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Canucks 2011-2012: better or worse than last season?

Vanocuver Canucks: can they go beyond Western Conference champs to Stanley Cup winners?

With the NHL playoffs starting in just over a week, all that matters in Canuck-land is whether or not this team can go one win further than last year’s version.

So, are the 2011/12 Canucks better or worse than the 2010/11 team? We each pick a side.

Calyn: Worse

When the playoffs began last year a run to the Cup for the Canucks almost felt inevitable. Maybe inevitable is the wrong word, but it at least felt probable (especially after they slayed the dragon known as the Chicago Blackhawks). After a dominating regular season and a runaway President’s trophy win, the Canucks entered the postseason looking like a team capable of winning it all. Right up until Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final I didn’t just hope the Canucks would win the cup, I expected they would.

This year’s team doesn’t give me the same confidence. Here are the five reasons the 2012 Canucks are worse than their predecessor.

1) The powerplay isn’t as deadly. Right up until last year’s SCF, the Canucks were lethal with the man advantage. Their entire DNA was built on punishing teams when they took liberties. During the regular season they were 24.32 percent on the PP, good for first in the league by almost a full percent. In the Conference Final against San Jose they were absolutely ruthless, scoring 10 of their 20 goals in the series with the man advantage.

This year they are 4th in the league, converting at 20.38 percent, but they only have a handful of PP goals since scoring four against the Bruins back in January. Halfway through the season they were converting on close to 25 percent of their PP chances, by far the best in the league. Since then, the powerplay, which at one time looked dynamic, devastating and unstoppable, now looks flat, lost and inept.

2) The swagger-factor. Last year the Canucks talked the talk, and walked the walk. They were playing the game the right way and they knew it. The system was flawless and the players looked, and sounded, like a team confident that their approach to the game could see them through any test. The Boston Bruins brought that self-belief crashing down. The players and coaching staff may preach the same message about structure and process, but it is clear to anyone watching that this team isn’t sure it could come out on top if it had to face the big bad Bruins again.

3) The Sedins have taken a small step back in the last few months. Halfway through the season it looked like the twins were again on their way to 100-point seasons, but the last two months has seen their production drop off significantly. Part of this is due to the struggling powerplay (see #1), but it also seems like the magic is wearing off a little bit. The passing in tight spaces that used to go tape-to-tape now misses the mark. The strong cycle and dominant puck possession down low just isn’t there. And now, Daniel out with a concussion – worrying signs.

4) I like the additions (and subtractions) by Mike Gillis this year. David Booth, Zach Kassian and Sami Pahlsson all make the team better, but figuring out the right line combinations seems to be a problem. I’m not an Alain Vigneault hater, I hope he is the Canucks’ coach for years to come, but he seems to be struggling this year to figure out how to put the pieces at his disposal together in the most effective manner. And with viable options Steven Reinprecht and Byron Bitz down in the minors the situation isn’t likely to get less complicated come playoff time.

5) They look tired. The grind of last year’s cup run seems to still weigh on them physically and mentally. Last year’s regular season schedule was just as tough, but you never heard the players, coaches or management talk about fatigue. I have a feeling they are going to run out of steam by the third round of the playoffs.

Nolan: Better

1) We’re streaking. Two weeks ago things looked bleak. With a 2-0 loss on March 19th at the hands of the hapless Wild, the Canucks were 4-6 in their past 10. Cue some brilliant goaltending and a key game against the Blackhawks – a team that always brings out the best in the Canucks. All of a sudden Vancouver are the President’s trophy front runners and the hottest team in the NHL heading in to the playoffs. This is the first time in a while the Canucks have looked like the dominating team from a year ago – and they’re doing it without Daniel Sedin.

2) Sammi, Sammy, Samme. Sounds like the name of a badass 1980’s Swedish electro-synth band. The emergence of the new checking line -- Sami Pahlsson, Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen -- gives the team a trio of great defensive forwards that can go up against any top line in the league. Neutralize another team’s top line and you stand a solid chance of winning against any team.

3) Second line depth. David Booth is an upgrade over Mikael Samuelsson. Though it hasn’t looked like an upgrade for much of the season, Booth has the ability to be a game breaker. If  and Kesler can find any semblance of chemistry during the playoffs, with two scoring lines, the Canucks will be well equipped for a deep playoff run.

4) Adaptation. “If you’re going to win games, you’d better be ready to adapt” ~ Scotty Bowman. Mike Gillis has made sure the Canucks can do just that. The Canucks can play a tough game, they can play a defensive game, and, despite their recent offensive struggles, they can play a skill game. Is there a team in the NHL more equipped to play any style of game? I don’t think so.

5) Experience. The Canucks have dealt with four rounds of playoff’s, the travel, the physical toll and the pressures of a Cup final before. This team knows what it takes to win – and will do anything to take the Stanley Cup home in June.

Either way, we’ll find out soon enough. But one thing is for sure – both of us hope that Nolan is right.

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