NHL 2011-2012: 10 Questions That Will Decide the Fate of the Vancouver Canucks

Andrew EideCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2011

NHL 2011-2012: 10 Questions That Will Decide the Fate of the Vancouver Canucks

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    The Vancouver Canucks are entering the 2011-2012 NHL season coming off, perhaps, the greatest season in their franchise's 40-year history. They will attempt to win one more game this year than they did last year and raise the Stanley Cup they and their fans so desperately want.

    With a roster that returns all the key pieces from last year, they are among the contenders again.

    Will they be able to make another run?

    Have they learned from last year's mistakes?

    There are several questions that have to be answered in order to determine what fate lies ahead for the Canucks.

    Here are 10 of those questions. Ten questions that will determine where they end up when the dust clears in the spring.

1. Who Will Play on Ryan Kesler's Line?

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    The lack of scoring alongside Ryan Kesler became painfully apparent during the Stanley Cup Finals. Kesler, nursing an injured hip, often seemed to be on an island all by himself.

    Finding a scoring winger seemed to be a top priority for the Canucks this offseason. With only a couple of weeks before training camp begins, they still don’t have that player.

    So who will play next to Ryan Kesler this season?

    Mikael Samuelsson returns from injury and could reclaim his spot on the second line. Samuelsson had a career year two seasons ago playing with Kesler but regressed last season and fought through some injuries in the playoffs.

    If healthy, he should play there again, but who will man the other wing?

    Mayson Raymond has taken that spot for most of the past two seasons. He also regressed last season, was nearly invisible during the playoffs and will not be ready to go when the season starts due to the serious neck injury he suffered in the finals.

    Even if healthy, Raymond may not be the best choice.

    The other options? The Canucks brought in Marco Sturm hoping that he is healthy, and if he is, he might step in to the second line. Chris Higgins showed some moments last season playing alongside Kesler.

    Jannik Hansen could be a dark horse to play on the second line again. Hansen is a speedy player who struggles at times with his hands but has the potential to be a contributor.

    Whoever ends up on Kesler’s line will need to provide some scoring punch or else the Canucks might end up on the short end of things once again this spring.

2. Will the Defense Stay Healthy?

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    Last offseason, the Canucks made a concerted effort to shore up their defensive corps. They brought in Dan Hamhuis and made a draft day trade to bring in Keith Ballard.

    Those players gave Vancouver one of the deepest blue lines on paper heading into the season. As the season wore on, several players broke down, and the Canucks had to dig deep into their system to be able to ice a full lineup.

    Injuries again hit their defense in the playoffs, and they suffered.

    This season, the Canucks let Christian Erhoff move on, and despite that, should still have a strong defense. They re-signed Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo and hope to have a healthy Alex Edler.

    Last year’s dog house resident Keith Ballard is still on the roster and looks to get more ice time this season. Along with him is youngster Chris Tanev who has looked impressive, albeit in a small sample size.

    Last season proved that they did not have the depth they thought they did, when it was needed the most.

    They will need to stay healthy this year.

3. What Will Happen with Cory Schneider?

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    Cory Schneider was everything he was promised to be last year. In his first regular stint as a back up in the NHL he posted a 16-4-2 record with a goals against of 2.23 and a .929 save percentage.

    Cory Schneider is the real deal.

    So what will the Canucks do with him? Roberto Luongo is the starter and is under contract for what feels like forever which makes him nearly untradeable.

    Will Schneider get more starts this year? Will he get traded? Will his play create a goalie controversy? Has it already?

    Having two solid goaltenders is a great problem for the Canucks to have, but it could turn into a problem. There are already people in the stands and press who feel Schneider is the better option in net now. 

    What happens after a bad Luongo outing?

    How long before that controversy spreads to the locker room? Perhaps, it won’t, but it is something to watch.

    It doesn’t appear that the Canucks will move Schneider this season as he becomes a restricted free agent after this season, and they will have options then. However, if the Canucks are struggling near the trade deadline, he could be a valuable asset used to help the club.

    The Schneider question will be an interesting one to watch and could play a big role in the team’s success.

4. Will the Canucks Make Another Move?

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    The Canucks were pretty quiet this offseason. Their biggest free-agent signing was re-upping Kevin Bieksa.

    Outside of that, they did very little of note.

    They signed some marginal NHL players and invited grey beard Owen Nolan to camp for a tryout. None of their moves seemed to address their lack of second-line scoring.

    Are they done?

    Will they look to acquire another top six forward? If they do, who will they move?

    Cory Schneider would probably bring in the most return, but it doesn’t seem likely he is getting moved this season. That doesn’t leave a lot.

    Cody Hodgson might bring some interest from other teams but has yet to show that he can play at the NHL level, and it is doubtful that the Canucks could get much in return for him.

    Still, the Canucks are in need of another forward and will have to find a way to either trade for one or hope someone on the roster steps up.

    Mike Gillis will need to earn his salary this season.

5. Can They Recover from the Finals Hangover?

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    The Canucks are coming off of their shortest summer in franchise history after a tumultuous playoff season.

    The finals were emotional, physical and the Canucks took a beating off the ice as well. Their character was questioned at every turn and the finals ended with the horrible riot in Vancouver.

    That’s a lot to deal with, and the Canucks have to put all that behind them and drive forward.

    How will they deal with the baggage of last year?

    In the next few days and weeks, they will say the right things. They will tell reporters that they learned a lot from last year and getting close makes them want it that much more.

    Those are things that are pretty easy to say, but do the Canucks have the drive and energy to actually put it behind them?

6. Will Ryan Kesler Be Healthy?

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    Ryan Kesler is the heart and soul of the Canucks. Nobody on their roster plays harder or wants to win more.

    He suffered a hip injury during the playoffs last year and is still rehabbing from offseason surgery. Last week during the NHL Player’s Media Tour, he told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun that isn’t ready to go yet. 

    LeBrun asked him about his hip, and he said "It's getting better, I've skated about five times, it's feeling good, close to 100 percent but not there yet. My goal is to start the season. We'll see if that happens or not."

    Kesler is a key player in the Canucks puzzle, and if he misses significant time or is hampered by his hip all season, it could spell doom. This should be a concern for the Canucks.

    As bad as the Canucks need to find him a winger, they need a healthy Ryan Kesler even more.

7. Can the Canucks Play Tough?

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    A lot was made about the Boston Bruins pushing the Canucks around during the seven games of the finals. The Canucks, and the referees, allowed the Bruins to have their way with them without any resistance.

    The last four playoff losses for Vancouver have all been similar. They have lost to teams that pushed them around.

    Vancouver needs to get tougher if they want to win the cup.

    That will be made harder as their two toughest guys from last year, Tanner Glass and Raffi Torres, have moved on. Who will stand up for the Sedins? Who will stand up for the Canucks?

    They brought in guys like Mike Duco, Mark Mancari and Todd Fedoruk in a desperate search for some toughness. Will those guys make a difference?

    It doesn’t seem likely, but what is likely is that the Canucks will be tested physically next year as the whole world saw what happened in the finals.

8. Where Is Roberto Luongo's Head?

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    Roberto Luongo has become the hockey world’s favorite punching bag. From jokes about his tires being pumped to the seven goals he gave up in Boston, he’s heard them all.

    Luongo takes the brunt of the blame from a large number of fans each year. They overlook the fact that the Canucks could not score goals in the finals and only focus on the losses in Boston.

    Those losses were bad and high profile, but Luongo has shown that he can bounce back from those types of games.

    However, he’s never had to bounce back from Stanley Cup Finals losses where the whole hockey world has dismissed him as a choker.

    There is also considerable sentiment out there that Cory Schneider should be the No. 1 goalie in Vancouver. That is not going to happen without Luongo getting injured, but he will hear the whispers.

    How will it affect him? This is the first time he’s had a backup like Schneider since joining the Canucks. Will he hear the cat calls? Will his confidence be shaken?

    For the Canucks to win the Cup, they will need Luongo to prove all his doubters wrong. To do that, he will need to show the kind of resolve those same doubters are sure he doesn’t have.

9. Do the Canucks Have Heart?

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    Do the Canucks have the heart to win? This is an easy thing for fans to question.

    We fans have all become arm-chair psychologists over the years. Somehow, we can tell when a team isn’t showing enough heart.

    As ridiculous as this seems, it is one of the main questions about the Canucks this season, and there are some good reasons for them.

    Last year, the Canucks were up 3-0 against Chicago and let them back in, they were up 3-1 against Nashville and let the Predators force a sixth game and then blew 2-0 and 3-2 leads in the finals against Boston.

    Were those events evidence of a lack of heart? Or was it just a team that had yet to find playoff success struggling with being in the lead?

    Every Canucks player will tell you that they learned a lot from last year. They said that at the beginning of the 2010 season as well.

    They need to cash in on that learning and find the heart, or whatever it is, to win the big games and put teams away.

10. Can the Canucks Thrive as Villians?

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    Diver. Biter. Whiner. Dirty. Cheap.

    These are all insults that were hurled at the Canucks during the finals last year. These labels were pretty over the top and somewhat inaccurate—well maybe not the biting thing.

    Whether the labels are true or not is irrelevant.

    That is the perception, and therefore, the reality in most fans eyes. The Canucks, who were previously pretty anonymous around the league, will be in for rude receptions at away rinks this year.

    How will they handle the black hat?

    Will it bond them in an “us against the world” way? Will they relish it?

    Or will it seep into their head. Will it erode their confidence? Will they go out of their way to prove they aren’t these things and get off their game.

    The way to handle this is clear. They should relish it. Bring it on.

    Which way will they go?