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Blue Line Beginners

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks

By: Kevin Kinghorn

Ask the causal Canuck fan which players wear jersey numbers 26 and 4, and wait for the answer.

Odd are, the names won't exactly be flowing off the tongue. But three weeks into the new season, they could mean as much to the Canucks success as numbers 19 and 44.

"Both guys skate well and move the puck well," says Ed Jovanovski, who's abundantly qualified to make such judgments. "They're intelligent players and that's what you want."

Seven games into the new season it's clear one of the most significant casualties of the new collective bargaining agreement was depth on the bench.

Having to squeeze and entire roster under the $39 million ceiling meant a few tough decisions. Teams could no longer afford to carry benches plump with veteran talent right down to the end. The Canucks were no exception.

Late in the summer, the Canucks traded Brent Sopel to the Islanders ($2.4 million per season), and allowed Marek Malik to sign as a free agent with the Rangers ($2.5 million per season).

That left some significant minutes to be filled on the Canuck blue line.

Rather than throwing dollars at an overpriced, over-sized veteran with declining skills, or calling up a green farmhand with crossed fingers, Nonis instead opted for a quiet trade and well-deserved promotion.

Steve McCarthy was acquired in late August from Chicago for a third-round pick, while minor-league veteran Nolan Baumgartner made the team after leading the Manitoba Moose to the Calder Cup semi-finals.

"It's tough with the new CBA to get everyone you want, but Dave [Nonis] did a great job," says Jovanovski. "They've both been around and they have the experience. They know what to expect and they've both come to play so far."

Combined, the pair earn less than half of what Sopel will make this season alone, yet have stepped into difficult roles and exceeded early expectations.

"You definitely need a good fifth and sixth defenseman," says Jovanovski, "and we have that."

Neither Baumgartner nor McCarthy bring size to the blue line - a traditional prerequisite of depth defenders - but as Jovanovski points out, they're both slick players capable of sparking the attack from the back.

"I think the game is more pushed over to the speed part and those guys suit that kind of game well. It doesn't matter how big you are, it's more about how good your body positioning is, and both those guys are good at it."

Baumgartner is a plus-three and is averaging about 15 minutes a game on a regular pairing with Mattias Ohlund. McCarthy is averaging slightly less time paired with Sami Salo, and is a minus-one.

"They've played some good minutes for us and we like the fact that they both have the ability to play power play time for us," says Marc Crawford.

"The days for those fifth and sixth defensemen to be big lumbering people are gone. You need a specialty now, and if that specialty is the penalty kill or playing on the power play, it really makes a big difference in how I use them."

"Steve has shown a decent ability to play on the penalty kill and Nolan, while his foot speed isn't terrific, his intelligence is. And in a pinch, he can play on special teams as well."

Baumgartner's already progressed to the point where he's taking a regular shift on the power play. He's a plus-three with three assists in seven games.
Tuesday night versus the Blackhawks, the Calgary native spent more than five minutes quarterbacking the power play and assisted on Vancouver's second goal.

"I think here they wanted guys who could come in and move the puck," said Baumgartner, a former first-rounder in 1994. "They knew that was going to be a priority for the team this year with less obstruction. We've got one of the best lines in the whole league and they wanted that kind of skill back there."

Having spent the better part of 10 seasons playing in the minors, the 29 year-old Baumgartner knows circumstance has played a role in his promotion.

"Obviously the lockout might have helped guys like myself and Stevie [McCarthy]. We're kind of cheaper players that have been in the minors."

"A lot of guys around the league are getting chances this year. They've always been able to play, but maybe because they come at a cheaper price, and because of the salary cap, it's helped them out."

As Baumgartner points out, the shake-up is providing opportunity, but it's the play, not the pay, that will keep them in the NHL.

"I think it's going good so far," he says. "It's something where they've stressed they want you to come to work every day and try to get better."

So far, that hasn't been a problem for 'The Baumer.' His minutes are steadily increasing and his three assists are the fourth highest for a defenseman.

"He's an easy guy to play with so it's been a good fit," says Ohlund. "He's been good. I've played with him three times in the past and he's a very underrated player."

McCarthy, who's still adjusting to a new system and new teammates, is the youngest member of a very quick Canuck defense at 24 years old. He's not the most imposing figure, but what he lacks in raw strength, he compensates for with tenacity and a set of very quick feet.

"Obviously, a guy like myself, being a smaller defenseman, I'm not going to out muscle too many guys. You have to use you quickness and your speed. And that looks like the direction the NHL's going to be taking, so that certainly helps me out."

The Trail, B.C. product is averaging just over 12 minutes a game, but earned his first point Tuesday against his old club and logged a season high 16:04 of ice time on his way to a plus-two rating.

"I'm eager to learn," says the former first-rounder, who struggled early with Chicago after making the jump to the NHL at 18 years old. "I've probably stalled the last couple of years, but certainly playing with the guys here, I can learn from everybody. I'm just trying to keep my mouth shut and my ears and eyes open."

As he points out, it's been a much easier transition playing alongside an established veteran like Salo.

"He's not too bad huh?" says McCarthy with a laugh. "I've said it before, but I wish I had him as a partner when I was 18 and had my first crack at it. His play speaks for itself, but just as a person, he's a fantastic guy. I'm always picking his brain; it probably drives him crazy."

Salo's sanity aside, nobody's going to mind the questions if he keeps developing the way he has in a Canuck uniform.

Along with Baumgartner, the pair just might make the post-lockout Canuck defense the best edition yet.

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