Big Story No. 1: A top-flight goaltender with a long-term injury.
Big Story No. 2: A superstar forward who was absent for the first 40 games.
Big Story No. 3: A lengthy losing streak heading into the all-star break.
Those were the three biggest storylines in the first half of the Vancouver Canucks’ 2008-09 season; at least, the three biggest stories that the team hoped wouldn’t come to pass, but did.
Of course, there were some positive storylines in the first half, too.
Remember when everyone was worried about who would provide the secondary (i.e. non-Sedin-related) scoring? That’s no longer an issue as Pavol Demitra, Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier, Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond are all on track for 20-plus goals.
Vancouver’s blueline depth – and durability – was questioned, but the top-four of Kevin Bieksa, Willie Mitchell, Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo has held up thus far.
Salo is back after missing 15 games and Bieksa missed some time in October and November, but Vancouver’s go-to D-men have been refreshingly healthy this season. And the third pairing of Alexander Edler and Shane O’Brien has been effective; the 22-year-old Edler had 18 points in 46 games – and a blueline-best 88 shots – while the abrasive O’Brien led the league with 130 penalty minutes.
Even deep, deep depth defenders Rob Davison (five fights in 19 games) and Lawrence Nycholat (plus-3 in 14 games) have added something to the mix when they snuck into the lineup.
But there’s no denying the Canucks need those top three storylines to start trending in the other direction if they want to make the playoffs. And really, a complete reversal is a reasonable expectation.
First of all, Roberto Luongo returned to his rightful place in the Canucks crease just prior to the break. It was a rocky comeback as he lost three consecutive games, but surely the all-star weekend in Montreal will remind Luongo of his greatness in goal.
The Canucks begin and end with their all-world netminder; it’s a basic assumption that Luongo will return to form and lead Vancouver into the post-season. If he sustains another injury or inexplicably goes cold…all bets are off.
While the arrival of Mats Sundin didn’t provide the spark the team hoped it would, the long-term outlook is positive. Only a handful of players in the league have Sundin’s combination of skill, leadership and veteran savvy. At some point, probably sooner than later, he’ll get in synch with his linemates and rip off 15 or 20 points in an eight- or 10-game stretch. Like Luongo, Sundin is too good to struggle for too long.
And, assuming Luongo and Sundin return to their usual elite status, the third storyline – long losing streaks – is something the Canucks won’t have to worry about.
This column also appears in the Vancouver Metro newspaper.
Sam McCaig’s From The Point column appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Have a point to make with Sam McCaig? You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.