It just wouldn’t be a Vancouver Canucks season without some doom-and-gloom, and without a decimation of the blue line.
All that struck Thursday as the team entered the NHL all-star break with news that Alexander Edler will undergo surgery for a herniated disc in his lower back. The micro discectomy will take place Monday, and Edler is lost indefinitely, possibly for the remainder of the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs.
“It won’t heal on its own, so it has to be repaired, and now is the opportunity to do it,” general manager Mike Gillis said. “If we don’t do it now, he could risk, for sure, the remainder of the season and playoffs. If we do it now, there may be an opportunity for him to return, but we’re not sure yet.”
In the short-term, it is an enormous loss for the Canucks, who are tied for the NHL-lead in points and sit in first place of the Western Conference. Edler was their leading minute-man (24:23 per game), and their fourth-leading scorer (32 points).
He anchors the league’s third-ranked power-play, and the fifth-ranked penalty-killing unit, and he had emerged as a No. 1 defenceman on the Canucks blue-line. The worry isn’t that the team needs him in the remaining 32 games, but his absence would throw a wet blanket on Vancouver’s Cup aspirations come the postseason.
“This is a breakthrough season for him,” Gillis said. “He is playing a ton of minutes, he’s playing in every situation...I’m shocked he wasn’t selected to go to the all-star game.”
Edler, 24, has long dealt with a tightening back, but a recent bout was worse than before, and wasn’t going away like the others. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan was inconclusive, but Gillis said this type of surgery has a “90 to 100 per cent” success rate and that “early indications are that it is fairly straightforward.”
Edler will be re-evaluated in two weeks, but he is certainly lost for the near term.
For the Canucks, the ripple effect is immense.
Edler will be placed on the long-term injured list, freeing up salary cap space that will allow Sami Salo to return to the lineup without a trade. Salo, who makes $3.5 million U.S., is trying to come back from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and has been skating with his teammates.
But Gillis said the 36-year-old veteran plateaued last week, and the Canucks are concerned that Salo is still tentative when participating in practices. He is still weeks away from a return.
Andrew Alberts and Aaron Rome are Vancouver’s rotating seventh defenceman when everyone is healthy. Both are out with injuries, neither will be back until a week or so after the all-star break.
Gillis said the injuries will give Keith Ballard, who is having a disappointing season, a chance to play more minutes and elevate himself from the third pairing. It also means that rookies Chris Tanev and Lee Sweatt should get opportunities while the crew regains health.
The Canucks have been extremely impressed with Tanev, a college free agent, through his first five NHL games.
The 5-foot-9 Sweatt scored the game-winning goal in his NHL debut, a 2-1 victory over the Nashville Predators. His teammates call him “Rudy,” and the 25-year-old is hoping to become the next Brian Rafalski, a short rearguard who was a late bloomer after playing professionally in Finland.
The Canucks may also call on Ryan Parent, a former first-round draft pick acquired from Nashville prior to the season. Parent, who has played 106 games, is suffering from waning confidence with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose.
But in what seems like an annual rite, the Canucks are again scrambling for defencemen, despite an off-season arms build up. Last spring, the Canucks’ ranks on defence were eventually depleted in a second round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, another miss for a franchise that hasn’t won a Cup in 40 years.
And with the Edler injury, that possibility exists again.