Combine a disappointing finish to the season in which the team lost 7 of their final 8 games (all against bitter Northwest division rivals), A somewhat surprising firing of a general manager, A somewhat surprising hiring of a rookie GM, the possible retirement of the franchise’s most beloved player, and the uncertain future of the team’s captain of the past 8 years and there’s a lot of uncertainty hanging over Vancouver going into what will most definitely prove to be an eventful off-season.
New GM Mike Gillis said in his first press conference as the Canucks new General Manager he does not think the club is close to being a Stanley Cup contender at the moment. He claims the team is not fast enough, not tough enough, and not explosive enough to challenge for a title and has vowed to address such weaknesses of the team.
This is in stark contrast to the vision former GM Dave Nonis held, who felt the team was very close to contending, needing only some improved offensive punch. I believe that the reality of the matter is probably somewhere in between the opinions of Gillis and Nonis.
The Canucks boast the best goaltender in the league, and one of the better value defenses in the league, especially with the emergence of Alexander Edler, who took on significant minutes with the rash of injuries the Canucks defensive corps suffered this year, and didn’t seem significantly out of place playing upwards of 20+ minutes a game for part of the season.
However, the Canucks offense is greatly lacking. The Sedin Twins being relied upon far too much, and Markus Naslund being relied upon as a star player, when his game fits more of a second line support role due to his age.
Speed and toughness are two other issues that plague the Canucks top 6 forwards. While speedy rookie Mason Raymond was a bit of a surprise putting up decent numbers before getting injured late in the season, he is too young to be relied upon for any sort of the bulk of a team’s offense. With almost $20 million in freed up salary cap room, though, Gillis does have the resources to go after some of the bigger name free agents.
With this cap room General Manager Gillis has a few decisions to make. First of all, he needs to decide if long time Canucks, and now unrestricted free agents Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund fit into his plans going forward, and if so he needs to decide the cost at which he is willing to bring those players back. Naslund has stated publicly that he will not return under the defensive type system the Canucks employed last season.
Gillis has already stated he expects the Canucks to be a much more up tempo, offensive team going forward. Whether or not Gillis re signs Naslund and/or Morrison, you can expect he will target some higher end talent, through unrestricted free agency, offer sheets, and trades.
Pavol Demitra has been seen touring Vancouver with Naslund, so there is speculation there that he might be a good fit in the Canucks top 6 forwards. I would also suggest Gillis target Marian Hossa if at all possible. The Canucks dearly lack an all star caliber forward, and with Hossa putting up impressive numbers in the playoffs for the Penguins, the question about his poor post season history seem to be nothing more than a whisper now.
If Hossa proves to be out of the Canucks price range, someone like Brian Rolston or Andrew Brunette might be a great fit. Both bring grit and toughness, and experience to the top 6, and neither should break the bank. Whatever happens, expect Gillis to be very busy in his first off-season as Canucks GM.
Alain Vigneault will be back as the Canucks head coach, signing a 1 year extension on top of his existing contract which will see him coach until 2010, but assistant coaches Mike Kelly and Barry Smith were both let go. Vigneault had extensive meetings with GM Gillis over the course of about 2 weeks starting shortly after Gillis was hired; reportedly to see if Vigneault could coach the style Gillis envisions the team playing in the coming years.
Although Vigneault was given a contract extension, it is by no means a vote of confidence to me. If the team starts off the year very poorly, expect Vigneault to be the one held responsible, and let go.
There is a great uncertainty surrounding the Canucks this off-season. Cases can be made for both optimism (having $20+ million in cap space to spend on improving the forwards, with the best goaltender in the game still under contract, and a solid defense locked up) and pessimism (rookie General Manager being brought in to “learn on the job”, uncertainty surrounding coaching, etc), but in the end, it is very hard to predict what this team will be like come October.
You could see a team that is immediately considered a Stanley Cup contender, or you could see a team that is in the early stages of once again rebuilding.