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Canucks, Hockey

Alain Vigneault is a Huge Schwarzenegger Fan

by Brian Beitz

Image courtesy of http://www.imdb.com

Alain Vigneault must be an Arnie fan, because he had a smirk on his face when he announced that he’d be splitting up the Sedins to start a game against the Nashville Predators last week. Surely that smirk could only be attributed to having watched Twins recently: AV knew the hilarity and hijinks that would ensue whenever the twins were reunited. And, much like the famous—if not identical—duo, the Sedins’ split led to gun fights, sleeping with Kellie Preston, and eventually being reunited with a long-lost maternal figure. OK, so the analogy breaks down a bit here. But the twins were separated after a Danny Devito of a month that still provided some Schwarzenegger-like results.

The move should not have come as a surprise when the twins, after racking up 39 points in December, combined for 15 points in January and are still spending long stretches of games being uncharacteristically unnoticeable. And yet, many were and are surprised by this move. Why?

Few coaches in the league will allow their top players to slump for long before trying to mix things up. True, the Sedins are a rare case in which two players have played on the same line for the better part of 20 years, and they obviously show a chemistry rarely seen in today’s game, but lines can be juggled to benefit other players on the team and to balance the scoring. Bobby Ryan is shuffled between lines in Anaheim; Thornton and Marleau often see time on separate units. The theory is simple: if you only have a few players contributing, don’t let them sit on the same line where an opposing team can focus its top defensive pairing. And yet, seeing the Sedins separated has become less likely than seeing Tim Thomas playing left wing.

And while we know that the brothers are more than effective together, they have proven to do pretty well apart. Since they’ve been together so often, let’s have a close look at their one prolonged stint apart in the NHL: Henrik’s well-known 18 Daniel-less games early in the 2009/10 season. During those 18 games, Henrik amassed 18 points en route to the Art Ross trophy. More impressive than that is how Henrik helped to boost some of the other players’ numbers as well. While Danny’s leg was healing, Hank spent most of his time playing with a combination of Mason Raymond, Alex Burrows, and Mikael Samuelsson.

Samuelsson went 6-5-11 in 12 games on Henrik’s wing, a point-per-game average (PPG) of 0.92. When compared with his season average of 0.71, one can see a pretty big jump there. And while it’s no surprise that playing with the Sedins boosts a player’s stats (say thank you, Anson Carter), there can be a lasting effect. Prior to landing on Hank’s wing early in November of 2009, Mason “MayRay” Raymond had 4 goals and no assists in 14 games, a PPG of 0.29. Skating alongside one of the league’s top dishers, he had 7 points in 6 games, finished November with 10 points in 8, and went on to finish the season with a PPG of 0.65. He also grew his first mustache and finally worked up the courage to ask out the cute girl at the video store.

Playing the Sedins apart may temporarily slow their production, but, unsurprisingly, it boosts that of those around them, which can lead to a confidence boost (as was the case with MayRay). Not only that, but playing on a line with the Sedins could allow skaters to pick up a few tricks, much like the Canucks defensemen have stolen some of Keith Ballard’s hipcheckiness. Just look at (my near-namesake) Byron “Brian Beitz” Bitz’s pass to Henrik against the Wild. Even portions of shifts the Sedins spend on separate lines can show some pretty nice results.

Despite the questions that AV has faced, the decision to split the twins makes sense. Even the twins agree. But AV obviously knows all this as well as anyone and he sees the effect the Sedins have on their teammates, and still he’s proven to be more hesitant to separate the twins than Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear.

So, in all this, the question should not be why split them up, but why wait so long? Why not, say, in a playoff series against Nashville where the twins were effectively shut down by a top pairing of Suter and Weber? Or how about in the Stanley Cup finals, in which the Sedins compiled a measly 5 points, 4 of those from Daniel? In a series where so many Canucks were injured, including a certain second-line center, Zdeno “Big Z” Chara was able to target Daniel and Henrik to his heart’s content. Damn you, Zdeno!.

Why is Alain willing to split the twins up now, despite the fact that the Canucks are pulling out wins on a consistent basis? In fact, their “slump” gave them one of the best records in the NHL to start the new year. In a recent interview with John Shorthouse of Sportsnet, Vigneault claimed that, once known as a line juggler, he has become one of the coaches who mixes up his lines the least because he just hasn’t “had to.” So splitting them now must mean he feels he has to, right?

Hockey blogger Cam Charron of the Legion of Blog recently posted an interesting article suggesting a permanent split of the twins in favour of a Daniel/Kesler/Booth line, combining a gritty, move-the-puck-forward duo with a nose-for-the-net left winger. This might seem a shocking move to some but it may prove necessary. I believe we are seeing the beginning of the decline for the twins. After two seasons in which they put up some unbelievable numbers, Daniel and Henrik seem to have started the inevitable downward trend.

I can hear the villagers grabbing their pitchforks here, and I know it seems ridiculous to suggest that Henrik’s and Daniel’s numbers (a PPG of 1.08 and 1.02, respectively) suggest a decline, but for two skaters who have played at the level that the twins have over the past two seasons, that’s exactly what they show. Really, when you think of the durability they have shown and the minutes they’ve put up against the top D in the league, combined with the lengthy playoff runs, it should come as no surprise that something would eventually have to give.

Make no mistake about it, the two brothers are amongst the best in the NHL and hands down the best two-player combo—after watching them with drool on my chin for the last 11 seasons, they can still make my jaw drop—but they are on the back half of their career. I’m not suggesting a permanent split, but until some of the younger guys start drawing the tougher checking assignments, we should be seeing them on different lines now and then. Vigneault may have taken the idea from Twins, but there was more to his reasoning than that. Maybe he, much like myself, realizes this is less a slump than a downward trend.

Either way, let’s just hope this is the only Arnie movie that AV’s been watching. I’m not sure the Canucks could take the coaching style of Detective John Kimble. David Booth’s not a policeman; he’s a princess!

About brianbeitz

I'm a Victoria native who once sat down in front of the TV, saw Vancouver playing the NY Rangers in game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, and hasn't stopped watching the Canucks since. Now, I've decided to bring my horrible opinions to a public forum. Enjoy! Follow me on Twitter @oldjohnnycanuck.

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