Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kings-Canucks Playoff Preview Part III: Defense

Drew Doughty
Doughty could win or lose this series for the Kings.
Most Kings fans would immediately give the advantage to Los Angeles here.  The Kings allowed 2.07 goals per game, 2nd best in the league but Vancouver wasn’t far behind allowing 2.22 goals, 5th best.

Both teams  showcase two of the brightest young blueliners in the NHL.  The Kings are led by 22-year old Drew Doughty, who burst onto the scene as one of Canada's best defenseman in the 2010 Olympics.  The past two seasons have been filled with inconsistencies and a contract dispute but make no mistake he's still been the Kings most valuable blueliner.  With the departure of Christian Ehrhoff to Buffalo via free agency, 25-year-old Swede Alexander Edler made sure the Canucks didn’t miss a beat and had by far the most productive season of his young career.

The Kings and Canucks bluelines are built differently.  The Kings have three puck-moving defenseman featuring Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Alec Martinez.  Each are paired with a stay-at-home partner: Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell, and Matt Greene.  The Canucks blueline features more two-way hybrid defenseman in Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, and Sami Salo.

Drew Doughty
Doughty's play will dictate L.A.'s success.
For all of Doughty’s mental lapses this season, he’s still the Kings franchise defenseman.  At $7-million for the next five seasons, now would be as good a time as any to start earning that paycheck.  Doughty seems to really enjoy playing Vancouver.  In four games this season, he registered a goal and two assists while dishing out eight hits. 
While still extremely sound in his own end, Scuderi started showing some cracks when pressured in his own zone.  His lack of anything resembling offense can become frustrating.  He was a -7 this season; the first time he’s been a negative +/- player in seven seasons.

After Ryan Suter and Shea Weber in Nashville, there may not have been a better defensive pairing in the entire NHL than Vancouver’s top defensive pairing.  Like all good defenseman both Bieksa and Edler are well-rounded. The duo combined for 19 goals and 74 assists this season to go along with 302 hits and 251 blocked shots.  Both players like to join the rush; Edler a bit more (who had a career-high 49 points but was an even +/-); Bieksa (+12) is still the veteran presence who anchors the entire Canucks blueline and is one tough S.O.B.. (Just ask Mike Richards if he remembers the two poundings he took while with Philly.)

Willie Mitchell
Willie Mitchell has been L.A.'s most consistent d-man all year.
When the Kings dealt Jack Johnson to acquire Jeff Carter in February; Kings fans knew the team wouldn’t miss a beat because of Slava Voynov.  He was the Kings best blueliner on many nights this season pre- and post-Jack Johnson.  The poise he shows with the puck and ability to hit the net with his shot makes him a really valuable piece for Daryl Sutter. 
Willie Mitchell was a team best +20 this season.  Not an easy feat for a player who logs 22:13 of ice-time including over 3:30 minutes on the penalty kill (a whole minute more than any other Kings blueliner).  The main reason for tying his career-high with 23 points?  Simple: he’s getting some time on the 2nd PP unit and he’s shooting the puck more.  His 104 shots are the highest total of his career.

Chris Tanev
Chris Tanev, the pride of RIT.
Hamhuis was underappreciated by fans in Nashville having to play behind All-World blueliners like Suter and Weber.  He returned to B.C. to play for his hometown Canucks and it’s much of the same for “Mr. Consistency.”  Hamhuis goes unnoticed on most nights but wouldn’t you know he was the only Vancouver blueliner to play in all 82 games while logging over 23 minutes of ice-time a night.  He also led all blueliners with a +29 while scoring 37 points, (4 goals, 33 assists) his highest total in seven seasons.
Quick! Name the first alumni of Rochester Institute of Technology to appear in an NHL game.  You guessed it: Chris Tanev of the Canucks.  Tanev, born in East York, ON, was heavily scouted by the Canucks while playing in the 2010 NCAA tournament as a freshman and signed as an undrafted free agent, foregoing his final three years of college hockey eligibility.  Tanev is still only 22, hasn’t even had a full-season of AHL experience but has been praised for his maturity and hockey-sense.  He impressed the coaching staff enough to appear in three Stanley Cup finals last season.  It only makes sense that the Tanev who plays well beyond his years would be paired with “Mr. Consistency.”

Matt Greene
Matt Greene has been to the Stanley Cup before.
Alec Martinez had to be jumping for joy once the Kings dealt Johnson to Columbus.  It solidified his spot on the blueline.  A smooth skater who has a real knack for getting pucks through to the net especially on the man-advantage.  Seven of his 12 points came on the power play.  Martinez’s ability to get shots thru raises his Corsi way above the rest of the Kings blueline. 
Matt Greene wears an A on his sweater for a reason.  He makes up for his lack of foot speed by playing strong in his own end.  He’s a hard-nosed player who protects his teammates and plays a physical style.  His 241 hits were 100 more than any other Kings blueliner.  One of the growing number of Kings with Stanley Cup Finals experience.

Salo may just be the most dangerous blueliner on the Canucks power play.  Of his nine goals this past season, seven of them came on the man-advantage.  His shot is hard and accurate from the point and a key weapon for Vancouver.  At 37, Salo still skates well, plays sound defensively, and blocks shots (None more famous than a blocked shot against Chicago in the postseason two seasons ago.)
Believe it or not, Aaron Rome was Kings property at one time; drafted by L.A. in the 4th round in 2002.  He signed with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim two years later and was shuttled back and forth between the AHL and NHL for the next five seasons before finding a permanent NHL home in Vancouver.  He’s proved to be a valuable depth defenseman for a Canucks blueline that has suffered a number of injuries over the past couple seasons.  A prototypical stay-at-home defenseman who plays physical, blocks shots, and protects his teammates.  Rome’s game compliments the offensive-minded defenseman of Vancouver.  Rome is best known for his questionable hit on Bruins forward Nathan Horton in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals and earned him a suspension for the rest of the Finals.  The hit proved to be a rallying point for Boston who was trailing 2-0 in series.

Los Angeles
Davis Drewiske- While Westgarth hasn't appeared in a game since February 16th.  DD hasn't seen game action since the 18th of February.  The Kings are very comfortable with their top-6 but things could get ugly quick if they lose any of them.

Andrew Alberts- I'll never forget Kings fans riding Alberts two years ago in the postseason.  It felt like he was doing everything he could to hand L.A. the series lead but the Kings refused.  He compiled 23-minutes worth of penalties in Games 1 and 2 (no fighting majors).  I hope he's up for a repeat performance this season.
Keith Ballard- Ballard made his last appearance February 7 vs. Nashville.  He's been on the long road back from a concussion that he believed he suffered two nights earlier in Colorado.  Apparently, playoff hockey is the cure all because Ballard is now skating and cleared for contact but it's difficult to say when he'll be inserted back into the lineup considering he hasn't played a game in over two months.  If and when he's reinserted back into the lineup, Ballard will bring another degree of toughness that is lacking behind Bieksa.  A strong skater who enjoys to throw the body at anytime.  Ballard can play outside of himself at times which got him into trouble last season and led to him being healthy-scratched for a good majority of the playoffs.  His days of being a 30+ point producer seem to be behind him.
Marc-Andre Gragnani- Acquired along with young power forward Zack Kassian, Gragnani was once considered one of the top offensive d-prospects in the NHL.  He put up three strong seasons in Portland, the Sabres AHL-affiliate but could never crack up the Sabres top-6 for long stretches.  He's got some offensive upside still but he's still 7th/8th on Vancouver's depth-chart when everyone is healthy.

EDGE- EVEN.  Both teams defenses are strong.  If the Canucks still had Christian Ehrhoff, it'd be a no-brainer in favor of the the Canucks.  Vancouver has more depth 1-7 but it's more than likely that each team will only dress six in which case it's a real tossup.  The trade of Jack Johnson has opened up spots for Voynov and Martinez to emerge.  Both groups are capable of creating offense.  Since acquiring Jeff Carter, the Kings defense has scored 13 goals and 24 assists in March/April with 163 shots.  The Canucks defense has 8 goals and 29 assists with 164 shots during the same time frame.  It's too close to call!

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