Have NHL training camps really started already? How is that possible?
After all, if you’re a diehard Vancouver Canucks fan, it probably still feels like the heartbreak of a Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Finals followed by the shock of the post-game riots just happened yesterday.
But in reality, over three months have gone by since that tough mid-June evening and the Canucks have now officially reassembled for another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.
With the exception of a couple of departures and a few tweaks here and there, the 2011-12 edition of the Canucks will look almost the same as the team you remember from what seems like just yesterday. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions and intriguing storylines to follow during training camp and the preseason.
Will any of the veterans signed to tryout contracts actually make the team? Will any of the Canucks young prospects make the team? When will the Canucks' walking wounded return from their playoff injuries?
I will attempt to answer these and other questions with a half-dozen predictions of how the next few weeks will play out for the Canucks leading up to their regular season opener on October 6.
Of the four players who are at camp on a tryout basis, I believe the 39-year-old former Canadian Olympian will be the one who makes and sticks with the team.
Now it might not be a bold prediction to say that Owen Nolan will outplay the other three players on tryout contracts.
After all, those players include a 38-year-old career back-up goalie (Manny Legace), a fringe fourth-liner who spent almost all of last season in the minors (Steve Begin) and a player whose only role at the NHL level is fighting (Todd Fedoruk).
But while Nolan should be able to stand out against those players, it’s still a long shot to forecast anyone on a tryout contract actually making an NHL team, let alone a Stanley Cup contender.
But Nolan isn’t an ordinary player. He was one of the best power forwards in the game earlier in his career and while those days are clearly behind him, he’s still capable of being a productive player in the NHL no matter what role he is plays.
In 2008-09, he put up 25 goals and 45 points in just 59 games for the Minnesota Wild, so not only can he can still put the puck in the net, but he can also play physical and assume a checking role if he must. This is important to the Canucks because that’s probably the only role they’ll have for him at this point.
But that’s okay with Nolan, because he’s just a hungry player looking to get back in the NHL and compete for a Stanley Cup after playing last season in Switzerland.
The pleasant surprise of last season for the Vancouver Canucks was, without a doubt, Chris Tanev.
The undrafted 21-year-old came out of nowhere and took advantage of an endless parade of injuries to the Canucks defence in February and March when he was first called up from the minors. He played well enough to gain the confidence of the coaching staff and then parlayed that into some serious playing time during the Stanley Cup Finals.
However, it’s important to remember that Tanev has only just completed his first year of pro hockey and still needs to develop. The best way for him to do that is not by sitting on the bench or in the press box as the Canucks sixth or seventh defenseman. It’s by playing as much as possible and hopefully being one of the best players at the AHL level.
If you’ll recall the early stages of Alex Edler’s career back in 2007, it looked very similar to this. Edler was called up late in his first season as a pro and played steady enough for Head Coach Alain Vigneault to give him a chance in a few playoff games. But Edler would start the next season with the Manitoba Moose (the Canucks' former AHL affiliate) before being called up early in the season.
The only difference with Tanev is that he doesn’t have quite the offensive upside that Edler had at that age. After all, Edler was a third-round draft pick while Tanev wasn’t drafted at all.
Therefore, he might stay down in the AHL for a bit longer than Edler did, but that doesn’t mean he won’t turn out to be a very good player for the Canucks one day.
It’s difficult to think of a prospect in the history of the Canucks who has been put under a microscope more than Cody Hodgson.
After a great start to his junior career, Hodgson suffered from injury setbacks over the last two years and hasn’t developed as quickly as many fans would like. But this will be his first training camp that he’s completely healthy for in quite a while, and he’s eager to crack the Canucks line-up to start the regular season.
I believe Hodgson will succeed in doing this, but it will be more because of the injuries at centre that have depleted the Canucks' depth. Ryan Kesler probably won’t be healthy enough to start the regular season and Hodgson is the perfect replacement for him.
But once Kesler and the rest of the forwards are healthy again, a trip back to the minors would seem likely for Hodgson. Much like the situation with Chris Tanev, the Canucks would rather see Hodgson get more playing time at a lower level than play five minutes a night on the fourth line in Vancouver.
Do you remember Eddie Lack? He’s the young goalie from Sweden who the Canucks signed last year, and he raised more than a few eyebrows with his stellar goaltending during the 2010 preseason.
He then became the starting goalie for the Manitoba Moose and posted a 2.26 GAA along with a .926 Save Percentage and five shutouts in 53 games. In the AHL playoffs, he raised his game even more with a 1.99 GAA, a .932 Save Percentage and two shutouts in just 12 games.
Well Lack is back and if that rhyme wasn’t enough to get you excited about watching him during the 2011 preseason, you’ll certainly get excited once you see him in action.
There is no indication from his play over the last year that Lack will be anything short of great when given the opportunity during the Canucks games leading up to the regular season.
Of course, this won’t have any impact on the Canucks this year unless something unexpected happens to either Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider. But it’s nice to know that there’s plenty of depth in the system in case GM Mike Gillis gets an offer he can’t refuse for a future starter like Schneider.
Both Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler won’t participate in any Canucks games during the preseason. This is a fact. Therefore, there’s no sense in talking much more about it.
However, the status of Dan Hamhuis and Manny Malhotra is still up in the air. But I’m making what I feel is a safe prediction that neither of them will see any game action before Oct. 6.
Hamhuis had sports hernia surgery two months ago after he was injured during the Stanley Cup Finals. He will reportedly practice with the team during training camp, but he definitely won’t play early in the preseason.
However, why would the Canucks risk bringing Hamhuis back to soon by playing him at all during the exhibition season? It doesn’t make sense and the Canucks are too smart of a franchise to make a decision that doesn’t make long-term sense to their organization.
The same principle applies for Malhotra. Even though he came back from his nasty eye injury and played in the Stanley Cup Finals, he was clearly not 100 percent healthy and won’t play again until he is.
Malhotra was very vague when talking about his slowly-healing eye recently, but he is being listed as week-to-week with his recovery by Alain Vigneault.
Considering the Canucks final preseason game is only two weeks away, it’s a pretty good bet that Malhotra won’t be playing in any games before the regular season opener.
The last of my predictions is the least important of them all, because the preseason is about developing players, building team chemistry and getting the sharpness back in your game. Wins and losses are completely meaningless.
Do you remember the Canucks' record during the preseason last year? No? Well don't worry, because neither do I and that’s my point.
But with that being said, I believe the Canucks will probably struggle a little over the course of their eight-game exhibition schedule. Due to their long and grueling playoff run, they’ve had the shortest rest period of any team in the NHL aside from the Boston Bruins.
Therefore, they couldn’t start their offseason training as early and they may have fallen a bit behind some other teams as a result.
They also might have to shake out a few remaining cobwebs from their brains as a result of their Game 7 loss to the Bruins. Let’s hope those are all removed by the time the preseason ends and the real hockey begins.
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