Canucks camp: second-line problems

Photo from Flickr/clydeorama

Opening night against the Anaheim Ducks is less than four days away for the Canucks, and they’re already facing more question marks than fans during their abbreviated free-to-the-public on-ice training camp sessions.

News that underwhelming top six winger David Booth would be out four to six weeks with a groin pull sent much of the local ‘blogosphere’ and ‘twitterverse’ into a frenzy on Tuesday afternoon, a mild panic that was somewhat misplaced but which wasn’t entirely without merit.

Booth’s departure amplifies the loss of Ryan Kesler, who’s still in the limbo of recovering from two off-season surgeries to both his shoulder and wrist. There’s no timetable for Kesler’s return, and seeing him hit the ice in a surprise first appearance on Monday morning inspired little confidence he’s close to making any additional surprise appearances any time soon. The loss of Booth turns that Kesler-sized crater in the Canucks’ roster into a slightly larger, harder to stomach crater.

The second line is now essentially clinging — in tatters — to a head-down Mason Raymond who’s cutting predictably into open ice while chasing yet another low-percentage play. Some combination of Andrew Ebbett, Jordan Schroeder and Zack Kassian is likely to fill the void alongside him.

Maybe the Canucks’ team store should start selling blindfolds.  

Panic is the easy emotion for fans and commentators in this scenario, but the Canucks do still have two healthy Sedin’s, a healthy Alex Burrows, nine NHL-ready defenseman, and a Jennings Trophy winning tandem in goal (for now, at least). A predicted ‘third line’ of Chris Higgins, Max Lapierre and Jannik Hansen which really becomes the de facto second is more than serviceable in that kind of role for the interim.

Overall, this team is still too talented to be excused from the burden of high expectations. But the problems are clearly mounting, and they could easily be only the beginning.

Dan Hamhuis — arguably the most consistent defensive blueliner the team has — has also been nursing a groin injury. Zack Kassian — perhaps one of the few ‘answers’ to the team’s top six injury problems — is an inexperienced, unproven prospect who’s had a rocky season in the AHL and who's been fighting back spasms the past week. Jason Garrison and Alex Edler have recovered from their off-season injuries (groin and bulging disc, respectively), but it would take a special type of bravery to put money on either avoiding a mid-season setback. Garrison has battled his groin injury for years and Edler’s toxic relationship with his back is an annually recurring issue.

That leaves a single top-four defenseman (Bieksa) in tip-top shape heading into a season that’s expected to be an unpredictable, injury-riddled dogfight.

In an 82-game campaign the complete lack of a second line for a few weeks, and the danger of nagging injuries and brief setbacks to key players at inopportune times are manageable problems, especially on a team as deep as the Canucks. But in a shortened season where the team’s remaining few healthy offensive leaders haven’t played a game in nine months, and who might need time to shake off the rust, those problems grow dramatically in significance.

Six weeks from now the Canucks will play their 19th game of the season against the Phoenix Coyotes. 38 points will have been up for grabs for the Canucks once that game is completed. Only 29 games will remain thereafter — or 58 points.

As was mentioned in this space previously, teams will likely need to pull wins and overtime losses from between 35-40 of their games to be in control of their playoff destiny. Something in the vicinity of 55 points will likely be the cutoff for making the post-season. So 15 losses will put a team on the brink.

The Canucks are in no danger of missing the playoffs. They’re still too talented and too deep to be considered anything less than a Western Conference contender. But they also have more than their fair share of daggers hanging over their heads, and if only a few of them fall — even only delivering grazing cuts — it could very easily (and very quickly) be lights out on their playoff hopes.

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