There has been just under five months since the last time the Canucks played a game that counted. During the offseason, GM Mike Gillis had a mandate to analyze the team’s strengths and weaknesses, then bolster those problem areas.
There will be some roster moves to generate more wiggle room under the salary cap, but by the season opener vs the LA Kings on Saturday October 9th, the Canucks lineup should look like this:
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Mikael Samuelsson
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Raffi Torres
Jannik Hansen - Manny Malhotra - Peter Schaefer
Guillaume Desbiens - Alexandre Bolduc - Tanner Glass
Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Christian Ehrhoff
Keith Ballard - Andrew Alberts
Notable Injuries: Sami Salo (ACL), Alex Burrows (shoulder)
Compare that to the last meaningful game played at GM Place (now renamed Rogers Place) back on May 11th, as the Blackhawks eliminated the Canucks 5-1 in Game 6 of the second round.
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin – Mikael Samuelsson
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler – Alex Burrows
Pavol Demitra – Kyle Wellwood – Michael Grabner
Jannik Hansen – Ryan Johnson – Steve Bernier
Sami Salo - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Christian Ehrhoff
Shane O’Brien - Andrew Alberts
Notable Injuries: Willie Mitchell (concussion)
The top six forwards are largely intact, with the only changes being Samuelsson playing with the Sedin twins (which happened frequently last year) and Torres filling in for Alex Burrows as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
The bottom six forwards are where the biggest amount of changes occurred. Mike Gillis identified that the Canucks were too soft and easy to play against, and tried to bring in grit and size for the bottom six.
Hansen is the only holdover from that May 11th team, as the other five players have all been replaced.
Wellwood (5’10” 181 lbs) vs Malhotra (6’2” 220 lbs)
The addition of Malhotra is of particular signifigance, as the third line now has a physical center (4” taller and 40 lbs heavier than Wellwood) with good faceoff skills (62.5% last year).
This should allow the third line to be used as a traditional shutdown line, rather than the secondary scoring line it was last season, thereby freeing up Kesler’s line for more offensive duties. Kesler is a Selke candidate, but using your second line as a checking line is sometimes counter productive, especially in the playoffs when spreading the scoring around is crucial.
Demitra (6’ 200 lbs) vs Schaefer (6’ 187 lbs)
Technically Schaefer is a bit smaller than Demitra, but Schaefer brings far more grit and physical play than the Slovakian playmaker. Demitra is a soft, skilled playmaker whose best games in Vancouver during his two year tenure unfortunately happened at the Olympics, not when playing for the Canucks. Schaefer is a PK specialist whose job is make it a rough night for the other team, and he has plenty of incentive after being out of the NHL the last two seasons.
Grabner (6’1” 188 lbs) vs Glass (6’1” 207 lbs)
Grabner is a skilled, soft sniper who doesn’t go into the high traffic areas. Glass is a hard working gritty winger who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves (15 fights last season) and who led the Canucks forwards in hits during the regular season last year, despite playing only 67 games. Giving Glass a fulltime roster spots was one of the easier decisions for Mike Gillis during the rebuild of the bottom six forwards.
Johnson (6’1” 199 lbs) vs Bolduc (6’1” 197 lbs)
Ryan Johnson is the forward whose departure hurts the most. He was an excellent PK and faceoff specialist, and was always one of the NHL leaders in blocked shots. However, he was also continually injured because of this playstyle. Over his tenure with the Canucks, I think it was probably 25% of the time that he was actually healthy, and he was great then. But the other 75% of the time he was playing with nagging, persistent injuries that seriously hampered his playing ability.
Replacing Johnson with Bolduc is pretty much a wash in terms of size, but the Canucks hope Bolduc will be in the lineup, and healthy, more consistently than Johnson.
Bernier (6’2” 216 lbs) vs Desbiens (6’2” 210 lbs)
Steve Bernier was the player with the most size amongst the departed, but he did use it, averaging almost two his a game over the regular season (105 hits in 59 games). But he was a fourth liner being paid $2,000,000 for potential that rarely materialized, despite getting powerplay time with the Sedins on a regular basis.
Desbiens will bring that physical element to the Canucks fourth line, and as an added bonus over Bernier, he is also willing to drop the gloves. (11 fights with the Manitoba Moose last season). That could be important in the regular season, as Darcy Hordichuk (traded to Florida) and Rick Rypien (injured to start the season) will not be available for the season opener. Desbiens can score (40 goals over the last 2 AHL seasons), but he knows he needs to focus on being physical to stay in the NHL.
On defence, Shane O’Brien was traded to Nashville and Sami Salo is out with an ACL injury suffered during offseason training. Salo isn’t expected back until Christmas at the earliest. O’Brien’s departure wasn’t due to injury, as he essentially made himself expendable by both publically arguing with management over his tenure as a Canuck, as well as being outplayed by Andrew Alberts in the preseason. Which is really too bad, as I thought he was a good player who could be even better if he controlled himself on ice (bad penalties) and off ice (conditioning issues to put it delicately).
To replace these two defencemen, Mike Gillis brought in Keith Ballard (5’11” 208 lbs) and Dan Hamhuis (6’2” 205 lbs), a pair of durable defencemen who can play top four minutes in all situations. The Canucks may not be able to boast a Norris trophy candidate, but they do have a pretty good defence group which should be even better once Salo returns.
In goal, Luongo is still the starter, but Schneider is now the backup, replacing Raycroft. This is an important change, as Mike Gillis has a vested interest in playing Schneider as much as possible for backup in order to boost his trade value. A former AHL goalie of the year and NCAA star, Schneider has payed his dues and now needs some NHL experience to prove himself. Fewer starts should mean a more rested Luongo come playoff time if all goes according to plan.
Other changes in goal, albeit off ice, occurred with the departure of part time goalie coach Ian Clark, who has been replaced by a full time goalie coach in Rollie Melanson. Luongo also relinquished the captaincy, which is a good move. That was a unnecessary distraction to a player whose game is 90% mental. These changes should help Luongo rebound from a subpar season last year.
Are these changes enough to see the Canucks win another division title?
Yes, but a successful defence of the Northwest Division has more to do with the quality of the other four teams than it does about the Canucks.
Are these changes enough to see the Canucks advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the ’94 run?
Mike Gillis has addressed the key issues (grit amongst bottom six forwards, durability of the defense and shoring up Luongo’s game) that led to the playoff collapse last season. But we won’t know for sure until the playoffs actually roll around in April.
The season opener on October 9th vs the LA Kings is not only the start of the Canucks’ 40th anniversary celebrations, it is also the first of 82 tests for the new look team.