Still reeling from a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, the Vancouver Canucks are just 57 days away from the start of the season. With that in mind, there are certain players that need to step up their game in the 2011-12 NHL season in order to keep their Stanley Cup contender status.
The Canucks lost star defenseman Christian Ehrhoff as well as grinders Raffi Torres and Tanner Glass in the offseason, leaving notable gaps in the lineup. The Canucks were praised as having a very deep roster last season and that should help to fill these holes, but nonetheless, the Canucks came up short of a championship in 2011 and need improvement.
The Vancouver Canucks are constantly using their farm team (now the Chicago Wolves of the AHL) for call-ups to replace injured players in their lineup, and their prospects seem to already be on the big club already or under-performing at the farm level and not ready to play in the show. Farm players are integral in the success of an NHL team throughout the course of a season as they can fill big shoes left by an injured player.
With Chris Tanev and Cody Hodgson predicted to be with Canucks for the first regular season game in 2011, other prospects need to step up their games if they want to be called up and make their mark in the big leagues.
These players include, but are not limited to, center Jordan Schroeder, d-man Kevin Connauton, d-man Yann Sauve and forward Kellan Tochkin. Schroeder, once a highly touted draft pick of the Canucks, has underperformed out of college into the AHL mostly because of his lack of size. If Schroeder can figure out how to play the little man's game a la Marty St. Louis, he will finally get a shot at the pros. Connauton and Sauve both got shots on the big club last season, with Sauve getting the benefit of the doubt. As long as they remain plus defenseman in the AHL this year, there is no doubt that once again they'll get a call. Local boy Kellan Tochkin will be coming into the AHL for the first time after a near point per game season with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL. If he translates his play from junior to the farm, he could get a shot at a spot with the Canucks if needed during the year.
Prospects are fundamental for the success of an NHL franchise, the Canucks are no exception. In fact, the Canucks may use their farm system more than any other team in the NHL. The development and proper use of prospects is important for the success of the Vancouver Canucks this season.
With the absence of Mason Raymond on the wing this season, Chris Higgins will need to step up his level of play on the second line. Once thought of as a rental player for the 2011 Playoffs, Higgins impressed Canucks fans with his strong veteran presence, as well as being a great defensive forward and penalty killer.
In 2011-12, however, more will be asked of Higgins as he will need to play more of an offensive role than he is used to. He will need to return to offensive form and put up at least 20 goals as he did in the past with the Montreal Canadiens, all while staying responsible in his own end. The Canucks desperately need an offensive boost from Higgins as a result of the absence of Ryan Kesler and the long-term absence of Mason Raymond.
Provided Higgins does return to his offensive prowess, the Canucks should be in good shape this season.
Coming into the 2011-12 NHL season, forward Cody Hodgson has an amazing opportunity in front of him. With Ryan Kesler slated to miss approximately the first month of the season recovering from hip surgery, the second-line center spot has opened up. When the Canucks re-signed Maxim Lapierre it was thought that Hodgson was left with no spot on the team and would be subsequently traded away. With this gap in the lineup, Hodgson has a once in a lifetime chance to prove his worth to the Canucks.
In the past, Hodgson has suffered from back issues, which have stunted his development process. Last season, Hodgson played in just 20 games for the Canucks, than he has ever, but 12 of them came during the 2010-11 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In the playoffs, despite limited ice time, Hodgson did show signs of the brilliance upon which he was praised by Canucks management. Cody needs to find a consistency in order to improve the skills which he possesses. Hodgson is tremendously talented in the faceoff circle as well as defensively. It is his offensive game that has given him the most problems. His size and speed have hindered him in the AHL, and if he doesn't develop those facets of his game, he will continue to struggle with them in the NHL.
If Cody Hodgson does indeed start the season in that second line center role, he will be provided with an excellent opportunity to come into his own at the NHL level, and finally get the ice time he was drafted to get. Upon Kesler returning, if Hodgson has impressed the coaching staff and management, there will be that chance that he is kept up with the Canucks as a winger or a healthy scratch throughout the season.
Vancouver Canucks defenseman Chris Tanev could possibly be the biggest surprise coming out of the 2010-11 season. In January 2011, Tanev emerged from the AHL when he was called up due to Andrew Alberts and Aaron Rome both out because of injuries. Over the course of the rest of the regular season he played 29 games, posting one point and an even rating. After the Manitoba Moose were eliminated from the 2011 AHL Playoffs, Tanev was again called up by the Canucks as a reserve for their 2011 Stanley Cup run. Over this time, he played five games spanning from the Western Conference Finals to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Chris Tanev was a clear-cut favorite of head coach Alain Vigneault. Vigneault praised Tanev for his high hockey IQ and good decision making. It is no doubt that Tanev will crack the top six this season, but he needs to keep up his stellar play for 82 games and not just a brief stint in the NHL. Tanev always seemed to make the right play in 2011 and had some sort of inability to make rookie mistakes.
Chris Tanev will be a key part of the Canucks' defensive core in the 2011-12 season, especially after Christian Ehrhoff left in the offseason. If Tanev continues his great defensive play, the Canucks will have a good chance at the Cup again.
Don't think we forgot about Mikael Samuelsson. Samuelsson, much like Hodgson and Higgins, will be heavily relied on to provide secondary scoring in the first half of the season. Though he put up satisfactory numbers in 2010-11 with 18 goals and 50 points, it was a significant step down from his 2009-10 numbers of 30 goals. It is also a contract year for Samuelsson, so if he isn't playing at a higher level than usual, something is wrong with him.
Samuelsson should expect lots of ice time this season, and barring serious injury, he will have lots of pressure to produce. Canucks fans did not seem to like how he played last season, and he will need to push it to a whole new level. The Canucks know he is capable of being a star as he previously was with Detroit and in his first season with the Canucks.
Mikael Samuelsson needs to shoot the puck more and not be so tentative to make plays, and in turn, success will surely follow.
Keith Ballard is in a delicate position heading into the 2011-12 NHL season. His relationship with head coach Alain Vigneault has been nothing less than rocky. With the departure of Christian Ehrhoff, Vigneault will be forced to use Ballard in his top four on the blue line, and put the $4.2 million player to work.
Ballard played just 65 games last season, posting just seven points for a d-man signed as an offensive defenseman. If Ballard is committed to helping the Canucks improve in 2011-12, he will need to show his offensive side more often than not. The Canucks have enough defensive defensemen that they can afford to let Ballard skate more and rely on his partner to help out on any breakdowns.
In addition, Ballard plays responsibly, rarely taking any penalties. He will need to keep this play up and step into a more important role this season for the Canucks to stay level with their terrific 2010-11 campaign.
Here we are again, another preseason spent scrutinizing goaltender Roberto Luongo. There isn't much to improve on for the goalie this year, other than his play in pressure situations. No, you can't say he won the Gold Medal under great pressure when he had quite possibly the greatest team ever in front of him. Luongo will need to figure it out soon if the Canucks are going to succeed this year.
In the end, it always comes down to the play of the goalie for the Canucks. It is hard to improve on the unbelievable numbers he had during the regular season last year, but he needs to drastically improve his playoff play. He will be counted on to steal some games this year, not something he has had to do much of since coming to Vancouver from Florida.
Roberto Luongo's success in 2011-12 translates directly into the success of the Vancouver Canucks this season.
Obviously, the players previously mentioned aren't the only ones requiring improvement. Every player, staff member, trainer and so on needs to improve season to season in order for the team to be successful and reach its ultimate goal of becoming Stanley Cup champions.
It will be hard to improve on the immaculate year the Canucks had in 2010-11, putting up a franchise record 117 points on the year and winning the Presidents' Trophy and Clarence Campbell Trophy. The Canucks also had five individual player awards, but it all means nothing when you don't walk away with the ultimate trophy, the Stanley Cup. If the team focuses in on their flaws and makes an effort to improve, you can expect to see the Canucks in the hunt for the Cup again in 2011-12.