Last season is one every Canuck fan would love to forget. Everything that could go wrong did. The John Tortorella experiment not only backfired, but set the entire team on fire in the worst kind of way. Everyone seemed to be in a slump, and a dark atmosphere permeated the team. After a perpetual priority to “win now”, the team seemed to be too old, too slow, and in need of a rebuild. Had the Canucks stumbled into same fate as the 2004 Stanley Cup runner up Calgary Flames? Desperately hanging onto an aging core that could never get the job done in the first place?
A house cleaning of management was in order, and thankfully happened. Local hero Trevor Linden took over as Team President. This was not only a great PR move to regain faith and goodwill from the fans, but Linden pulled off a string of moves that instilled a sense of calm, confidence, and optimism. He snagged former Bruin’s Assistant General Manager Jim Benning for the GM position, and also grabbed Calder Cup winning coach Willie Desjardins to replace John Tortorella. After player-agent-turned GM Mike Gillis’ complete mismanagement of Luongo/Schneider, and Tortorella’s embarrassing suspension; Canuck fans were glad to finally see some intelligent, thoughtful, hockey minds at the helm of the team. But no one expected the turnaround to be so immediate. Here are the ten biggest surprises of the Vancouver 2014-2015 season so far.
10 Balanced Scoring
Last season, only Ryan Kesler cracked the 20-goal mark, and now he plays for Anaheim. Who was supposed to score? Well, the answer appears to be everyone. Every line has contributed, with nine players on pace for at least 15 goals. The Canucks have embraced the league's newest trend of rolling four scoring lines. After finishing dead last in the West in scoring last season, the Canucks are now a respectable sixth. It has been a welcomed and needed surprise.
9 Defence by committee
The Canucks do not have a franchise stud of a defenceman. There is no Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty, or Duncan Keith in the no. 1 position. Instead they have a pair of no.2’s, backed up by a mix of quality vets and youth. Edler has rebounded from an NHL worst -39 last year to co-lead the defence with Hamhuis. Hamhuis isn’t flashy, but is an incredibly well rounded defender, who recently won Gold with the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi. Kevin Bieksa brings leadership, grit, and a decent enough transition game. The always underrated Chris Tanev, new addition Luca Sbisa and powerplay specialist Yannick Weber round out the rest of the squad. They don’t scare anyone on paper, but they continue to get the job done. Hamhuis has been out recently due to injury and the rest of the squad has stepped up admirably in his absence.
8 Shawn Matthias
The stars really have to align for a power forward to fully realize his potential. It seems a yearly struggle for the big guys with slick hands to consistently put it all together. Matthias was packaged with Jacob Markstrom in the trade that finally saw the tumultuous Luongo saga end in Vancouver. For a goaltender of Luongo’s calibre, it seemed a rather paltry return, Although getting rid of Roberto’s paralyzingly long contract seemed to be the ultimate benefit.
Matthias started slow. But his game has really come together, providing some very useful secondary scoring. He often looks like vintage Todd Bertuzzi, with one hand on the stick, the other fending off defenders as he fearlessly cuts to the net. Matthias has been a pleasant surprise and Vancouver will hope to continue seeing one hand on the stick from big no.27.
7 Alex Burrows
The former 2005 International Ball Hockey Player of the Year certainly took the long way when getting to the NHL. Undrafted and toiling in various minor leagues, Burrows signed with the Canucks as a free agent and worked his way up to a shocking four consecutive 20-goal seasons! This fairy tale seemed to strike midnight last season as Burrows could only muster a career low five goals and a miserable 4.8 shooting percentage. Struggling with injury and on the wrong side of 30, Burrows looked done.
Burrows has bounced back in a big way this season. While not on pace to reach his career highs, he still has been a productive and useful tool for the Canucks. He provides a dangerous scoring touch and defensive responsibility on any line he plays on. He kills penalties and remains an agitating presence. He is a big part of the Canucks balanced attack this year.
6 The Future
The Mike Gillis era sacrificed draft picks to win in the present. Having come within one game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, it made sense to capitalize on the talented core before their window closed. Draft picks were continually traded away for ineffective pieces like Samuel Pahlsson and Derick Roy. Not able to get back to the promised land, the core looked old, and the cupboard was bare. Zero Gillis draft choices were scheduled to play the full season with the club this season.
The last two drafts have shown a huge turnaround. Last year's ninth overall pick Bo Horvat (a Gillis pick) is already making an impact with the team. He is a solid contributor on both ends of the ice with the upside of becoming a no.1 centre. Hunter Shinkaruk was picked after Bo, and is a “tenacious forechecker with great hands” according to hockeyfutures.com. Jake Virtanen is a very exciting player with fantastic size, speed, and finishing skills. If he makes the team he will join Dan Hamhuis as the only other player born in B.C. While not flush with defensive depth, Benning set out to remedy that by drafting three defencemen this year, including 6-foot-7 behemoth Nikita Tryamkin. The goaltending looks especially strong with young Eddie Lack proving himself last season and Jacob Markstrom dominating the AHL. Benning also took a chance on highly-touted prospect Thatcher Demko after his double-hip surgery scared off other teams. Benning has stated how important goaltending is to a franchise, and his Miller/Demko pickups show he is a man of his word.
5 Radim Vrbata
Always under the radar, Radim Vrbata has quietly changed teams six times in his NHL career. Radim has enjoyed most of his success in Arizona. He compiled four 20-goal seasons for the Coyotes franchise. Vrbata was reported to offer Arizona a hometown discount, but GM Don Maloney refused to give any kind of No Movement Clause. Vrbata decided to look at other options, and took less term offered from another team for a chance to play with the Sedins in Vancouver. And although many wingers have been predicted to succeed with the twins (Steve Bernier, Taylor Pyatt) it has eluded many. Fortunately, Radim’s high skill, cycling, and give and go game has fit like a glove with the Swedish Vundertwins.
4 Bo Horvat
Horvat was drafted with the 9th overall pick acquired from New Jersey in the surprise Cory Schneider draft-day trade. Horvat looked great in junior, but not many expected him to slide in so seamlessly with the canucks. He drives to the net, scores goals, makes his linemates better, and most of all, he rarely makes mistakes. His teammates have commented on his veteran-like composure and smart hockey sense. Bo stuck with the team after the first 9 games and looks to stick for years to come. The Canucks view him as a useful piece of their present, and an even more important piece of the future.
3 Success of Nick Bonino/Ryan Kesler trade
Ryan Kesler demanded a trade out of Vancouver, and there were only two teams he would deem acceptable. This obviously made it extremely difficult for brand-new GM Jim Benning to receive any kind of value in return. Benning received Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and even a first-round pick (albeit it the 24th) in return. An unnamed NHL executive deemed it “three quarters on the dollar”. While Bonino had a breakout career year with the Ducks last season, many thought his numbers were skewed heavily playing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the powerplay.
To the surprise of many, Bonino shot out of the gate this year with a hot start. The surprise continued as he maintained his production. He currently sits fourth in team scoring behind the Sedins and Radim Vrbata. He has slotted adequately into Kesler's old second line center role. While not as dynamic of a player as Kesler, he is a much better playmaker, adept at utilizing his teammates. This is yet another Jim Benning move that has the Vancouver faithful pleasantly surprised.
2 The Sedins' resurgence
Henrik and Daniel (in that order) achieved superstar status after they took turns leading the league in scoring in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Their point production declined slightly to just under a point per game for the next two years, but absolutely plummeted last season with both brothers tallying under 50 points. Entering this season at age 34, many thought the twins had become too old for a league that continues to get faster every year. As this is the first of four years at $7 million, it looked as if recently fired Mike Gillis was leaving the team in an awful mess.
The Sedins have rebounded from last year in a big way. They share twin point totals (26) through 30 games and look like they are having fun again. Although, after last year’s nightmare season with John Tortorella, everyone seems to be having more fun. Under Torts, the Sedins were expected to play much more defensively and block shots. New coach Willie Desjardins has put their focus back on offense, and it is paying off.
Their best years are definitely behind them, but if Hank and Daniel can keep it up, they will continue to earn their keep and lead this team as Vancouver’s suddenly deep pool of forward prospects continues to mature.
1 Ryan Miller
It wasn’t that long ago Ryan Miller was considered the best goalie in the world, or was it?
In the 2009-10 season Miller was the Olympic MVP, won a Silver Medal for Team USA, and capped it all off with his first Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. The next four years however, showed declining performances for both Miller and his Buffalo Sabres. This culminated with the end of “Miller-time” in Buffalo, as they traded him late season to the Blues, as St. Louis was pushing for a Stanley Cup run. Unfortunately, the Blues suffered badly timed injuries to their defence core and Miller’s time in St. Louis was a disappointment for all involved. Even though the blame deserved to be shared, it still tarnished his name as a winning goaltender.
Many were surprised as new Canucks GM Jim Benning signed Miller to a three-year deal worth $18 million. The goalie market was flush with capable goaltenders, and no one seemed to be trying to out-bid Vancouver for the 34-year-old’s services. Eddie Lack had just finished a capable season with the Canucks, being rewarded critical starts over Roberto Luongo that eventually led to Luongo being traded back to his former team in Florida. Many fans were confused by the signing. They wondered if Miller would hinder the growth of young Lack and also keep Vancouver winning just enough to miss out on the most exciting lottery draft picks in years. Benning stated he signed Miller to preserve a culture of winning and attempt to retool on the fly.
Miller has turned out to be one of the best free-agent pickups of the year. He has done exactly as Benning predicted. His numbers are not spectacular, but he has it where it counts, in the win column. Miller is a huge reason the Canucks sit in the playoff picture in a very competitive Western Conference.
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