Alain Vigneault speaks to reporters in person in Vancouver on Friday morning, for the first time since the night of Sunday, April 22, when the Canucks were ousted from the playoffs in the first round by the Los Angeles Kings and Vigneault gave a terse five-minute press conference.
The biggest story in Vancouver, of course, and possibly the NHL, is the fate and future of Roberto Luongo. But for Vigneault there is a much bigger issue at hand: an offence that does not appear to have much firepower at all. Recall: From late February last year through the defeat at the hands of the Kings, the team’s scoring collapsed, registering just 2.2 goals per game – a radical drop from 3.3 goals per game in the first 59 contests of the regular season.
Part of the reason was Ryan Kesler, the star second-line centre who didn’t score in his last 17 games, a disappearing act later explained by injuries to his left wrist and left shoulder he tried to play through. There were two off-season surgeries to right the situation but convalescence has been slow. On Wednesday in Vancouver, Kesler said he still can’t even lift his left arm above shoulder height – so it is hard to imagine when exactly he might be back on the ice, never mind back in the 41-goal form he displayed during the 2010-11 season (which, a betting man would guess, will never be replicated again).
Vigneault’s options don’t seem that great right now. Andrew Ebbett, a 5-foot-9 journeyman, is keen for the second-line centre job, citing his work in the same position for Anaheim (which produced his best-ever season, 32 points in 48 games in 2008-09). Second-line winger Chris Higgins could play centre – team president Mike Gillis said Vancouver is mulling moving a winger to the centre position – but on Wednesday Higgins said he doesn’t really want to make the switch.
With the hole on the second line, the third line has the same issue—who will be the centre? Maxim Lapierre, better known for his mouth than his scoring touch, had a brief burst of productivity late last year, so he could fill the hole. There is also the keen Jordan Schroeder, who like Ebbett is small, 5-foot-9, and was the Canucks’s first-round pick (22nd overall) in 2009. The 22-year-old, however, hasn’t exactly lit up the American Hockey League this year. His 19 points in 30 games is 0.63 per outing, which is nominally better than his 0.58 over a full season last year, 44 points in 76 games.
The Canucks want to make a Cup run. A third-line centre who has never played an NHL game and didn’t demonstrate any marked improvement in the AHL doesn’t seem to be part of a Cup-run strategy.
Schroeder knows it could come down to youth versus experience, as the Canucks hone their roster in a short training camp, and it could be Schroeder against Ebbett for an NHL job. On Wednesday after their informal practice at UBC, Schroeder was asked to tout his strengths, beyond his speed: “Just my sense for the game, my smarts, knowing where to put the puck, knowing what to do with the puck, not getting yourself in trouble, always making the smart play.”
Gillis last Sunday already said the short season means that experiments will have to be shelved and the tried-and-true relied upon. On that front, the Canucks are led by the Sedin twins, whose whose scoring prowess was notably less potent last year and one wonders if Daniel Sedin can reconjure his scoring acumen post-concussion. There is chatter about adding the almost 22-year-old Zack Kassian to play with the Sedins on the first line, which was tried briefly last year. It seems like a gamble and the likelier outcome would be, again, the tried-and-true, winger Alex Burrows to pair with the Sedins. This makes sense especially given that Kassian, like Schroeder, also wasn’t impressive in the AHL this year, notching 20 points in 28 games, which is 0.71 a game, less than he managed with the Rochester Americans last season, 26 points in 30 games, 0.87 a game, a scoring punch that led to his promotion to the NHL, first to Buffalo and then to Vancouver (traded for Cody Hodgson, a centre who might be mourned by some fans, given the current roster problems).
Luongo may be the answer. Gillis was derided for not trading the benched goalie by the draft/free agency last summer – Gillis preferred patience to expediency, and the tack seems to be proven ever-more correct each day that passes. There is, obviously, a new general manager in Toronto, Dave Nonis, who traded for Luongo when he was GM in Vancouver, and now is under severe pressure to get the Maple Leafs into the playoffs. Whereas once the conventional wisdom on a Luongo trade was a straight salary dump, with nothing in return, it now looks like Gillis will indeed extract players of true value when he sends his former star goalie elsewhere, especially with talk of phones ringing at Canucks HQ and rumblings of interest from the likes of Philadelphia.
The trade could be a big one. The Canucks, while less than robust on offence, are laden with strong defencemen. Perhaps someone like Keith Ballard is dispatched along with Luongo – and that could change the complexion of the Canucks quite considerably – and perhaps make moot the glaring holes.
But surely there is no talk between GMs, given that they are technically not supposed to be speaking until the game is officially back on, a process that moved forward on Wednesday with the league’s board of governors ratifying the new labour pact and the players expected to do so by the weekend.