Canucks have eye on April

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:28 PM ET

MONTREAL -- In the aftermath of their second-round playoff loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Vancouver Canucks targeted two areas that needed to be addressed this season.

More depth and quality on the blue line and a restructured third line.

The blue line thing was attacked by signing free agent Dan Hamhuis and trading for Keith Ballard, bringing him over from the Florida Panthers for a first-round draft pick.

The depth thing seems to be working out, though Ballard might not be too happy about it. For the first time in his six-year career, Ballard was to be a healthy scratch for the Canucks game against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre Tuesday night.

Aaron Rome, the 27-year-old trying to make himself a regular, will stay in the lineup as Hamhuis was prepared to return from a bruised foot.

I guess that means the Canucks have more depth on the blue line.

Ballard, who didn't have a great year with the Panthers last season, has picked up where he left off and has lost his spot in the lineup. Off-season hip surgery and a concussion earlier this season have not helped. Rome, who will play just the 85th game of his NHL career Tuesday, got his shot when Ballard suffered that concussion.

"This game is about guys who are playing the best," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, "and other guys are playing better than (Ballard)."

Making Ballard and his $4.2 millon US salary a healthy scratch is about as controversial as it gets for a Canucks team that went into the game against the Habs riding a six-game winning streak.

Rome was regarded as nothing more than a depth player going into this season, but has earned his ice time and a spot on the Canucks' power play (second unit) which went into Tuesday night's game against the Habs with the top-rated power play in the league (interestingly, the Canadiens were last).

Rome's emergence as a dependable guy is good news for a Canucks team that always seems to blow a few tires on the blue line once the playoffs roll around. An NHL team needs bodies for the meat grinder that is the post-season.

With Rome stepping forward to join the likes of Hamhuis, Ballard, Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, Alexander Edler, Andrew Alberts and the injured Sami Salo (should he not just legally change his name to the "The Injured Sami Salo"?) and Ryan Parent, the Canucks have a solid core. In the playoffs, it's always nice to have a superstar blueliner, but more important is ranks of proven NHL defencemen.

The third line has been a black hole for about the past four versions of the Canucks' sweater. It has been retooled with an eye towards making it bigger and tougher to play against. Gone are Kyle Wellwood and Steve Bernier. Manny Malhotra was signed as a free agent and gives the Canucks one of the best faceoff men in the league. Raffi Torres, signed in late August as a free agent and playing like a guy who realizes he's running out of chances, gives them grit and more scoring touch than expected so far (seven goals) and Jannik Hansen's chisel-like game complements the other two.

With Malhotra winning faceoffs at a 64% clip (second only to Paul Gaustad of the Buffalo Sabres), that sets up that line to have the puck and not be chasing it all night long. The Canucks' third line can now match up against just about any third line in the league.

Something that will be more important as the season rolls on is goaltender Cory Schneider (3-0 with a 0.90 goals against average and .969 save percentage) has emerged as a capable backup and should allow Vigneault to manage Roberto Luongo's workload and leave him fresher in the spring. Just as important as it seems Luongo is now open to the idea of less being more.

The Canucks are one of those teams that has an eye on April.

The snapshot in November is looking pretty much in focus.

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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