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Most of the hockey world focused on Roberto Luongo after yet another playoff series loss by the Vancouver Canucks to the Chicago Blackhawks this past spring.
But when GM Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault poked away at the postseason cadaver, they identified more telling factors in team's early exit.
"When the season was over and Mike and I talked, a couple of things we identified were more depth on D because we were left short by injuries there," Vigneault told ESPN.com over the weekend. "We wanted to change the identity of our third line so that it was better suited for grinding, playoff hockey, and I think we were able to do that."
|Raffi Torres signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the Canucks this past offseason.|
With the additions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard (more on him later), the defensive changes received most of the offseason limelight. But the formation of a third line featuring newcomers Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres and young incumbent Jannik Hansen is perhaps the most important development in this young Canucks season, one that looks as promising as any of their 40 years in the NHL.
It's nice when a plan comes together.
"We're really pleased with how that line has come together," Gillis told ESPN.com. "They add something every night. We didn't feel like we had that element on our team last year, didn't have that size and competitiveness. and it cost us in the playoffs. Chicago's third line did a lot of damage against us. We really didn't have anything to answer them with."
"This is a bigger, more physical grinding style that can wear down the opposition, wear down the D," Vigneault added.
The key acquisition was Malhotra, who signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal on July 1. One observer told ESPN.com the Canucks had actually listed Malhotra at the top of their free-agent shopping list, ahead of Hamhuis or any other players. They got him, but not before Malhotra made sure it was the right move. The story goes that Malhotra, no dummy, had as many questions for Gillis and the Canucks as the NHL club had for him.
"It was a very calculated decision on July 1," Malhotra, 30, told ESPN.com. "We were talking with quite a few teams, all of them in various stages -- some were contenders, some were rebuilding and some were turning the corner. We looked at a roster like this, we spoke with Alain and Mike and the role they saw me in ... everything worked out and it was the best possible place for me to go."
His $2.5 million salary is a nice raise over the $700,000 he made in San Jose last season, also a calculated move on his part. He took less money than other teams had offered so he could play with a contender and perhaps enhance his stock in the process. Did he ever. The hard-working Malhotra, a faceoff king, was an impressive force in San Jose's run to the final four, enough for the Canucks to salivate at the thought of adding him as their third-line center.
"We couldn't be happier," Gillis said. "It started with character first. We found out about him, his leadership qualities, and then moved on to his faceoff percentage and killing penalties. We wanted more size in that role. He's been great in the room. He's very coachable. He's the leader of his line, he accepts that role and he's been terrific."
Torres, 29, signed for one year and $1 million this past summer, taking a financial hit after coming off a three-year, $6.75-million deal in Columbus/Buffalo. Much like Malhotra a year ago in San Jose, Torres has a chance to raise his value for next summer's free-agent market with a solid season on a Cup-contending team. So far, Torres is off to his best start of a season since his Edmonton days, showing himself to be a physical, grinding winger with the pop to add the odd goal.
Hansen is a bargain at $825,000. At 24, he is the youngest of the three, but a consistent performer with the solid speed Vigneault likes a lot.
Voila! There's your new third line in Vancouver.
"They play real well [together]," Vigneault said. "They understand each other well, they keep it at a high-percentage game, they're all hard workers, they're all good skaters and they're physical."
One would assume it would have taken longer for the line to become a cohesive unit since none of them had played together before, but that hasn't been the case.
"We've found chemistry in the fact that we're very open with each other and our communication is bang on," Malhotra said. "There's no real gray era for us. If I'm having an off night, Raffi is quick to give it to me; likewise if I see something in his game that needs to be corrected. We're quick on each other. There's a lot of communication on the bench, on the ice, in the room, as to where we want pucks and where we want each other to be, and that's really helped our game out a lot."
You're one of Vancouver's key offseason acquisitions, one that cost a first-round pick and two other assets; you're in the second season of a six-year $25.2 million deal, and by mid-November you're a healthy scratch.
Keith Ballard was cast aside for the fourth straight game Monday night when the Canucks played in Buffalo, a tough pill to swallow for the $4.2 million defenseman.
"As an athlete and a competitor, you have that side where you want to be out there all the time," Ballard told ESPN.com this past weekend. "On the other hand, as a teammate, you have to support the guys. We're playing well. The guys who have played recently have deserved to play. It's healthy competition."
Ballard has an unbelievable attitude. Many players in his position wouldn't be taking it this well. But it's also important to underline the mitigating circumstances. First, offseason hip surgery seriously hampered his summer conditioning; second, a recent concussion set him back big-time.
"There's no excuses for performance. We're all professionals and we're paid very well to be ready to go under all sorts of circumstances. That is our job," Ballard said. "For me, I didn't have a lot of time in the summer to do the conditioning stuff, but you have to find ways to deal with that. It was coming along well until I got my concussion. Since the concussion, I didn't bounce back like I would have liked to. But in saying that, it's not the end of the year, it's not the end of my career. I'm not down thinking that the world is coming to an end."
He has no points and is minus-3 in eight games with the Canucks this season. Florida sent Ballard and Victor Oreskovich to Vancouver for winger Steve Bernier, forward Michael Grabner and the Canucks' first-round pick (No. 25 overall) in this past June's draft.
Ballard is a good player. The season is young. No one is panicking in Vancouver.
"He's pretty hard on himself in the sense that he was behind schedule when he came to camp because of the injury," Vigneault said. "He had some catching up to do and I think he was coming along fine with his play on the ice ... but then the concussion sent him back again. When he went down, [Andrew] Alberts and [Aaron] Rome got more ice time and they were just playing well, so Keith has got to work his way back."
Which is what he's doing. Working hard and having a good attitude is what he can control at this point.
"This whole thing is just a little bump in the road," said Ballard, who turns 28 on Nov. 26. "It's how you respond to those that show what kind of player and what kind of person you are."