The Lost Identity of the Canucks’ Forwards

The Vancouver Canucks’ season has been over for around two weeks now, and while most news and trade rumors have died down, one issue has not – the lost  identity of the Canucks’ forwards.

In 2010-11, the Canucks were known for their speed, contributions from all four lines and their fantastic power play. The Sedins were at their peak and Ryan Kesler had the best season of his career. But this past season, the forwards suffered from injuries and scoring slumps, and while they won the President’s Trophy, they were unable to perform in the post-season, scoring a measly eight goals in five games.

To be successful next season, the Canucks need to develop an identity for their forward group, something which they will have time to do during the off-season.

What the Canucks already have is lots of speed and finesse. Players like Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins and David Booth all play a very similar style and have similar attributes. They are all very fast and have immense skill and excellent shots. While each of these players had a low point or slump during the season, they all had at least 20 points, with Burrows leading the group with 52. Many of these players, including Burrows, Hansen and Higgins, improved on their point totals compared to last season.

So the Canucks are covered in the speed department, and it is time to bring up a topic that seems to haunt this team – grit. Zack Kassian, acquired in the Cody Hodgson trade, seemed to possibly be the answer to the problem. Canucks’ GM Mike Gillis is a proud believer in Kassian’s future as an effective player, but in only his first season in the NHL, he is far from being able to make an impact at this level. Kassian has much to improve on before he will truly be effective, and while it is good that the Canucks are preparing for the future, they also need to be prepared for the present.

You could argue that Max Lapierre and Kesler play with grit. They can and do, but their strengths come in different areas. As well, Kesler was not able to handle the physicality last season and is still recovering from various injuries. To become more well-rounded, the Canucks could look for a gritty fourth liner again. They also still have Aaron Volpatti who has a shoulder injury, but if he heals over the summer, he could make it back into the lineup for next season.

Change could be hard to come by. It seems that Gillis is attached to the team’s style of play and the players. Gillis has expressed his faith in offence and in players such as Raymond and Manny Malhotra – players who could have and could still leave the Canucks.

“If you’re asking am I’m giving up the answer is no,” Gillis told The Province of Raymond. “He’s going to have to make a step now that he wasn’t able to make coming back from that injury. He knows it and we know it and he’ll be evaluated. The potential for dire consequences was there with that injury and emotionally it’s going to take some time for him to get over that.”

Many of the Canucks have injuries to recover from, and the summer will be good for that. But one thing this situation brings up is the age of the Canucks. The average age of the team is 28, with many of the star players at or very near their thirties. This team has enough veterans among the forwards, as the majority of them have been to the Stanley Cup Finals and have played in the NHL for quite a while.

Bringing in some younger players could positively impact the forward lines. Just look at players like Chris Tanev and Cody Hodgson. Tanev, 22, has been a mainstay on the Canucks’ defence and has been calm and dependable. Hodgson, also 22, was effective in the little time he had on the ice. In his 63 games with the Canucks this season he had 16 goals and 33 points, and while he was not the type of person Gillis wanted on his team, there was no doubt that he provided a spark in the Canucks’ offence.

“I spent more time on Cody’s issues than every other player combined on our team in the last three years,” Gillis said. “We made a determination that he didn’t want to be here. We built him into something we could move.”

Unfortunate. But if you look at the success and impact many other young players such as Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sean Couturier have had on their teams this season, it might be wise for the Canucks to invest in one like them.

The two other aspects Canucks management should consider are the power play and line combinations. The power play this season was, as Daniel Sedin put it, “so bad.”

Their powerplay was at 19.8%, good for fourth in the league in the regular season, but the man advantage quickly became a disadvantage in the playoffs. LA scored two shorthanded goals against them in one game, and the Canucks found it difficult to even gain possession and keep the puck in the Kings’ end. It would really help for them to find someone who can man the point and walk the blue line well. It would also be good for them to develop two good power play units, so the Sedins do not have to be depended on to score on each and every power play.

As for line combinations, the Canucks still need someone who can play well with Kesler, who was a key component of their run to the Cup in 2011, and will continue to be a key component for the next few years.  As is the case with many of the players on this team, as soon as they are placed with the right people, they are able to produce. Take Raymond for example. During his short stint on a line with Henrik Sedin he was very successful. If he has people to pass to him and put the puck in the right place, he is effective.

Another line combination that worked very well this season was Max Lapierre, Henrik Sedin and Alex Burrows. They all felt comfortable with each other and enjoyed playing together. Unfortunately, not everyone can play with the Sedins, who seem to make each of their teammates a better hockey player. Hockey is played by more than two people, and contributions from all four lines are vital to success.

What the Canucks need is an identity for their forwards. Identity is remaining the same thing under different aspects or conditions and being oneself instead of being another.

Will Gillis make any changes to this team to develop an identity? Will he even touch his forwards or will he instead focus on the team’s defensive issues? Everything is still uncertain at this moment, but if Canucks management are to make changes to their offense, grit, youth, the power play and line combinations are four aspects they should focus on.

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