Only four teams allowed fewer goals than the Canucks last season, and you can guarantee with Roberto Luongo
manning the last line of defence, they’ll aim to do much the same this year.
So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Not exactly.
If there’s one constant since Vigneault took the wheel 14 months ago, it’s that any given player can climb as high on the depth chart as they can manage – it all depends on their play.
“It’s great to have internal competition,” said Vigneaut. “We’re looking to improve and we’re looking to get more out of this group. If there are some better players out there [on the ice], that’s what we’re going to do.”
Though it’s the defining character of this team, the blue line is no exception, and that’s one awfully big carrot dangling in front of a player like Lukas Krajicek, who averaged just over 18 minutes a game playing primarily on the bottom pairing.
“The playoffs were probably the biggest learning experience for me last year. I think it improved on my defence a lot. I have to improve a lot again this year, but we’ll see what happens.”
At 24, the slick Czech rearguard is beginning to grow into his role as an offensive defenceman who plays the game with his head as much as his feet.
“Lukas is never going to be a guy that’s going to crunch anybody – he’s never going to be a guy that’s going to bang some people down in front of our net. He should be able to get body position, and because of his skill level, he should be able to break the puck out.”
While it would be difficult to move up on a mostly veteran blue line that got even stronger with the addition of free-agent Aaron Miller, it’s not inconceivable that a player with offensive skills like Krajicek could quickly work his way up the chart – especially if there are injuries.
“The season is long and you never know who is going to get hurt. I can play top four and I can play at the fifth or sixth all season, but like I said it’s along season so we’ll see.” BEST FOR LAST
Defence was the theme of Saturday’s practice, the final one-ice workout before the intra-squad game at Save-On-Foods arena Sunday.
Given Vancouver’s formidable manpower on the back end, it looks like a classic case of saving the best for last.
“Obviously everyone says we’ve got a great defensive corps and now we have to go out and prove it,” said Willie Mitchell. “It looks good on paper, but there are a lot of teams that have good players on paper, but we have to prove our worth.”
With five veterans on the bench and more than 2,100 games of experience between them, the Canucks have experience to burn, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to do develop.
“I like to think that I’m 30 and I still have room to improve my play,” said Mattias Ohlund, who turned in one of the most solid seasons of his career in 2006-07.
“Defence in this league is a tough job and it takes a lot of years to learn. We have a lot of guys who can still get better. It’s not like we have five guys above 35 who are all on their way down. Most of us can still get better and that’s obviously a positive.”
Ohlund believes this top six is easily the most talented and deep blueline he’s since in his nine year in Vancouver. That bodes well for the Canucks given that the group weathered long stretches without Mitchell and power-play quarterback Sami Salo
“We didn’t have the best start last year and that kind of hurt us right there,” said Bieksa, who’s skated on a pairing with hard-nosed minor-leaguer Nathan McIver for most of camp. “I think we were .500 at Christmas time, then afterwards we turned it up a notch. If we start better and have a better first half, we’re going to be a better team right there.”
“I think we have more confidence as a group…We played in a lot of one goal games last year so we can handle the pressure; It’s just a matter of going out and getting the job done.” A LATE CHARGE
At 25 years-old, Jozef Balej is far from a wide-eyed rookie having attended previous training camps in Montreal, New York, and Vancouver.
That experience gives the Slovak a leg up on some of the younger prospects fighting for jobs at Bear Mountain, but he’s still got a ways to go to fully regain the confidence that earned him an emergency call-up two years ago.
Balej suffered a punctured kidney while playing for the Manitoba Moose two seasons ago that nearly ended his hockey career. He spent last season playing for the less physical Swiss-A league for Fribourg-Gotteron and finished third in team scoring (13-17-30).
Balej is fully recovered now and looking to fill a hole on the right wing with the Canucks.
“This has been awesome for me: this is my dream,” he said. “I’m taking my shot to try and get to the NHL.”
Balej trained in Europe all summer and only flew to Vancouver the day before fitness testing at GM Place.
“I think it [training camp] has been going well, but one mistake I made is I came late because I didn’t know the time difference between here and the Czech Republic.”
With the jet lag behind him, Balej is being given every opportunity to showcase his skills skating on a practice line with Brendan Morrison and Austrian speedster Michael Grabner.
“He seems to be a guy with some good offensive skill and he’s got a really good shot – that’s the first thing you notice right away,” said Morrison. “And he looks like he really wants to score, and enjoys scoring goals. Hopefully when we get into some game situations he can do that.”
“It looks like he’s put up some pretty good numbers over the past few years in the minors etc… But it’s another step and a new level and hopefully he can put the puck in the net.” NOTES
Biggest cheer of the morning came early when Jeff Cowan attempted to scoop a third rebound over a fallen Luongo. Flat on his belly, Luongo blindly lifted a catcher over his head snatching the seemingly inevitable out of mid air… Worst collision of the day came at the end of the first session when Juraj Simek, urged on by Barry Smith, hustled over the red line in a skating drill. The Slovak winger clipped Taylor Ellington just as the defenceman was pushing off as part of the second group, sending Simek spinning onto his back. No harm done – save for the ego.