The Vancouver Canucks will represent the Western Conference in this year’s Stanley Cup Final and finally bring the Cup back to the Pacific Northwest for the first time since “Cyclone” Taylor led the Frank Patrick owned Vancouver Millionaires to the Cup over the Ottawa Senators in old Denman Arena in 1915.
Not content to wait for the city of Vancouver’s Stanley Cup Centennial to win it all, Canucks’ G.M. Mike Gillis made the offseason count, expertly manipulating the salary cap to bring in the final keys to the Stanley Cup puzzle. By shedding the salaries of Kyle Wellwood, Pavel Demitra, Steve Bernier, Ryan Johnson and, sadly, Willie Mitchell, Gillis was able to make the moves to fill the gaps that were all too obvious in last season’s playoffs.
Perhaps the most obvious weakness was on the blue line. After losing Willie Mitchell for the last quarter of the season and the whole playoffs the Canucks lost their stay at home, shut down defenseman that every successful team has to have. The result was to have to go outside the organization late in the year to bring in Andrew Alberts, a defenseman from the Eastern Conference unfamiliar with the system and the chemistry on the team. His playoff performance was less a reflection on his skills than a testament to his unfamiliarity with the Canuck’s system and Western competition as a whole.
Let me state right here that I think Alberts is a bona fide NHL defenseman, but he was thrown into a playoff run without the opportunity to acclimatize to his new environment at the most critical time in a season. Given the opportunity to mesh with the team, its systems and its competition, I’m sure Alberts would have settled in nicely. However, bringing in someone from the Eastern Conference to play a different brand of hockey against a more wide open style of offence during the playoff run is asking a lot.
Having said that, Gillis’ additions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard on defense are absolutely inspired and should solidify a defense that could be argued as one of the best in the NHL. Having big bodies like Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa being paired with offensive minded D-men like Ballard (28 points last year) and Christian Erhoff (44 points), then adding a potential pair like Sammi Salo (if his Achilles tendon heals according to plan) and Alexander Edler (42 points) while having Alberts as a swing man and Aaron Rome for depth, one can see how dynamic a blue line that would be in front of the goaltending team of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. Gillis’ latest move trading tough D-Man Shane O’Brien to Nashville for tough D-Man Ryan Parent retains the much needed tough D-Man but without the undisciplined side that led to unnecessary penalties and conditioning issues off the ice. The blue line would seem to be a wealth of riches with at least two pairs of D-Men that resemble the classic Bobby Orr - Dallas Smith model of an offensive minded playmaker and a big, smart stay at home punisher, backed up with lots of depth and experience on the bench. Once Salo returns healthy Coach Alain Vignault will have some difficult but pleasant choices to make when he fills out the roster sheet prior to the game.
Between the pipes things are looking up as well. Roberto Luongo relinquished the Captaincy after two seasons to concentrate more fully with his new goaltending coach, Rollie Melanson, to get his game back to the elite level most believe it can be at. While Luongo is rightly regarded as one of the five best goalies in the league; his mission this season is to be regarded as the best and bring home the Cup. Whether the distraction of the Captaincy being behind him and a new goalie coach will make the difference, time will tell. However, even when Luongo is off his game he is better then most that are on theirs, and having an offense like Vancouver boasts makes it irrelevant on most nights.
The top line centered by current Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin (112 points) figures to have his twin brother Daniel healthy all season and Daniel is known for his goal scoring, tallying 29 times and putting up 85 points in only 63 games. Once Alex Burrows (35 goals) returns from off-season shoulder surgery, one of the NHL’s most dangerous scoring lines will be front and center of the Canuck offense. While Burrows is sidelined, dangerous sniper Mikael Samuelsson (30 goals) figures to be scoring bushels of goals either on direct feeds from Henrik or rebounds from Daniel. The only downside to this scenario is Vignault’s eventual decision as to who should be complimenting the Twins on the first line once Burrows is healthy.
The second line is as impressive for its speed and ability to create scoring chances off the turnover as the first line is for its uncanny puck control. Ryan Kesler (25 goals, 75 points) centering the very speedy Mason Raymond (25 goals, 53 points) and either Samuelsson or Burrows, or new addition Raffi Torres, a notorious Canuck killer in his Edmonton days, the line promises to be fast, gritty and skilled with the puck. I look for the majority of power plays to come from this line’s play.
Mike Gillis’ acquisition of Manny Malholtra to replace the talented but ineffective Steve Bernier to anchor the third line adds experience and a scoring touch to what was primarily a checking line that has speed but not much finesse in front of the net. Together with Torres, once Burrows is healthy, and evolving LW Jannik Hansen, this becomes one of the premiere third lines in the league, capable of not only eating up minutes but putting the puck in the net like a second line.
On the bench for depth Vignault has RW Guillaume Desbiens who shone in training camp and the exhibition season, LW Tanner Glass and C’s Rick Rypien (the consensus light-heavyweight fighting champion of the NHL) and Alexandre Bolduc, who has been in the system for a few years and seems ready to make the jump to the NHL. These players offer toughness and smart penalty killing and can step in on the third line or combine for a fourth line if the situation requires one. Expect one or more of these boys to be a healthy scratch during the season, but that gives the Canucks the much needed depth they were missing during the playoff run last season.
The special teams have been inconsistent over the last two seasons and that is one area Vancouver must become more consistent in if they hope to bring home the Cup. While the penalty killing was in the spotlight during last season’s first round playoff against Los Angeles, it was not a problem during the regular season. The loss of Willie Mitchell to post concussion syndrome hurt the team more than was expected, but the additions of Hamhuis and Ballard should more than offset that and the PK should not be an issue.
The power play, like any team, depends on having a D-Man who can QB it. Last season the Sedins were content to run the PP off the boards, using the cycle to their advantage and hitting the open man open either crossing the crease or cheating in from the blue line, and that was fine as long as the Sedin unit was on the PP. With the second unit on the ice, look for the Canucks to shift to a more traditional PP with Hamhuis or Erhoff dictating the flow from the blue line. This dichotomy gives the Canuck PP a versatility most teams lack and allows them to keep the opposition PK off balance and should go a long way to ensuring the team makes the opposition pays for their transgressions more often than the Canucks will have to pay for theirs.
As far as opposition, I see Colorado as the only legitimate worry for Vancouver and I expect the Avs will catch Vancouver napping once or twice during the long season, but nobody in the division is capable of matching Vancouver’s point output and the Canucks will take the division with ease if they apply themselves.
The playoffs will be a formality until Vancouver meets Chicago. There is no guarantee this will happen considering the concessions the Hawks had to make to the salary cap, but a threepeat of the matchup between the Canucks and the Black Hawks is something the NHL ought to be salivating over. Every hockey fan west of the Hudson River is aware of the rivalry born between these two franchises over the last two years and even a Calgary Flame fan would admit a third Division Semi Final matchup between these two teams has its appeal. Either the Canucks get past the Hawks, or Chicago is eliminated prior to Vancouver’s arrival, the relevant fact is Chicago represent the toughest challenge to Vancouver reclaiming the Stanley Cup after 96 years. Going to the finals through Chicago may be cathartic to the city and the bulk of the players, (Luongo especially) but I’m not convinced they will face Chicago this time. I believe the Canucks bested their recent nemesis in the offseason and those moves have made Vancouver the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorites.
Fire the Nine O’clock gun at Stanley Park, let loose the fireworks on English Bay, open the doors to the Marble Arch, The Cecil, The Yale, The American, The Hotel Vancouver, The Georgia Hotel, The Four Seasons. Let Robson Street celebrate, let the cheer ring from Spanish Banks to Port Coquitlam, from White Rock to Whistler. Let Pacific Northwest hockey fans revel from Kitimat to Victoria, from Prince George to Revelstoke. Let them all converge on Vancouver in June because there’s going to be the biggest party the city has ever seen.
The Vancouver Canucks are going to win the Stanley Cup!