Canucks turning a corner in West race; Lalime takes over in net for Sabres

February, 24, 2009

As a dreadful January wrapped up for the Vancouver Canucks, we take you back to a conversation we were having in and around that time with GM Michael Gillis.

His team had just won only two of 12 games that month, sliding down the Western Conference standings, and a hockey-crazy market demanded some answers.

"Let's see what this team can do now that we're finally healthy for the first time this year," Gillis said at the time.

As if on command, the calendar flipped to February and the Canucks got into gear for their first-year GM, riding an 8-1-0 mark heading into Tuesday night's game at Montreal.

Having a healthier lineup has certainly helped. Having veteran center Mats Sundin find his legs has also been a factor. But nothing has been more key than getting superstar goalie Roberto Luongo back to his normal groove.

"My game is where I want it to be right now and I just have to keep building on it," Luongo told a group of us media wretches in Toronto over the weekend.

Looking back, Luongo scoffed at the notion Sundin's overhyped arrival in the New Year led in any way to a January to forget.

"We had a lot of things going on at the time," said Luongo. "We had a lot of injuries. I don't think it had anything in particular to do with Mats. We were going through some stuff inside, like injuries and stuff like that. When I got back, it took a little while for me to get going.

"Now we're playing as a team and we're confident we can win every night."

With Sundin on his game and Pavol Demitra also healthy, the Canucks can roll two good offensive lines for the first time this season. And with Luongo, the game's best netminder, back on his game, the Canucks can win every night.

If the playoffs started today, the Canucks would play the young-and-gun Chicago Blackhawks. Talk about an interesting matchup. The mind games would start in earnest if Luongo stole Game 1 with a 40-save performance and the young Hawks started squeezing their sticks.

We know we're getting ahead of ourselves. The No. 5 spot in the West will change almost daily until the end of the regular season and several clubs will have a crack at it. But given the way the Hawks have owned the Dallas Stars this season and got waxed by the Canucks 7-3 earlier this month, there's no guessing who Chicago would rather face in the first round, anyway.

This could be your 2009 dark-horse playoff team, folks. Just maybe.

But what about the twins?

The one dark cloud that hovers over these good times for the Canucks is what's playing out between the Sedin twins and team management. Contract talks have been ongoing for a while now without a breakthrough. If fact, we're told it's not even close. And while some of the local media have focused on the salary gap in talks, the real problem at this point is the inability of both sides to agree on the term. In this economic world, it's all about term, term, term.

The Sedins don't seem to get the respect they probably deserve around the league. If you look at their offensive production since the lockout through last week, Daniel and Henrik ranked 17th and 18th, respectively, among all NHL forwards with 287 points apiece in just over 300 games (kind of eerie how they're identical twins with identical point production). That ranks ahead of the likes of Patrick Marleau, Brad Richards, Scott Gomez, Ales Hemsky and Thomas Vanek. Next season, Marleau will earn near $6.3 million, Richards $7.8 million, Gomez $8 million, Hemsky $4.4 million (bargain) and Vanek $6.4 million.

We know it's simplistic to just look at those players and salaries and suggest the Sedins deserve at least $6 million a season; but the fact is, that's exactly what the numbers around the league suggest. It's an interesting negotiation, too. You've got J.P. Barry of CAA Sports representing the twins (not to mention teammates Sundin and Mathias Ohlund) and Gillis, who for years was a skilled negotiator as an agent before becoming Vancouver's GM (he made lots of money for guys like Pavel Bure and Mathieu Schneider, among others).

They're both smart guys. We'll see how long the chicken game plays out. Can Gillis really expect to replace that kind of offense on the open market? Marian Hossa is the only potential unrestricted free agent come July 1 who ranks ahead of the Sedin twins in offensive production since the lockout. On the other hand, are the Sedins really ready to leave Vancouver and play the market? We'll find out.

Quinn update

With the hiring of John Tortorella in New York on Monday, another NHL coaching job came and went without Pat Quinn getting a sniff. The veteran bench boss, who coached Canada to world junior gold earlier this year, isn't getting all worked up about it.

"I don't have any regrets about my time in the game as far as that's concerned," Quinn told "If I had another opportunity to coach again in the right spot, I'd be certainly proud and happy to do that. But if it doesn't come, I don't have any complaints."

Lalime in net

Patrick Lalime is the Buffalo Sabres' man in net now that star goalie Ryan Miller is out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain.

When we wrote that the Sabres looked ready to make a charge earlier this month, it was before they lost both top scorer Thomas Vanek and workhouse netminder Miller.

Now, we're a little less sure about them.

Mind you, Lalime has been here before. He carried the mail for Ottawa for several years. So it's not like you're throwing a career backup into the fire.

"You play the game because you love it and you want to get in there," Lalime told "Hopefully, it won't be too long for Ryan, but I'm excited at this chance. ... I've been there before, so that should help."

A final quick Sabres note: Buffalo made Tim Connolly's camp an official contract offer last week. Now, it's the Connolly camp's turn to respond soon.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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