Just when the Vancouver Canucks get traction in one area, the NHL's top team loses ground in another.
The Canucks have dropped five of their last 10 games, and enter Monday's trade deadline facing the dilemma of loading up for a Stanley Cup run, or refusing to mess with a club that has had stretches of brilliance in 2010-11.
"I like our team, even if they don't bring in any guys," captain Henrik Sedin said. "[But]that [loading up]is a good way to see it. When you have this good of a team, you really see a chance of getting there [to the Stanley Cup finals] If you can find a good piece, this is the time to do it."
Vancouver is short on salary-cap space, but can manufacture enough for a $2-million-player (all currency U.S.) by sending forwards Cody Hodgson and Victor Oreskovich to the minors should it secure a fourth-line centre, its top deadline target. The rub, however, is that Hodgson and Oreskovich are starting to show signs that they could solve Vancouver's fourth-line woes, which would lessen the need for a low-cost depth forward.
At the same time, the team's inconsistent secondary scoring is rearing its ugly head again, as the Canucks have just 12 goals in their last five games.
The top four forwards (the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows) and defence have scored 130 of Vancouver's NHL-best 206 goals. A collection of 15 different supporting forwards have combined for just 76 goals, 18 by second-line winger Mikael Samuelsson.
Mason Raymond, who had 25 goals last year, has scored just three times in the last 27 games, and has but 10 for the season. He was demoted to the fourth line in Saturday's 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, replaced by plumber Tanner Glass on the second unit.
Raymond, Samuelsson, Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres have all suffered through deep slumps this season, which, combined with the postseason histories of Vancouver's top forwards, and the Canucks' record against stingy teams, is worrisome.
Henrik Sedin is the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner, and Daniel Sedin is leading the regular-season scoring race this year, but the twins have yet to take over a postseason series. Meanwhile, Kesler and Burrows have combined for just 24 points in 44 playoff games over the last two years.
In the past week, two of the league's best defensive outfits, Boston and Montreal, have earned regulation-time victories at Rogers Arena. The Canucks rank as the league's best defensive club this year, allowing just 2.30 goals per game, but are just 1-5-1 against teams ranked two through six in goals-against average. They are 7-9-2 against the top 11.
With scant cap space remaining, the Canucks would likely have to move roster players to add a top-six forward. General manager Mike Gillis may have no choice but to stick with the existing group, and hope that Hodgson, who profiles as a future top-six forward, discovers a scoring touch.
Six days ago, head coach Alain Vigneault suggested that Hodgson was auditioning for the fourth-line centre role come playoff time, and that Vancouver's deadline plans could be determined by the trial. Given the limited ice-time Vigneault has afforded his fourth line, it is clear that he still doesn't trust the rookie centre and his linemates.
Nonetheless, there has been progress.
Hodgson, the organization's top prospect, is generating some scoring chances while adapting to the foreign role of being a defence-first forward. Oreskovich, meanwhile, is flashing the potential to be that nasty fore-checker who helps wear down the opposition's defence with his size - an element the Canucks crave.
"I've always tried to be a two-way player," Hodgson said. "Obviously, in this role, you don't take as many risks [with the puck] but at the same time we're still creating chances."