Canucks and Beyond

Running Down the Canucks D

07/23/2007 at 3:26pm EDT

At 26 years old, Bieksa has only played 120 games at the NHL level. Unusual for a top-4 defenseman (isn’t it?) but he’s been on a fast learning curve. Getting his first 39 games in the 2005-06 season, Bieksa was solid, but with only 6 assists that year. But last season was a whole other story, putting in 81 games and a solid 42 points, he proved he’s the real deal. And the passion he shows on the ice… I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine he’s got what it takes to be captain of this team one day.

For now I’ll just cross my fingers he can put together another season like last, and any other improvements are gravy.

Aaron Miller #3?
b.1971, USA
Miller scored a 1-year, $1.5 million deal with the Canucks this summer, and while reviews seem to be mixed about the signing, no one can argue that Miller doesn’t bring one pretty important quality to this team—a huge helping of experience over a long and consistent career.

Something interesting I noticed related to Miller’s +/- play last year. I’m no hockey-stats geek (I really suck at numbers) but this sort of jumped out at me: in the 27 winning games that featured Miller last year, he came in at +13; in the 55 losses he participated in, he was a -27.

I’m not sure this means anything, but surely it’s some indication that “where Miller goes, the team goes”? A better stats-geek than I could probably break it down entirely different. But looking at the rest of the Kings defensive core from last season, Rob Blake’s stats show a similar pattern to Miller’s (which makes sense given Blake’s serious value to that team), but with other d-men I checked, it wasn’t nearly so noticeable.

Anyway, just a thought.

Lukas Krajicek #5
b.1983, Czech
Before I start in on Krajicek, I just want to say, I love saying this kid’s name. It took me 2 freakin’ months to finally get it right last season, so I began saying it at random moments all the time, quite pleased with myself. Then this past spring I had a Czech exchange student living with me for a couple months, and she promptly pronounced it entirely different. Ugh. (Damn Czechs.) On the bright side, she also pointed out that his name translates literally to “little slice of bread” or “piece of bread.”

So let’s look at Cry-Chek’s bread…

This was another deal in the Summer of Contract Lockdown for Nonis. Krajicek had a pretty good first season with the Canucks (I thought, though some disagreed) and Nonis decided to play the odds and sign him for what he’s worth, giving him $1.1 million per for the next 2 seasons. (Geez, ever get the feeling there shall be NO more Bobby Clarke - Ryan Kesler fiascos ever happening again in Nonis’ tenure?) A smart deal, anyhow. With contracts like Salo’s and Bieksa’s to deal with, Nonis probably didn’t think twice about signing the Czech for two years, given his overall consistency and reasonable value.

Willie Mitchell #8
b.1977, Canada
Random useless fact: my podcast mate John Bollwitt from The Crazy Canucks likes to scream Mitchell! for no reason whatsoever. He just likes how it sounds. (And Bollwitt’s a pretty popular guy, so I guess it just sounds normal in Vancouver these days. After all, who doesn’t like Mitchell?)

Mitchell was just a killer signing last year—I LOVE this guy. I love how he plays; how he interacts with the media; how he engages the fans. Picking up the famous Cowan Bra from the ice with his stick is one of my more memorable hockey-entertainment images from last season, for sure. But most importantly, the guy fits this team like a glove and his contract with the Canucks also makes him a Vancouverite till 2010, making $3.5 million this season.

A pile of money, and there’s nothing spectacular about his stats, and yet… would you want to face a season without him? Nope. Mitchell just embodies the entire philosophy of this team’s coaching system.

Mattias Ohlund #2
b.1976, Sweden
Ohlund is a favorite of mine, for a lot of reasons. He’s been eternally consistent and largely unvalued around the league, but Canucks fans generally know better—he’s been a large factor in the success of past years.

But his most recent season didn’t impress me much, I’ll confess. Not that he wasn’t solid out there all year, but he never really shone, I thought. I think a lot of that had to do with the coaching changes and goalie change—getting used to Luongo’s defensive needs had to be a big adjustment after the Cloutier years. (meaning: while Cloutier needed his D to bust their asses in front of the net, Luongo just wants everyone to get the hell out of his way). Perhaps that was a factor.

Ohlund is frequently mentioned as trade bait given he has 2 more years on his fairly substantial contract. But my feeling is that if Ohlund’s play is consistent, Nonis will keep him past this coming season’s trade deadline. I’m sure plenty of others will look at the status of the salary cap and say “Impossible!” but I disagree. And unless Nonis sees one of The Kids (mentioned at the bottom of this post) having a break out season, he’s going to hold onto his longest-serving defenseman through the 2008 playoffs.

(Also, does he not also have a NTC? I’m not sure at this moment).

Sami Salo #6
b.1974, Finland
The story of Sami Salo is another part of why I feel fairly certain of Ohlund’s fate to stay with the Canucks at least through this coming season. Last February at the trade deadline, a million pundits and rumor mongers were just certain that Salo was headed out of Vancouver given his free agency prospects this summer. But Nonis is all about building defense and he didn’t seem to even think twice before locking down the d-man for 4 years at $3.5 million per. I heartily approved, then and now.

Does this deal indicate Nonis was thinking of Salo vs Ohlund with a plan to ditch Ohlund this year? I’ve heard it suggested, but think it’s highly unlikely. Salo’s injury issues make him the lesser of the two options in some ways. I think Nonis always intended to keep them both through the 2007-08 campaign. Salo’s shot, his excellent back end play and probably even his personality make him fit well on this team. He’s easy going and always calm, virtually never having a bad game. He’s not all-passion-all-the-time like Bieksa, but he’s reliable in a way that very few NHL d-men in the league are.

It’s comforting to know he’ll be in Vancouver for years to come.

The Kids
As I was writing this, I came across James Mirtle’s post this morning questioning the Canucks’ defense. Or specifically, the Canucks’ over-abundance of defense. I can’t say I really see what the problem is.

Bottom line, Vancouver has some nice options hanging around in Manitoba, with Luc Bourdon, Alexander Edler and others like Nathan McIver. With defense going down like they were being shot late last season (Bieksa, Ohlund, Mitchell all dealing with injury issues, as I recall) the Canucks’ biggest worry then was not having enough defensemen. Now they have no such concerns, particularly as Edler in particular looks to be a reliable option for the 7th slot.

One concern frequently mentioned—and alluded to in Mirtle’s post—is that Vancouver’s scoring problems would suggest trading out a top-defenseman in order to get the front end strengthened. But what everyone seems to forget is that Nonis still has money in his budget to make that happen, without rushing to trade out a d-man.

The Canucks have committed around $45 million to salaries thus far. Even making allowances for keeping a spare $2 million under the cap and a few stray signings (like Trevor Linden?) Nonis still has about $2+ million to play with to buy scoring.

And while $2 million isn’t a ton of money in this business, our sly GM has shown plenty of talent at finding diamonds out there where nobody else sees them. I, for one, am confident that he can make it work for that $2 mil. And unless he intends to steal away a superstar from another team, he can do that without any more changes to his defense at this point.

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