There's a commotion in the back hallway at Rogers Arena.
Shouts of hockey players, engaged in a hot contest of soccer volleyball. It is Tuesday morning, and the Vancouver Canucks have a game-day skate ahead of their evening match against the lowly Carolina Hurricanes, but the coaches have let half the team, the stars, skip the skate. The players decide to have some fun, Henrik and Daniel Sedin among them. "No speaking Swedish," jokes one player as the match intensifies.
The Vancouver Canucks are having fun. As of Wednesday morning, after defeating the woeful Hurricanes, they stood fifth in the Western Conference, starting the season 6-3, a notch better than the 5-3-1 they booked after nine games last season under John Tortorella.
An underpinning of the revival of good feelings is the re-emergence of Daniel Sedin, who at 34 is not the goal scorer he was for several big seasons but is, as he always has been, one of the great passers in the NHL.
Because Daniel booked 41 goals in 2010-11, en route to the league scoring title, and because he was the league's ninth-most prolific goal scorer in six seasons from 2006-07 through 2011-12 with 196 goals, and because his brother is the master passer Henrik Sedin, the fact that Daniel Sedin is an ace passer is sometimes overlooked.
Since the lost season of 2004-05, Daniel has been an elite playmaker, which continues even as he has struggled to score recently. From 2005-06 to today, Daniel ranks No. 7 in assists, with 417 (Henrik is second, with 554, behind Joe Thornton's 599, according to hockey-reference.com).
Even as Daniel's goal-scoring touch has half-vanished – a problem that has extended into this season – Daniel has once again cracked the NHL top 10 in scoring, as of Tuesday morning. Credit passing: nine assists, and two goals, for 11 points.
His points ranking did slide to No. 24 from No. 10, as of Wednesday morning, after he was blanked against Carolina. His nine assists, however, still had Daniel tied for fourth in the league.
"You know what?" said Henrik on Tuesday. "I've always seen him as a passer. I've never seen him as a great goal scorer. He can put the puck in the net but he sees the ice as well as anyone in the league."
When Henrik says he doesn't see Daniel as a great goal scorer, he doesn't mean it in a bad way. According to hockey-reference.com, from 2006-07 to 2011-12, scorers who pocketed at least 100 goals, with a shooting percentage of at least 12 per cent – a total of 65 players – Daniel ranked among the best in number of goals, but was only middle of the pack when it came to scoring percentage (13.2 per cent).
Last year, his shooting percentage gutted at a career-worst 7.1 per cent. A Globe and Mail analysis last winter showed Sedin's collapse was unusually large compared with peers and previous elite scorers as they aged, and speculation about the lingering effect of Duncan Keith's vicious elbow to Sedin's head in March, 2012, and the month missed due to concussion, continues. This season, Sedin's shooting percentage is, after only nine games and 26 shots, a weak 7.7 per cent. His passing, however, is on the mark, no-look backhand passes that lead directly to goals, delicate drop passes to set up a sequence that leads to goals – the usual magic Henrik gets most of the attention for.
The Canucks have quietly said they don't necessarily expect goals from Daniel – and communicated it clearly when they paid free agent Radim Vrbata $10-million for a two-year deal. Vrbata loves to shoot the puck, and his 35 shots this year ranks 14th in the league. Vrbata has scored five times, an impressive early rate of 14.3 per cent.
"His [Daniel's] game is just an all-around game," said coach Willie Desjardins in September during training camp. "It's not strictly scoring. We're not going to put pressure on him to score."
The challenge for the Sedins this season will be to keep up the strong play. Last October, they were also strong, and Daniel Sedin had 15 points in 15 games – six goals and nine assists –before he and his brother signed four-year, $28-million contracts, that kicked in this year. By mid-January last season, the Sedins were wore out, overplayed by Tortorella. Daniel suffered an epic 23-game stretch without a single goal and only five assists.
This year, Desjardins has deployed the twins as they had been in the past, averaging about 19 minutes a game.
And while it is fun again for players to be at Rogers Arena, and the Canucks stood fifth in the west as of Wednesday morning, the team faces an early acid test: seven games in the next 11 days, mostly against strong teams, starting with the Montreal Canadiens at home Thursday night, and ending with a roadtrip in California, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim, where Vancouver failed so badly all last season.