Henrik Sedin’s absence leaves Canucks thin up the middle

Mikhail Grabovski got a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct for this hit from behind on Henrik Sedin.

When Henrik Sedin stayed down, you knew it was serious.

The Vancouver Canucks’ 35-year-old captain is loath to miss a game, or a shift. He pops up so quickly after big hits, even dirty hits, that he even publicly wondered in late-December if it was to his detriment, in terms of drawing calls.

This was different though. Sedin was hit awkwardly along the boards by New York Islanders centre Mikhail Grabovski on Sunday. It wasn’t quite a hit from behind, but it was an obvious boarding major. Grabovski was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct, but he didn’t receive supplementary discipline.

In the Canucks locker room, Henrik sat down and began to get stiff. Too stiff to return and help his team.

In an unusual step, Henrik spoke with the media after Sunday evening’s game, despite his injury. He said he’d stiffened up in the room, but didn’t think he’d have to miss weeks on end. He relayed that he’d be evaluated further on Monday and said that this latest injury isn’t the same as the undisclosed injury that’s been bothering him for months, even causing him to miss a few games before the Christmas break.

On Monday, news came down that Henrik will head home to Vancouver, and probably won’t appear for the Canucks again prior to the all-star break. At a minimum, he’s expected to miss four games.

“He’s not too happy,” Daniel Sedin said of his brother on Monday. “He wants to play every game. He was upset about that.”

In October and November, when the Sedin twins were playing arguably some of the most impressive hockey of their careers, losing Henrik would’ve been a death knell for a Canucks team currently still frittering around the edges of the Pacific Division playoff picture. Though it’s almost unthinkable, the club may actually be poised to better handle Henrik’s absence at the moment.

Since Henrik returned to the lineup on Boxing Day, and spent an entire game against the Edmonton Oilers standing on the bench to avoid stiffening up mid-game, he hasn’t been himself.

Henrik has managed just three total points in 5-on-5 situations since Christmas and the Canucks have controlled fewer than 40 per cent of shot attempts with their captain on the ice. Henrik, along with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar and Patrice Bergeron, is one of the most dominant puck possession centremen of the past decade. When his two-way game falls off to this extent over a stretch of 10 games, you know something is seriously amiss.

In truth, the trend lines for Henrik have been worrying since late November. His even strength ice-time has been steadily declining for a couple months now and the Canucks’ ability to control play has sunk precipitously as well. That Henrik has been playing at a capacity far short of 100 per cent isn’t the only reason the Canucks are getting pummeled in the shots on goal department of late, but for the first time in his career, he hasn’t been part of the solution.

Of course, it’s unlikely that there is a credible solution on Vancouver’s roster. Very few teams in hockey can replace a top-of-the-roster star pivot of Henrik’s calibre, but with Henrik joining Brandon Sutter in the infirmary, the Canucks’ centre depth has been particularly ravaged. And reinforcements aren’t likely coming on this road trip.

"I don't know if we'll get (Sutter back) quite at the end of this trip,” Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said on Tuesday, “but he's getting close."

In Henrik’s and Sutter’s absence, the Canucks will be relying on Jared McCann, Bo Horvat, Adam Cracknell and Linden Vey to pick up the slack. Put another way, they’ll be leaning heavily on a teenaged rookie, a 20-year-old who has felt overwhelmed at times this season, a veteran grinder who only converted to centre full-time this season, and a 24-year-old pivot who cleared waivers in September.

It’s a mishmash group, but the Canucks have been getting their door kicked in for weeks now and have managed to rack up points and wins anyway, largely thanks to stellar goaltending. In the medium-term, at least, the club shouldn’t be too much worse without Henrik in the lineup.

“We're never going to replace him,” Canucks centre Adam Cracknell said on Tuesday. “But we can try to be successful.”

To that end, it helps that McCann, who will hold down Henrik’s usual top line spot on Tuesday against the New York Rangers, has found some instant chemistry with Daniel. McCann and Daniel have shared the ice for 40 even-strength minutes this season, and in those minutes the Canucks have outscored their opponents 4-1 and have controlled better than 54 per cent of shot attempts.

“He’s a lot faster, that’s one thing,” joked Daniel of the difference between playing with Jared and playing with his brother. “Obviously (they’re very) different players.

“McCann plays with speed and tries to beat guys one-on-one,” continued Daniel, “but like I said, before Christmas we played together and I thought our line did a pretty good job.”

Though he’s only 19, McCann comes across as enormously confident. It was notable that after the Grabovski hit on Sedin on Sunday, it was McCann who went after Islanders captain John Tavares the first chance he got.

If the Canucks are going to stay afloat during Henrik’s absence, McCann’s performance will be key.

“It is pressure, but I'm excited about it. I'm not going to take it in a bad way," McCann said of filling Henrik’s skates on Tuesday.

“Every game I feel like I have something to prove to people,” continued the Canucks rookie. “I want do my best, I want to go out there and make a difference.”

Based on what we’ve seen from McCann in his rookie season, he seems like a decent bet to fill-in effectively for Henrik over the medium-term. And it helps that Cracknell and Vey have provided decent defence, while Horvat has found his scoring touch in recent weeks.

Over the balance of the season though, the Canucks are in serious trouble if Henrik can’t perform at the world-class level he’s sustained for 15 years.

“He has to face the facts that if he’s not 100 per cent he’s going to have to rest,” Daniel said of his brother on Monday. “In the long run it might be good for him to get some rest, but obviously it’s going to be tough to play without him."