By Stu Hackel
With repeat runs to championship series or games in team sports increasingly unlikely these days, the Vancouver Canucks are trying to increase their chances by managing their roster a bit differently. It's a long, long year for any NHL club, and even longer for a team that goes deep in the playoffs, so the Canucks know they're going to need all sorts of luck, breaks, good health and other intangibles aside from consistently superior performances.
Training camp and the NHL's preseason schedule are far shorter than they once were (two weeks compared to a month), but the 82-game grind, postseason and extensive travel still stretch over eight months and tens of thousands of miles. For the Canucks, who played until June last season and travel more than most other clubs (over 50,000 miles annually), there has to be concern about the toll this can take on their players. So the team has devised a plan to rest key performers during preseason games but work them hard in practice and in off-ice activities. The idea is to try to control the "hangover" effect by avoiding burnout early.
“The way we’ve handled this and the quality practice time they’ve had and the fact we’ve been able to basically kick their butts off the ice and give them double sessions, I’ve got a feeling that they’re really looking forward to playing a game,” coach Alain Vigneault told Ben Kuzma of The Vancouver Sun. “I think we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve as far as getting them ready and excited to play."
So Daniel and Henrik Sedin have yet to play in any of the four games the Canucks have had thus far. Alex Burrows, Roberto Luongo, Mikael Samuelsson, Alex Edler, Jannik Hansen, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, and Chris Higgins haven't seen any action, either.
“All of those guys are going play two of the last three (pre-season games), which in my mind is more than enough to be ready to have a good start,” Vigneault said.
Mason Raymond, Ryan Kesler, Manny Malhotra and Dan Hamhuis are still rehabbing from injuries, but some Canucks have played more regularly: the ones Vigneault feels could use the work for one reason or another.
The NHL's CBA mandates that eight veterans must play in each preseason game. For such purposes, veterans are defined as (1) a forward or defenseman who played in 30 NHL games during the previous season; (2) a goaltender who either dressed in 50 or more NHL games or played in 30 or more NHL games in the previous season; (3) a first round draft choice from the most recent year’s Entry Draft or; (4) any player who has played 100 or more career NHL games. So Keith Ballard, who fell out of favor with Vigneault last season and appeared in only 10 playoff games, is getting a chance to rebuild his status and has played in three preseason contests.
“I don’t have the Sedin button,” Ballard joked with Kuzma, adding, “I like playing and I’ve got no problem with it. It’s a good way to get into it and it’s hard to just turn it on for Game 1 of the season. But everyone is different. Training camp is where guys are trying to prove things or get their legs under them or make hits. My playoff experience was different than most guys' and I don’t feel tired or that I need a rest, so why not play? It beats practicing.”
Veteran defensemen Aaron Rome, Chris Tanev and Andrew Alberts, none of whom played in more than 14 of the team's 25 playoff games and who are jockeying with Ballard for spots on the depth chart, have also seen preseason action (although Rome was injured, breaking his hand over the weekend). So have Maxim Lapierre, who came to the Canucks late last season, and free agent signee Marco Sturm who Vigneault feels could both use a fuller orientation.
This approach sheds some light on why the Canucks offered tryout contracts to Owen Nolan, Anders Eriksson, Niko Dimitrakos, Manny Legace, Todd Fedoruk and Steve Begin. Nolan probably had the most legitimate shot at making the team, but after a goal and assist in three games, he's been dropped, as have Begin, Dimitrakos and Legace. These players all qualified as NHL vets and saw preseason game action for Vancouver, but may have been no more than placeholders while so much of the regular team was kept idle.
A former player told Elliotte Friedman of CBC, "I've never seen anyone do what the Canucks are doing." Friedman spoke with Canucks VP of Hockey Operations Laurence Gilman, who said the team researched how previous clubs that reached the Cup final started the following season. The Canucks determined that the best way to keep their veterans fresh physically and emotionally, especially considering their travel, was by practicing hard, but not playing as much in the early going.
Friedman told Mitch Melnick on his regular Monday spot over Montreal radio Team 990 that he believes more teams might look at this approach in the future, especially if the Canucks are successful. Hey, no one likes a hangover.