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Identity Crisis

by Kyle Harland / Vancouver Canucks
Last year, the Canucks had a rocky start to the season. Loyal fans refused to criticize the team’s performance, saying that was to be expected – they had a new coach and had to learn a defense-first approach to the game that was wildly different from what most of the Canucks old guard were used to – but it would pay off.

They were right. By Christmas, their defense-first identity was firmly established, and they gathered steam in the new year of 2007, and carried the momentum of a tough D-line into the playoffs.

The Canucks, who were picked to be one of the Western Conference’s worst teams by some hockey analysts, ended up losing to the eventual Stanley Cup winners, the Anaheim Ducks, in the second round of the tournament.

In the end, the fans can be happy with how the Canucks finished. But it was still a tough start to the 06-07 campaign.

This year was supposed to be easier. They weren’t supposed to be searching for an identity right now, were they? Hadn’t they found that identity last year?

Monday night’s game in Carolina wasn’t the Canucks worst defensive performance of the season, but it still answered that question with a firm “no.”

After allowing 20 consecutive shots against the Kings Sunday night, you knew defense was an issue the coaching staff and the players talked about coming into Monday’s game. But the Hurricanes took the Canucks to the shooting range on Monday, and treated Roberto Luongo like that black paper silhouette with the circles on the chest.

In the first period, the Canucks conceded 16 shots to the Hurricanes. It hardly seemed like a lesson learned from their Sunday night game against the Kings.

 To be fair, they clamped down on the Hurricanes after the first period, allowing only 15 shots over the next two periods to one of the fastest teams in the league. But it was still part of an unnerving trend.

Last year’s Canuck team allowed an average of 29.2 shots against per game, which fell in the top half of the league. And while that’s similar to this year’s average of 29.5 (though that’s in the bottom half of the league), there’s been a big difference in the quality of shots directed at the Canucks net.

Vancouver players prided themselves on keeping shots to the outside last year, and letting their goalie have a clear line of sight to the puck. It was their identity. They didn’t care if some easier shots came through – they knew Louie would stop them. He was certainly called on to make some big saves, but those chances weren’t always easy to find for the other team.

That doesn’t seem to be the case this year. The two goals Carolina scored (not including their empty-netter) on Monday look alright on the stats sheet, from the Canucks point of view. But the fact they didn’t pile on more might make some wonder if Houdini’s ghost was in the stands.

Vancouver’s defensive game often looked disorganized and unprepared on Monday. Yeah, the Canes have good speed, but Chad Larose’s breakaway goal as he got behind Willie Mitchell and Kevin Bieksa – two heavily relied upon defensive players – is just not something you wouldn’t see that often last year. And sadly, those sorts of defensive mistakes have been easy to pick out at the beginning of this season.

 So where did the defensive identity go? This year, only one of the Canucks defensemen is a plus player – Alexander Edler – and he’s only played a pair of games. Willie Mitchell and Aaron Miller are the top regulars and lead the team’s D with an even status.

It’s hard to say what the reason is. It could be that they’re excited about their offensive potential with the likes of rookie Mason Raymond and the return of speedy Ryan Kesler, making the whole team pull away from the defense-first strategy. It could be Sami Salo’s absence. It could be falling behind in games and having to get the D to play aggressively.

Whatever it is, Mr. Jack-Adams-Trophy-Winner Vigneault is likely to get things back on track.

And the one good thing about this identity crisis? It’s early in the season. Coach V turned the team around last year, and you can expect that he’ll do it again. He’s got 73 games to work with, and that should be ample time for the best coach in the league.


1st – road loss for the Canucks this season

67 – shots given up in the last two games

3 – fights Monday night

64 – percent of the faceoffs won for Vancouver

6 – hits by Matt Cooke to lead all skaters

It was off to a sloth-like start, but when the Canucks started to have good shifts, the offense was exciting to watch.

The trouble was still getting shots at the net. Having a few more productive shifts couldn’t hurt either.

Very leopard like – spotty.

For a team that’s supposed to be built from the goaltender out, they’re letting too many shots through, giving up too many dangerous rushes, and spending too much time in their zone.

Carolina’s power play is what let them get the lead, which, considering how well they were playing, proved surprisingly elusive.

For the most part, the Canucks penalty kill and power play gave decent performances. It was taking penalties that proved costly Monday night.
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