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Sharks, Canucks put aside standings to pull off deal

by Larry Wigge
Significant dealing in the West? Let me count the ways.

It's rare to see the No. 1-ranked team in a conference make a big deal with the No. 3-ranked team. But that's exactly what happened in late Auguest when the San Jose Sharks, who had the most points of any team in the NHL last season, dealt veteran defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich to the Vancouver Canucks, winner of the Northwest Division, for prospects Patrick White, a center and Vancouver's first-round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, plus defenseman Daniel Rahimi, a third-round pick in 2006.

It's also rare to see a franchise change the face of its team on Aug. 28, with training camp a couple weeks off. But that's another interesting dynamic of this deal, especially when you consider that getting Ehrhoff and Lukowich was just the start of a rebuilding of sorts of the Vancouver defenseman when GM Mike Gillis announced the signing of free-agent defenseman Mathieu Schneider shortly after the trade was announced.

That gives the Canucks a defense of Schneider, Ehrhoff, Lukowich, to go along with Kevin Bieksa, Willie Mitchell, Sami Salo, Alexander Edler and Shane O'Brien from last season's blue-line brigade. The only major departure on defense was Mattias Ohlund, who signed a big free-agent contract to play in Tampa Bay.

"Defense has been an area we wanted to add skill and depth to," Gillis said after watching his Canucks sweep St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs and then lose in six games to Chicago in the Western Conference Semifinals last season.

Ehrhoff's 42 points on 8 goals and 34 assists -- a career-high in points -- was more than every Vancouver defenseman except Bieksa. That extra skill can also be underscored by Schneider's production. Though he's now 40, Mathieu had 9 goals and 23 assists in 64 games combined for Atlanta and Montreal last season (that's more than the 6-19-25 that Ohlund had in Vancouver). He helped put a charge into the Canadiens' power play after being acquired at the trade deadline.

Schneider had 5 goals and 12 assists in his 23 regular-season games with the Canadiens, which was uplifting for Montreal even if Mathieu was hampered by a shoulder injury on April 4 against Toronto that affected his play down the stretch and in the playoffs.

"All the reports we saw he's going to be fine, 100 percent," Gillis said.

Lukowich averaged more than 16 minutes a game for the Sharks. His two Stanley Cups with Dallas in 1999 and Tampa Bay in 2004 to go along with Schneider's Cup win with Montreal in 1993 bring an element of winning to the Vancouver lineup that might have helped in the playoffs.

The dynamic of puck-moving defensemen has never been lost on the Canucks or the Sharks.

Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault likes to play a disciplined defensive game, but he also encourages his defensemen to get involved in the offense when they can. San Jose coach Todd McLellan, with the additions of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake to the blue line last season, roared from the starting gate with the NHL's top offense.

A first-round playoff loss after winning the Presidents' Trophy with the League's best record in the regular season only makes Sharks GM Doug Wilson and McLellan more focused on getting younger and faster and harder to play against.

The San Jose side if the equation in this deal is the willingness to give a slot on defense to a youngster like Nick Petrecki, a first-round pick in 2007, or Derek Joslin, who appeared in 12 Sharks games at the end of last season or Rahimi, who played with Manitoba of the American Hockey League last season.

"This trade speaks to the confidence we have in the young players coming up through our system who have earned the right to compete for a spot on this team," Wilson said, before underlining the acquisition of White, who has performed well at the University of Minnesota.

Moreover, Wilson is given more than $4.5 million of cap space to pursue a high-skilled forward like Ottawa's Dany Heatley or Boston's Phil Kessel, two high-scoring wingers that have been rumored headed to San Jose this summer.

Wilson has always been a proactive GM, maintaining that the names that appear in his lineup on opening night could be added to at the trading deadline, something he has done nearly every season to show the players in his locker room how much he wants to win.

In this salary-cap world of hockey, it has become a year-round process balancing the books up and down.

With that in mind, maybe we shouldn't be intrigued so much by two of the top teams in the Western Conference making a deal ... and doing it on the eve of training camp.

Stay tuned.

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