Vancouver has seen six of their projected top seven defencemen suffer from serious injuries this year and miss considerable portions of the club’s schedule. Kevin Bieksa
suffered a laceration to his calf muscle on the first of November, forcing him off the ice and to miss 43 games to date. That very same night Sami Salo
was hit in the face by the puck causing him to miss eight games, after previously missing another nine due to a wrist fracture. Willie Mitchell has missed eight games since recently being placed on the injury reserve list with a stress fracture to a L2 vertebra in his back. Additionally, Mattias Ohlund sat out 11 games after suffering a concussion and Lukas Krajicek has missed a total of 16 games with injuries to his ankle and shoulder.
The only healthy blueliner that was anticipated to be one of the top-six at training camp, recently succumb to the Canuck D-man plague as well. Aaron Miller missed his first two games of the season with a hairline fracture in his right foot.
To date these injuries have accumulated to a total of 106 man games lost out of a possible 327 that could have been played.
What does all of this mean?
Well those 106 man games had to be filled by other bodies; filled by individuals who were not expected to play large minutes this season; filled by players who were anticipated to be battling it out for the seventh and eighth roster spots. Basically while this plague has kept Vancouver’s top six out of the line-up, it has also provided greater opportunity to increase the depth and experience of the Canuck backend.
Waiver-wire pick up Mike Weaver has experienced resurgence here in Vancouver. Originally brought in to challenge for the seventh defensive spot on the Canucks roster, Weaver has become a regular in the Vancouver line-up playing more minutes than anyone expected. The 5’11” Ontario native has spent most of his career being shuffled up-and-down between the NHL and the AHL, playing a career high of 53 games for the L.A. Kings in 2005-2006. In his sixth NHL year, Weaver is averaging just less than 16 minutes a game after 35 contests. Although he has never played in the NHL post-season, the opportunity to play as a top four defencemen in a defensively-minded system will provide the necessary experience that is required to achieve success in the playoffs. With the Canucks injury-laden line-up, the 29-year-old blueliner is now being looked to provide some veteran experience on a blueline filled with young minds.
In his rookie season Alex Edler has emerged as promising talent, putting himself in a class above the other youthful defenders in the Vancouver organization. Prior to November 1 (the night of Bieksa’s injury), Edler had averaged 12:27 minutes in five games and was a healthy scratch for seven. Since then, the all-star rookie has been averaging 21:54 minutes in total ice time in 43 games, being put into situations that demonstrate his skill, confidence, and maturation. The Ostersund, Sweden native has recorded 11 points thus far (3-8-11) and boasts an impressive plus/minus rating of plus-15 to lead his team, and all rookie’s, in the category. His efforts granted him a spot in the NHL’s All-Star Roster, as Vancouver’s 3rd round choice (91st overall, 2004 draft) was among 12 rookies selected as YoungStars for the 2008 season. Edler, who most thought would be called up-and-down throughout the year, has played as a top four defencemen most nights, gaining valuable exposure to the game at its highest level. This opportunity, that he may not have otherwise acquired, provides Edler with unmatchable experience that will pay dividends for both him and the Vancouver organization for years to come.
Other young defensive stars that have played most of the year in Manitoba have also received some big league experience as a result of the depleting-blueline curse. Nathan McIver, Luc Bourdon, and Zach Fitzgerald have played in a collective total of 22 games this year and have received more minutes than expected. With various gaps on the blueline, all of these individuals have stepped in admirably displaying glimpses of grit, confidence, and offensive flare. The way in which they have been able to adapt to the speed, talent and strength of the league’s elite speaks to their own talent and the potential each of them holds. Their performances, in several games, show that they can perform successfully and possess the talent to one day become forceful competitors in the NHL.
While the Canuck organization experiences some challenges in the interim, the opportunity that has been given to these players will, in the long-term, increase defensive depth. Forcing these individuals into game situations where one mistake can be the difference between a playoff berth or an early off-season, promises to yield a strong basis of experience and adjusted skill.
There will come a day when it will be these players that we count on to provide stability on the backend; it will be these players that provide the make up for the blueprint of future Canuck success; and it will be these players that may be called up for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to fill-in for an injured or suspended regular. While all of these situations require years of experience, a shipload of confidence, and potentially-maximized skill, it all starts with the opportunity to play, something that this current plague has granted them.
So while the present is laced with uncertainty and intense challenges, the future of the Canuck organization, in terms of capable and talented defencemen, appears promising. With the return of several top-defencemen on the horizon, these players will very likely resume their supporting roles. It is no secret that with their top-six in the line-up the Canucks are a much better team, but the performance of these depth players have shown that they are than equipped to get the job done and if they are called upon to so, we should all look to them with confidence.