langkow - Taylor Pyatt
Raffi Torres - Kyle Chipchura - Gilbert Brule

Keith Yandle - Adrian Aucoin
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Rostislav Klesla
Michal Rozsival - Derek Morris

Jason LaBarbera
Mike Smith

Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - David Booth
Jannik Hansen - Cody Hodgson - Byron Bitz
Mike Duco - Manny Malhotra - Maxim Lapierre

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Andrew Alberts - Aaron Rome

Roberto Luongo
Cory Schneider

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Quote of the Day

Now we have an 'X' next to our name, which is nice. Now we have to keep trying to climb and catch these guys.

— Lightning goalie Ben Bishop on clinching a Stanley Cup Playoff berth and trailing the Canadiens by one point for the division lead
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