The Vancouver Canucks have been the top regular season team in the NHL for the last two years and came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. My Bleacher Report colleague Jeff Langridge acknowledged that they are head-and-shoulders better than their Canadian counterparts in his recent article.
Once hockey gets going again, the Canucks will be competing among the NHL's elite. If we do get a 2012-13 season, here's a look at the five things Vancouver will need to do in order to finally hoist Lord Stanley's mug next spring.
The Canucks are now the only team in the NHL that doesn't have at least one player keeping his game skills sharp over in Europe. For now, a significant crew has chosen to stay in Vancouver, skating three times a week out at University of British Columbia.
Canucks' players are trying to make the most of the situation, even scrimmaging with the UBC Thunderbirds. The Vancouver Sun reports that Kevin Bieksa is now planning a charity game against the UBC team.
According to the Vancouver Sun, Canucks who have been part of the skates include Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Bieksa, Manny Malhotra, Cory Schneider, Mason Raymond, Max Lapierre, Chris Higgins and Andrew Alberts. Dan Hamhuis' name has also been mentioned for the charity game. The non-Canuck contingent at the skates is also growing: Jason Botchford of The Province reports that Willie Mitchell has now been joined by Tanner Glass, Rod Pelley and Jim Vandermeer.
Botchford thinks the Canucks' relatively united front is a sign of optimism that the season will get underway sooner rather than later. If it helps them to stay sharper and more unified than other teams, it could provide a competitive advantage for Vancouver, whenever games get back underway.
The Canucks' veteran depth has prevented them from offering quality ice-time that prospects need to develop. That's part of the reason why Vancouver hasn't groomed much young talent over the past few years.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin celebrated their 32nd birthdays on September 26, and the ages of many other core players are creeping up as well. Vancouver needs an influx of young talent to step in soon, especially at forward.
Jordan Schroeder was poised to get a good look at center this year, but Vancouver's best prospect is Nicklas Jensen. The 19-year-old has already outgrown the OHL, and Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun reports that he's now playing well on a bad team in Sweden. So far, Jensen has tallied four goals and an assist in eight games for AIK of the Swedish Elite League.
Jensen's development has been rapid and impressive ever since he was drafted by the Canucks in 2011. His contribution could offer a surprising spark for the Canucks in a Stanley Cup run, much like what Chris Kreider provided for the Rangers during the 2012 playoffs.
After his breakout year in 2010-11, Ryan Kesler had a rough ride last season. He dropped in all statistical categories and developed a reputation as one of the NHL's most notorious divers.
Poor health appears to have been a major contributor to Kesler's sorry campaign. He underwent hip surgery following the 2011 playoffs, and has had surgery on his shoulder and his wrist this summer.
As the Vancouver Sun's Elliott Pap explains, Kesler is not locked out. Because he was injured while playing for the Canucks, his rehab is part of the team's contractual obligation toward him. He will continue to be paid, but he must follow the team's rehab plan and is not allowed to skate with his locked out teammates.
If there's a silver lining to the lockout, it's the fact that Kesler is now not expected back until January. His fierce competitiveness and strong two-way play when he's operating on all cylinders is critical to the Canucks' future post-season success.
As things stand right now, the Canucks possess arguably the top netminding tandem in the league with Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo. Once play resumes and Luongo's still in the fold, it will be interesting to see if Mike Gillis decides that the "insurance policy" of having two No. 1 goalies might make it worth hanging onto Luongo through a playoff run.
To be successful in postseason, Vancouver needs to play its game—fast and skilled with sharp, timely goaltending.
The Canucks also need to make sure that they aren't manhandled by their opponents. When they've lost to Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago (twice) over the last four years, each of those teams have shown more muscle on the way to their triumphs.
The Canucks can't sacrifice talent for thuggery in their lineup, but they need to develop a stronger reputation for team toughness if they don't want their playoff opponents to take liberties in 2013.
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