Blue Line Bill’s Surprise of the Season: The Vancouver Canucks

Bill Stoklosa

If you read Blue Line Bill’s NHL preview earlier this year, you may remember that I picked the Vancouver Canucks to finish 13th in the Western Conference. I acknowledged that they had an elite goalie in Roberto Luongo, but I did not feel that they had much else. However, although Blue Line Bill almost always refuses to admit when he’s wrong, it looks like my sentiments about the Canucks may have been incorrect about this team from Western Canada.

Though the season is still young, a glance at the standings shows that Vancouver is on top of the Northwest division standings with a record of 9-6-1. They have not had a soft schedule either. Six of their wins have come against 2008 playoff teams, including an overtime win against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Detroit Red Wings. If they had lost one of those six games in overtime, they would be even further ahead on the second place Wild. I’d love to get into other reasons why the NHL policy of rewarding one point for a loss in overtime or shootout loss stinks, but I’ll save that issue for another column. Anyway, the reason that Vancouver is experiencing unexpected success is because they’ve been putting more pucks in the net this year then expected. Last season they were the 23rd in the league in scoring with 2.52 goals per game, and this offseason didn’t offer much encouragement as they lost their third leading scorer, Markus Naslund, to free agency. However, against all odds, the Canucks are in the top ten in the league in scoring this season, with three goals per game.

Who has been keying this offensive resurgence? Really, it’s not any one player but a collection of players. Their success on offense has been due to a team effort. In way, the Canucks are actually kind of like the Detroit Pistons of hockey. Part of the answer has been the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel. They’ve been steady contributors in Vancouver since 2000 and lead the team in scoring this year. Henrik is first with 3 goals and 11 assists (14 points), while Daniel is right behind him with 5 goals and 7 assists (12 points). It is somewhat surprising that they’ve continued their success without being on the same line as Markus Naslund. The Canucks have also gotten some help from 24-year-old center Ryan Kesler, who had a breakout season last year with 21 goals. This year he has four goals and seven assists. Adding to the success is 23-year old winger Mason Raymond, who has five goals and five assists in only his second year in the NHL.

The Canucks also have several players whose careers have been mediocre up to this point but finally seem to be living up to their potential. Alexandre Burrows has been with the Canucks since 2005 and has never had more than 31 points in a season. He already has 10 this year on four goals and 6 assists. He also has the best plus/minus rating among Canuck forwards with a plus-7. The most surprising performance on offense though is coming from Kyle Wellwood, who was with the Maple Leafs organization from 2003-2008 and has never amassed more than 12 goals in any season. This year he leads the Canucks with 6 goals.

The Canucks have also been strong on defense, but that is much less of a surprise. Despite missing the playoffs last year, they were seventh in the league with 2.51 goals allowed per game, and this year’s mark is almost exactly the same at 2.5 goals allowed per contest. However, it is surprising who their two best defensemen have been this year. They have not been the Canucks two most recognizable blue liners, Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund, though both have been strong. No, it has been two relative unknowns, Kevin Bieksa and Willie Mitchell. Bieksa is having a breakout season this year with 3 goals, 8 assists and a plus-5 rating after spending the last three years going up and down between Vancouver and the minors. Veteran Willie Mitchell has also been especially strong this year. He’s had a mediocre career since entering the league in 1999, but he currently leads the Canucks with a plus-8 rating.

No one is surprised that goalie Roberto Luongo is stellar again this season. He is one of the top goaltenders in the game, and he has come up huge again this year. His 9-5-1 record, .924 save percentage, and 2.23 goals against average are all impressive, but the most important statistic is that he has five shutouts in just 15 games. Three of those shutouts have come in the last four games. But, what has made the difference for Vancouver is not Luongo’s stellar play (he had an almost identical save percentage and goals against average last season), but the support he is getting from his forwards. They are not just winning games in which Luongo shuts the opponent out; they are also winning slugfests like their 7-6 shootout win over the Ducks on Halloween. If the Canucks can keep the scoring up, you’ll be seeing them deep into the playoffs this spring.