After back-to-back second round playoff exits, many around Vancouver are buzzing about the Canucks' chances this season. Is this the year they finally make that run for the cup? It's been 16 years since the team last marched all the way to the cup final, where they tasted the ultimate bitter disappointment in losing in game 7 to the New York Rangers. Is this team prepared to go the extra mile and make it all the way?
The Vancouver Canucks are arguably the most improved team of the summer. They added versatile defenseman Dan Hamhuis to their already solid defence unit on a long term contract, and also traded for Florida's Keith Ballard, another top-4 defenseman. This gives the Canucks the enviable defensive top 6 of Alex Edler, Hamhuis, Ballard, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and the German Christian Ehrhoff, who was a revelation last year after an off-season trade from San Jose, finishing with an astonishin team-best +36 rating. This leaves established NHL guys like Andrew Alberts and Shane O'Brien essentially outside the roster or fighting for the seventh defenseman spot, which speaks for the depth on this team's blueline. Salo will start the season on injured reserve, and let's face it, him being one of the more injury- prone players in the league the added depth can only be a good thing for this team.
Even with that impressive defence, they aren't an all-D team like that other Canadian squad who has been making huge investments into their blueline, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Unlike the Leafs, Vancouver also has a tremendous amount of firepower in the forward ranks. This includes last year's league MVP Henrik Sedin who had a monster of a season, stepping up once his brother Daniel went down with an injury and carried the team to the playoffs. Daniel managed to finish 12th in the league in scoring with 85 points in spite of missing 19 games with injury. The Sedins' playoff performances have been questioned before and they weren't enough to defeat the Blackhawks the past two seasons. They were however solid in the difficult first round win over Los Angeles and with added depth up front to back them up, one might expect them to have a good playoff this year as well. Even if they don't, there's lots of firepower behind them in scrappy Alex Burrows, the bulldog that is Ryan Kesler and fellow Swede Mikael Samuelsson, who joined the 30-goal club last season. Young guns Cody Hodgson, Jordan Schroeder and Sergei Shirakov will also be fighting for spots on those scoring lines and they will come at it highly motivated. Also highly motivated will be training camp try-out Brendan Morrison, who is hoping to return to the Canucks and make a dent after a few quieter seasons hampered by injury, looking for a chance to likely play in their bottom 6 and provide some veteran depth. Vancouver's depth in the center position might make it difficult for him to crack the team but like last year showed, it's never a bad idea to have some injury insurance in place and with Morrison you know what you're getting.
A major concern for Vancouver last year was their inability to stop the Hawks' speedy forwards, and they brought in a few specialists this summer to fix that problem and add some grit to the team. Raffi Torres is a speedy grinder with scoring ability - he pocketed 19 goals for the defence first Blue Jackets last season in just 60 games before being traded to the Sabres- and will help the team in both ends of the ice. Another high profile signing was third-line center Manny Malhotra, who had a great season with the San Jose Sharks and was signed to a three-year contract. He will help the team tremendously in face-offs and on the penalty kill and is a great asset to coach Alain Vigneault's team.
The most important ingredient to their playoff success might just be between the pipes. Roberto Luongo has come under scrutiny and criticism the last few years for his playoff performances, particularly in the most important games. He proved he can handle pressure and tough opposition when he backstopped Canada to the Olympic Gold in Vancouver last year, but didn't have a great series against the Hawks in the spring. Perhaps with rookie Cory Schneider challenging him for playing time and perhaps giving him much-needed rest down the stretch Luongo will be more prepared to face the night-in night-out challenges the opposing teams have in store for him. He's no longer the team captain either which may help him focus more on just playing the game.
This team is much improved from last year, and last year's team scored more goals than any team in the Western Conference. Their defence is deeper, their offense is formidable and they have an elite goaltender with something to prove. All of this suggests this team will be a major contender in the very tough Western Conference, and looks in advance to be the best Canadian team out there. They are certainly not guaranteed any pass to the Stanley Cup Finals, but they just might have what it takes.
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