VANCOUVER Last weekend in Calgary, Markus Naslund snapped a shot wide of the net on a late scoring opportunity as the Vancouver Canucks lost by a goal to the rival Calgary Flames, setting off another round of groans by Naslund detractors.
There shouldn't have been such complaining, though, because it's actually a good sign for the Canucks that Naslund is getting his shot away.
Once one of the most frequent shooters in the National Hockey League, Naslund has been hesitant to unleash this season. His goal scoring has dropped, including one stretch of 17 consecutive games without scoring.
The Canucks need their captain to regain his touch and confidence -- Naslund has 16 goals in 53 games -- if they are to continue to contend for first place in the Northwest Division and reclaim a position in the Western Conference playoffs.
Naslund scored 32 times last season, when the Canucks didn't qualify for the postseason. It was a bad season all round, in that Naslund has three 40-goal seasons in the NHL. The fallout saw linemate and close friend Todd Bertuzzi traded and head coach Marc Crawford dismissed.
Now the Canucks have reliable Roberto Luongo in goal, Alain Vigneault behind the bench and Daniel Sedin with the most goals, 20. That leaves Naslund on the hot seat going into tonight's divisional game against the host Edmonton Oilers, a team the Canucks beat 5-3 last week when Naslund scored the game-winner on a nifty backhand.
Naslund has a paltry average, for him, of 2.7 shots on goal a game. The whistling snap or wrist shot from his wooden stick has been blocked far too often, perhaps because he nearly always tries to make the perfect play.
There have been unsubstantiated reports that Naslund has played through an injury, as he did last season. He denies it and so do club officials, leaving everyone mystified by his drop-off.
"I'm not shooting as much as I used to," Naslund said recently. "I don't know if it's me not taking the shots when they're there, or I'm not having the puck in those areas where it makes sense to shoot. A lot of times the quick release that beats the goalie [isn't there]. It really hasn't clicked this year. I need to get [more] pucks on net."
The Canucks play a much different style under Vigneault. There's little of the run-and-gun of the Crawford era. Instead, everyone collapses on the defensive zone to form a tight wall of defence for Luongo.
"It's working and I think we're all buying into it," Naslund said. "I don't think anyone really minds it, [but] it's going to take away a little bit from the scoring we had on this team."
Naslund's name is often mentioned in trade rumours, but he has more than a year remaining on a no-trade contract that calls for $6-million (all dollars U.S.) a season, the second most on the team, with Luongo topping the pay chart at $6.75-million.
For the Canucks to continue their run -- 12-2-3 since Christmas -- both Naslund and Luongo need to be at their best.
Luongo is the team's most valuable player, posting all 29 wins and playing in 50 games so far. He's the reason why Vancouver is 10-4 in extra-time games, including 7-1 in sudden death.
Vigneault and his coaching staff deserve kudos also, as they've persuaded players to pay attention to the defensive zone. The Vancouver penalty-killing unit is No. 1 in the league at 88.7-per-cent efficiency.
General manager Dave Nonis would like to add a centre and a defenceman by the Feb. 27 trade deadline, after hip surgery sidelined Ryan Kesler. But Nonis is handcuffed by little salary-cap issues and he doesn't plan to unload prospects such as Luc Bourdon, Cory Schneider or Michael Grabner for rental players.
That leaves Nonis with draft choices to dangle, including three second-round selections in 2007. One came from the Los Angeles Kings for netminder Dan Cloutier and another from the Anaheim Ducks for Randy Carlyle, who had coached in the minor leagues for Vancouver.
When all is said and done by the end of the month, though, Naslund still remains the key to making the playoffs. He needs to be the team's top player, along with Luongo, for all the pieces to fit into place for Vancouver.