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Reader Hockey Pool
head coach: Mike Keenan
roster: C - Mark Messier, Trevor Linden, Mike Sillinger, Dave Scatchard; LW - Geoff Sanderson, Markus Naslund, Gino Odjick, Donald Brashear; RW - Alex Mogilny, Pavel Bure, Brian Noonan, Scott Walker D - Jyrki Lumme, Dana Murzyn, Matthias Ohlund, Grant Ledyard, Bret Hedican, Dave Babych, Steve Staios, Chris McAllister, Enrico Ciccone; G - Sean Burke, Arturs Irbe.
injuries: Dave Scatchard, c (returned from hip flexor December 20, missed 2 games); Chris McAllister, lw/d (returned from heel spur December 20, missed 3 games); Alexander Mogilny, rw (returned from groin strain January 10, missed 11 games); Dana Murzyn, d (knee December 27, out for season); Enrico Ciccone, d (hairline fracture of ankle January 8, day-to-day).
transactions: Corey Hirsch, g, recalled from Syrcause (AHL) December 24; Bert Robertsson, d, recalled from Syrcause (AHL) December 30; Corey Hirsch, g, re-assigned to Syracuse (AHL) January 1; Kirk McLean, g, and Martin Gelinas, lw, traded to Carolina for Sean Burke, g, Geoff Sanderson, lw, and Enrico Ciccone, d, January 2; David Roberts, c/lw, cleared waivers and assigned to Syracuse (AHL) January 7; Bert Robertsson, d, re-assigned to Syracuse(AHL) January 10; Lonny Bohonos, c/rw, assigned to Syracuse (AHL) for two-week conditioning stint, January 10.
Western Conference - Pacific Division Team GP W L T PTS GF GA Colorado 46 22 9 15 59 139 113 Los Angeles 44 17 19 8 42 122 125 Anaheim 46 15 23 8 38 107 137 San Jose 43 16 22 5 37 104 119 Edmonton 45 14 22 9 37 109 133 Calgary 47 12 25 10 34 117 142 Vancouver 45 12 25 8 32 122 156
12/15 Los Angeles W 7-0 12/17 at Phoenix W 5-1 12/18 at San Jose T 0-0 12/20 Chicago L 5-0 12/23 Dallas L 3-1 12/27 at Dallas T 3-3 12/29 at Los Angeles L 5-2 12/31 Philadelphia L 8-0 01/03 Montreal L 4-2 01/05 Los Angeles W 3-2 01/07 St. Louis L 3-2 01/08 at Colorado T 4-4 01/10 Florida T 2-2
by Carol Schram, Vancouver Correspondent
Issue by issue, it is important to keep track of just how bad the Vancouver Canucks really are this year. When Mike Keenan took over 19 games into the season, the Canucks were nine points under .500, tied for last place in the conference, and five points out of the playoffs. After an equal 19 games under Keenan, the team was 11 games under .500, still last in the Conference, and still the same five points away from a post-season berth. After game 45 Saturday night against Florida, they are 13 points under .500, still last in the conference and, strangely, still just five points from the last playoff spot.
Watching the Flames, the Sharks, the Oilers, or the Leafs on any given night, it's hard to believe that the Canucks are actually worse than any, let alone all, of these teams. Worse they are, but the misfortunes of Vancouver's Western Conference rivals have created a situation where, if any one team can really turn it around, they'll have a good chance at grabbing the sixth, seventh, or eighth playoff spot. Like we used to say back in the late 80s, when the Canucks and Winnipeg Jets fought it out for the last playoff spot in the Smythe Division every spring - the Turtle Derby is on.
In the last month, we have witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly with this hockey team. On December 15, they went on an offensive rampage and squashed the Los Angeles Kings 7-0 at home. On December 31, they put in one of their poorest defensive performances ever - recording a franchise-worst 8-0 shutout loss against the Philadelphia Flyers to finish the year. Along the way, there have been complaints, insults, verbal jabs, and questions about integrity, tactics, and commitment.
Starting in net, Kirk McLean essentially sealed his fate with this club when he gave up four goals in the first period against Colorado back in mid-December - and that fourth goal was a backbreaker. Keenan had started McLean in every game since he took over as coach - until the game after that on December 15, when he admitted that he would be starting Archie Irbe till further notice. And easy-going guy though he is, Irbe took full advantage of his opportunity. Monday: 7-0 shutout win. Wednesday: 5-1 win. Thursday: only the second scoreless tie in Canucks' franchise history. The guy gave up one goal in three games and helped earn his team five of a possible six points. Always known for his streakiness, Irbe was in line for NHL Player of the Week honors - until Saturday came. All luck ran out, another winless streak began, and those annoying Chicago Blackhawks stomped all over the Canucks, winning 5-0 and doing it in one of the dullest contests ever played on ice. Hockey Night in Canada knew what they were doing when they chose not to broadcast this one!
Irbe's time was up, so Keenan started Kirk McLean again for the team's next game, the following Tuesday at home against Dallas. In typical Kirk McLean style, he allowed a power-play goal in the first minute of the game and the Canucks got down by two in the first period against one of the best defensive teams in the league. A win was pretty much out of the question, but the team did play a pretty feisty, physical game, and they did manage to get close, losing by a 3-2 margin. However, McLean mysteriously strained something around his ribs during that game, and deemed himself unavailable for play for the next little while. That meant a call-up for Corey Hirsch, and three more starts for Irbe after Christmas. The Canucks showed a lot of heart in coming back from a 3-0 deficit in Dallas to squeak out a tie. They showed no heart at all in a meaningless 5-2 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles, and disaster struck as NHL super-snipers LeClair, Lindros and company blasted four goals in less than half a period en route to the 8-0 debacle. That meant a little playing time for Hirsch, and while it wasn't the ideal situation to show your stuff, four more goals over the rest of the game certainly wasn't enough to convince Keenan that the red-head was the solution to his problems in net.
It was clear enough that something had to be done, and late on the evening of Friday, January 2, the word came down that the Canucks had indeed traded Kirk McLean, along with left winger Martin Gelinas, to the Carolina Hurricanes. In exchange, they received goalie Sean Burke, offensive left winger Geoff Sanderson, and goonish defenceman Enrico Ciccone.
Burke has played every minute of all five games since his arrival, and is recording a respectable GAA of around 3.00. Most importantly, he is making enough big saves that he is giving his team a chance to win every game. Burke's sheer size in net is the first thing that impresses - at 6-foot-4, he is probably the tallest Canuck goaltender ever and has no trouble "making himself big" when the opposition bears down. He also appears agile and fairly positionally sound, although he has given up a number of juicy rebounds that have ended up costing his team. For now, Burke must be treated as a short-term solution. His days in Greensboro were numbered since spending the night in jail after a domestic dispute with his wife. Plus, he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Normally, that would spell big trouble, but there are quite a number of quality free-agent goaltenders available this summer. In addition to Burke, John Vanbiesbrouck, Mike Richter, and Curtis Joseph will all be looking to score the big contracts. Given Mike Keenan's past history with Joseph, he's not the likeliest candidate to land here, but if things don't work out with Burke, a friend-of-Mike-and-Mark's, named Mike Richter, could be willing to give it a go. The Canucks still haven't played .500 hockey since Burke's arrival, but their overall game does seem to have settled down somewhat.
Turning to defense, to the somewhat sadistic delight of many, plowhorse defenseman and team whipping-boy Dana Murzyn blew out his knee during the Dallas game on December 27 and is gone for the season. This has left his regular partner, Jyrki Lumme, to soldier on with a variety of partners and the burden of the NHL's worst plus/minus record - currently, a minus-22. Lumme has been inconsistent and has played some terrible games lately, notably against Philadelphia where he was a -4 on five even-strength goals against. In the last week or so, though, he does appear to be settling down and is returning to his steadier form.
The team's most consistent pair continue to be Matthias Ohlund and Bret Hedican. While Ohlund has been prone to taking a few unfortunate penalties lately and may be showing signs of fatigue due to his first look at the endless NHL schedule, he still provides a fairly solid physical presence in his own end, and continues to try to do damage on the power play with his big shot. Hedican is also doing his job with reasonable assurance, and has also developed into a far more physical player than he was in years past. Hedican's reputation is as a finesse player and great skater, but he continues to rub opposing bodies into the boards game-in and game-out, and had a near- war going with Kirk Muller during the Florida game. As for the rest of the corps, Keenan, as usual, has shown a fondness for young, big players. Chris McAllister got a whack of ice-time at forward recently, but since Murzyn's injury he has been moved back behind the blue line again, and is taking a fairly regular shift. Keenan's big gamble, however, has been treating new acquisition Enrico Ciccone like a player, instead of a goon. In his first three games with the Canucks, Ciccone was seeing upwards of 20 minutes of ice-time a night, including a regular shift and some special-teams duty on the penalty kill and, for the first time in his career, the power play. Ciccone may be lacking in skating and puck-handling skills, as well as hockey smarts, but he is showing a ton of try. The experiment is on hold for now, however, since Ciccone hurt his ankle blocking a shot in Colorado. He's expected to be out for about 10 days.
Guys getting the short-end of Keenan's blue-line shuffle are Grant Ledyard, a frequent healthy scratch who has just gotten back into the lineup since the Ciccone injury, and Adrian Aucoin, who has seen almost no ice-time since Keenan joined the team. Dave Babych is pulling a fairly regular, fairly inconspicuous, shift, and Steve Staios has been converted into a fourth-line winger, likely permanently. Keenan seems to like Staios' aggression, but not his mistakes in his own zone. And from the same line of thinking, 23-year-old Swedish prospect Bert Robertsson just saw a five-game stint with the big club - all of it on the wing. Early on, it was clear that Robertsson's mission was, simply, to go to the net. But, no offense at all from this crew led to its dismantling, and Robertsson is now back behind the blue line in Syracuse.
Looking at the current crop of forwards, there's no doubt that Pavel Bure stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of his performance this season. Bure remains on pace for a 50-goal season, and despite his team's dismal performance and bleak offensive output, for about an hour on December 17, he was tied for the NHL scoring lead with Peter Forsberg - till Forsberg popped the winning goal in Colorado's game that night. Despite the drubbing he is taking from some fans in this city about not doing enough, Mark Messier is clearly the second- best forward. He is also cooking along at a rate of nearly a point a game in a season where goal-scoring is way down, and he is just minus-one on a team that has allowed about 25% more goals than it has scored. Some have been squawking about Messier's lack of physical play and commitment to the defensive part of the game, but his presence on the ice is notable more often than not.
After recent stints in the press box that had many believing they were on their way out of town, Markus Naslund and Mike Sillinger have fought their way back into favor - largely as the catalysts for an offensive second line after the Bure line went dry around New Year's. When paired up with Geoff Sanderson, the three were able to use their speed to create some chances, and the emotionally fragile Sillinger was able to parlay Mike Keenan's confidence in him into special-teams time and a third-star accolade during the Florida game. Since his arrival, Sanderson has dazzled with his superb speed and smooth skating, but this natural goal-scorer has yet to tally his first marker as a Canuck.
The writing was on the wall for Martin Gelinas, probably since the first day of Keenan's reign. When he feels appreciated, this player will go to the wall, somehow exceeding his natural talents levels. Gelinas' single greatest moment as a Canuck was probably his very first shift after he was acquired on waivers, when he stepped off the bench and flattened Calgary's Ronnie Stern in the middle of open ice. Gelinas parlayed that gutsy, last-chance effort into four great years with the Canucks, capping off with a team MVP award at the end of last season. Yet it seemed that another injury and a change in the tone of the Canucks' dressing room was working against Gelinas. Keenan singled him out for criticism and Gelinas responded that he didn't know what was expected of him. That, coupled with the fact that Gelinas may well have just hit his career peak, made him prime trade bait, especially when Carolina was prepared to part with an All-Star winger like Sanderson, as well as a solid goaltender. It was sad to see Gelinas go, but was probably necessary in order to get a team to take on Kirk McLean and his long, hefty contract.
Other forwards who are not faring well under Keenan's reign include Dave Roberts and even former captain Trevor Linden. Roberts and Keenan had clashed before in St. Louis, and after he returned from a fairly lengthy injury, Roberts barely got a look before being banished to a permanent place in the press box. When Vancouver's roster grew by a player after the McLean/Gelinas trade, Roberts was the one placed on waivers, to the surprise of virtually no one. He cleared and will bide his time in Syracuse until something happens to change his situation.
The Linden situation, of course, is much stickier. A rare first-round draft choice who actually lived up to his potential, Linden has been the glue that holds this franchise together for the better part of a decade. We have watched Trevor grow up, and mature into a caring community member and a superb ambassador for his team. However, talk-show callers no longer wonder "Is this going to be the year Trevor gets 50 goals and 100 points?" as he blazes out of the gate at the start of the season. After playing the game of his life in Game Seven of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, Linden has struggled a bit, through the lockout year as he took on responsibilities as Team Rep and and NHLPA Vice President, then through a couple of injury-plagued years that wiped out his league Ironman streak. While Linden and Keenan expressed mutual admiration for each other when Keenan first arrived on the scene, it didn't take long for an upset to occur - specifically, in Keenan's first game back against St. Louis. At the end of the second period of that game, the Canucks were down 4-1, and Keenan walked in on Linden, in his first game back with the team after injury, pumping everybody up, telling them they were doing a good job, just to keep it going. Keenan was already feeling embarrassed about losing in front of the group that ran him out of town, so he railed on Linden right then and there for supporting a group of players who were doing such an obviously unacceptable job. At that moment, the gauntlet was dropped.
Linden has not played even up to his usual level since he got back from the injury, and last week Keenan had the audacity to say so to the media. He suggested that Linden was playing at about 50% of his capacity and that, by doing so, he was letting down his teammates, his family, and his community. This type of verbal jab is certainly to be expected from Keenan, but folks in Vancouver are not used to icons like Trevor Linden being treated in this fashion. The city has been a-buzz with this news since Monday, and Linden himself was obviously upset by the remarks. Many are thinking the tradewinds might soon be blowing back into town. Nonetheless, Keenan has tempered his position with a cushy slot on right wing for Linden, on the first line with Bure and Messier. Trevor has played rather more physically this past week, and only time will tell if Linden, as Keenan puts it, will "buy into the program".
Further down the forward lines, it is tough to know exactly what Keenan has in mind for Alex Mogilny, who has just returned from an abdominal strain injury. Despite appearing in just 18 games so far this season, Mogilny has been working at about a point-a-game pace, and certainly has the jets to get things going when he wants to. For him, hopefully it is just a matter of finding a groove, and he will turn it on for real after the Olympic Break, when he can put a string of games together. As always, Mogilny's name has been rampant in trade rumors, and while the story was that he would be moved just as soon as he was healthy, Mogilny's energies seemed almost completely positive during his first game back against Florida.
The other group Keenan seems pleased with is a pretty consistent third line of Donald Brashear, Brian Noonan, and Dave Scatchard. The trio seem to be able to do whatever physical damage is required, making them a handy checking unit, and Brashear continues to polish his reputation as one of the top heavyweights in the league. Meanwhile, Gino Odjick is on slightly more treacherous ground. Keenan gave Gino a chance to show his stuff in adding muscle to the Bure/Messier line for a couple of weeks, and while he managed to tally a couple of pretty tap-in goals courtesy of his buddy Pavel, he dug his way deep into the doghouse during the Philadelphia and Montreal games, taking undisciplined penalties that resulted in back-breaking power-play goals for the other guys. His assault on Vincent Damphousse was absolutely uncalled for, and Gino has been sitting in the press box since that night. Not only have his actions snuffed out the trade rumors that he might go to Canadiens, Damphousse himself hinted that when Gino is looking for a place to skate near Montreal this summer, he just might not be welcome at the ice-surface that Damphousse rents, where Gino has worked out in years gone by. Scotty Walker, on the other hand, seems to be lucky enough to have escaped a similar fate after clotheslining Valeri Bure during that same game. Pavel's little brother had to be helped from the ice during the third period and did not return, but he was well enough to play in Montreal's next game - where he suffered an injury to his cheekbone and is now out of action indefinitely.
So there's still no real evidence to show that this team is on the right track, but it's also still not out of the question that they could make the playoffs. After Keenan's admonishment of Linden and the reaction of press and fans, Mark Messier sat down for an interview with the Sports Editor of one of the local papers last week, and dug deep into the issues of the things he believes are wrong with this team, which are preventing them from winning. He denied the fact that he was allied more closely with Canuck management than with his teammates, and emphasized that the players had to stick together, both on the ice and in the room. In Messier's mind, that means no more leaks to the press. Messier's success in the past certainly gives him the credibility to be taken seriously when he says he knows what it takes to win. Now, the question appears to be whether or not his teammates are willing to take the steps he says are necessary, and give it a try.
Apparently Donald Brashear got himself in a bit of hot water last summer while vacationing in North Wildwood, N.J., an east-coast resort town. He is alleged to have punched a Philadelphia man and broken his nose outside Jimmy's Pub and Grub in the early morning hours of June 14, and is facing two counts of aggravated assault. Brashear's arraignment is scheduled for February 5, while the Canucks are in the middle of a homestand, but the New Jersey prosecutor says the date is "very flexible", so it is likely the situation will be resolved during the Olympic Break that follows soon afterward. If convicted, Brashear could face a punishment as high as five to 10 years in jail, but apparently a first offender who admits his guilt is more likely to be fined or sentenced to perform community service.
When Vancouver hosts the new-format All Star Game, its two leading scorers will be lining up against each other. Pavel Bure was named to the World Team, while Mark Messier was added to the North American team last week as a Commissioner's Special Selection. Mark said all the right things about being proud to play in his third All- Star Game in his home rink, but surely he has to be stinging, just a bit, about being left off the main list once again when the league's best players are named.
Old school Canuck fans should find plenty to cheer about, however, when the puck is dropped for the Heroes of Hockey game. Long-time Canuck Captain and current Assistant Coach Stan Smyl will play just his third game since retiring as he leads a squad that will include "King" Richard Brodeur in goal, Garth Butcher and Harold Snepts on defense, and everyone from Andre Boudrias to Thomas Gradin to Bobby Schmautz to Tiger Williams at forward. Head Coach of Team Canuck? Hockey Night in Canada color-man Harry Neale.
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