Vancouver had a very good team last season, and when they added Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard and Manny Malhotra, they made huge strides in the defense department. Vancouver was justifiably the pre-season favorite, and they haven't disappointed. The gap between them and the rest of the Western Conference contenders is not as large as their respective records might suggest - we go to Fenwick, Score Tied:
Now that data's a month old, but the situation has been roughly the same all season. Vancouver does have an advantage in goal relative to the Wings and Hawks, but the Canucks should only be minimally favored over Detroit, and a first-round match-up against Chicago is the last thing that they want.
One of the most interesting things about Vancouver is the extent to which Alain Vigneault rigs his players' ice time. The Sedins always had an offensive role, but with the acquisition of Malhotra, Ryan Kesler moved into a much more offensive role, generating some of the most extreme faceoff zone starts we've seen in years:
Is it any wonder that the Sedins are #1 and #2 in the league in points? At the other end of the ice, we saw usage last year that was just as extreme:
Those guys weren't the most capable crew, so they didn't get a ton of ice time, and a lot of the tough draws went to Ryan Kesler. This year, the situation is different:
Malhotra, in particular, has had the most extreme usage we've ever seen this year, and his loss was tragic for the Canucks. But oddly enough, the acquisition of Christopher Higgins at the trade deadline seems to offer a not unreasonable replacement for him - at the time, it seemed a bit extraneous, especially because the Canucks could have used another defenseman for the playoff run.
Overall, the Canucks seem roughly as good as they've been all year despite the loss of Malhotra. They'll be in much better shape if Chicago finishes higher than 8th in the West and the Canucks draw much more pedestrian opponents like Nashville or Anaheim. If Vancouver faces challenging opponents in both Detroit and Chicago in the playoffs, then - including the Stanley Cup final - they can't be better than 12:1 to win the cup. I'm finding true odds of 5:1 today (3:1 including the hold) so clearly bettors don't share my pessimism.