With the preseason in full swing, the Vancouver Canucks are once again looking like the class of the Northwest Division.
Edmonton may be better than last year, but are still in rebuilding mode. Calgary remains the most enigmatic team in the league, and their aging core and lack of youth do not bode well, although a place in the post-season remains a possibility.
Minnesota made a pair of bold acquisitions from San Jose in trading for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, but their team identity remains in flux as they transition out of Jacques Lemaire-style hockey and into a free-flowing offensive style.
And then there’s Colorado, which has alternated between challenging Vancouver for the Northwest crown and being bottom feeders. Last year couldn’t have been much worse as they finished with the second-worst record in the NHL. So it’s hard to imagine them challenging Vancouver, but this division is so weak right now and the Avalanche have enough young talent that they could finish second and claim a playoff spot. A lot will depend on how the acrobatic Simeon Varlamov plays and whether he can stay healthy; much like Cody Hodgson, injuries have marred Varlamov’s development.
As for their place in the Western Conference, playing in what is now the NHL’s weakest division should help the Canucks vie for the top seed in the West and the President’s Trophy. Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, L.A., and possibly Anaheim would have to be considered the Canucks’ main competitors for Western supremacy.
Of course, the Canucks expect to have a strong regular season and will rightfully set their sights on the Stanley Cup, which means that their regular-season challenge will be to remain focused on building good daily habits so that the group forms a strong identity and they improve their mental fortitude along the way.
Last year’s victory against Chicago was a big hurdle to get over, but of course Roberto Luongo’s wildly inconsistent play against Chicago and Boston remains a concern not just for Canuck fans, but also for the Canucks’ brass and no doubt Bobby Lou himself.
Naturally, there were other problems that surfaced in the Stanley Cup final, and had the team not been so banged up, they might have come out on top despite Luongo’s up-and-down series.
After a 2010 off-season in which Mike Gillis acquired the services of Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, and Victor Oreskovich, the Canucks’ GM prioritized the retention of a few key pieces in 2011 by re-signing Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa, Chris Higgins, and Maxim Lapierre.
But it is the competition Gillis has created between a gang of NHL veterans and AHL up-and-comers that has been intriguing to watch unfold during training camp. This group includes Marco Sturm, Steve Pinizzotto (injured), Mark Mancari, Mike Duco, Byron Bitz (injured), Owen Nolan (released), and Todd Fedoruk.
Who will emerge and claim roster spots? Who will start the year with the Wolves and be injury call-ups? And who will be cut or traded the way Darcy Hordichuk, Shane O’Brien, and Brendan Morrison were last year when the team decided to go in a different direction?
It is already proving to be an extremely competitive training camp in which young prospects will be given opportunities, but may find it difficult to pull a Shirokov by making the team out of camp.
There’s just so much experience on the current roster and in the group of forwards Gillis has either signed or brought in on PTOs (professional try-outs) that for someone like Jordan Schroeder to make the team seems like a stiff task, despite how well he's played to date.
In the near future, then, we will find out what kind of identity Gillis and Vigneault would like to create on the fourth line. We will also find out how the team handles to so-called Stanley Cup hangover.
Kesler, Hamhuis, Malhotra, Samuelsson, and Raymond are five key components whose respective injuries/off-season surgeries leave a few questions unanswered. And in the long term, we must also ask how the goaltending situation will be addressed.
It is not like Mike Gillis to stand pat when a situation emerges that stands in the way of winning. But then again, he’s much more liable to deal internally with a problem like Luongo. We could see a platoon situation between Luongo and Schneider emerge. And behind the scenes, who knows what Gillis has up his sleeve.
But you’ve got to think that consistent playoff goaltending is something that Gillis has given a lot of thought to since Game 7 against Boston, and the plan will no doubt unfold as the season progresses. With those preliminary thoughts, here are the Top 10: Keys to the Vancouver Canucks’ Season.
Manny addresses the media during the Stanley Cup finals
This could be the year in which Manny Malhotra takes Cody Hodgson under his wing. From all reports, Malhotra’s eye continues to improve, but still isn’t 100%.
What does this mean for the Canucks? Well, prior to his miraculous return to play in the Stanley Cup final, Malhotra remained a leader in the dressing room, and I think one of his roles this year will be to mentor Cody Hodgson.
Let’s just hope he remains a defensive force on the ice and in the faceoff circle, because he had trouble in the faceoff circle against the Bruins (50.6 percent compared to his regular-season average of 61.7 percent), and his limited vision may have been the culprit.
Regarding Hodgson, although he may start the year on the second line, Ryan Kesler will take that spot upon his return, which won’t be more than a few weeks away. The likely domino effect will drop Hodgson onto the third line, which will shift Malhotra to the left wing.
As Alain Vigneault has mentioned, Malhotra can play on the wing and step in to take key draws if they decide Hodgson is ready to be the team's third-line centre.
Either way, look for Malhotra to be a key penalty killer, play some centre, some left wing, and take on the role of mentoring Hodgson, who has the tools to be a very effective third-line centre, while also running the second-unit power-play.
Who will play alongside Mad Max on the fourth line?
It will be important for the fourth line to form an identity and gain Vigneault’s trust early. Last year, Gillis addressed a weak third line by bringing in Malhotra and Torres. Along with Jannik Hansen, they formed a consistent trio that won faceoffs, threw their weight around and had the speed to create chances and disrupt the opposition’s break-out.
The fourth line, on the other hand, never found a consistent identity. Alex Bolduc’s separated shoulders limited his usefulness. Guillaume Desbiens never made much of a mark, and Tanner Glass is now in Winnipeg.
But having Maxim Lapierre centre the fourth line is a good place to start. And my guess is that Steve Pinizzotto had the inside track on the left wing spot before his shoulder separation against San Jose, while Mark Mancari and Victor Oreskovich are running neck-and-neck for the right wing spot.
But due to injuries to start the year, Mike Duco, Mancari, and Oreskovich could all make the team, while Pinizzotto and Byron Bitz will surely get their shot once they're healthy.
However you see the fourth line coming together, it promises to be an exciting unit that can fight, hit, agitate, chip in offensively, and change the momentum when the Canucks need a spark.
Can Samuelsson regain his 2009-10 form?
Mikael Samuelsson had a bit of a rough year in 2010-11 due in large part to nagging groin and hamstring injury that hampered his skating and eventually worsened to the point that he was shut down after Game 5 of the Nashville series.
After scoring a career-high 30 goals in his first year in Vancouver, Samuelsson dropped to just 18 goals in 2010-11. Coupled with Mason Raymond’s inability to put the puck in the net, Vancouver’s second line came to be referred to pejoratively as the Helicopter Line because it featured Kesler in the middle with no wings.
This year, with no major upgrade to the second line, Samuelsson needs to put the puck in the net, and his potential role as a first-unit power play quarterback (with Edler and/or Salo) means that he will have to be healthy and productive after off-season adductor tendon surgery and sports hernia surgery.
If he’s not, Jannik Hansen and/or Mark Mancari could get a look in Samuelsson's second line right wing slot. Either that, or a trade to upgrade the Top 6 would be in order.
Will Edler emerge as a lethal power-play quarterback?
With Christian Ehrhoff’s departure, Alex Edler is expected to pick up the scoring slack. Of course, Vancouver’s defensive depth has always been a key to their success, and Edler isn’t the only one who will be counted on for more points.
Dan Hamhuis will no doubt play more on the second-unit power play alongside Kevin Bieksa and/or Sami Salo, and Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev both figure to contribute more off the rush at even strength.
But the power play is a vital component to winning, and the Canucks were lethal all year until the finals when Ehrhoff’s shoulder injury, Samuelsson’s absence, Kesler’s injury, and—most of all—Tim Thomas’ brilliance conspired to shut down the Canucks’ vaunted power play.
If Alex Edler continues to evolve as expected, we could see a 50-point season from him, and the Canucks may need it for their power play to remain as dynamic as it was last year.
Is Hodgson ready to seize his opportunity?
The subject of Cody Hodgson has been beaten to death over the last three years, although this year’s tempered expectations are that he will find his way into a full-time role with the big club.
With only eight regular season games under his belt, he has yet to prove he’s a worthy Top-Nine forward, but the Canucks could sure use a shot of youth in their lineup, and early indications are that Hodgson is fully healthy, lighter on his feet, and stronger on the puck, all of which should help him grow into a solid NHLer.
As mentioned in the intro and in the section on Malhotra, Hodgson will likely need to settle into a third line role once Kesler returns. Whether he does will depend on how he performs through the rest of the exhibition schedule and in the early going, when he is expected to fill in on the second line for Ryan Kesler.
Can Hamhuis avoid the injury bug that plagued him last year?
The loss of shutdown defenseman Dan Hamhuis in the finals was one of the many hurdles Vancouver couldn’t quite overcome. After a head-over-heels hip check on Milan Lucic, Hamhuis was finished, and like Kesler, Samuelsson, Raymond, and Malhotra, he enters the season with an injury that could mar his early performance.
Like Mikael Samuelsson, Hamhuis had off-season sports hernia surgery. The prognosis has been positive, and it is expected that Hamhuis will be ready to go on opening night.
But losing Hamhuis in Game 1 of the finals was a big blow given his stabilizing influence on the team. He also missed 18 regular-season games due to two separate concussions after missing only seven games in his entire six-year career in Nashville.
Gillis went after him in unrestricted free agency last year for many reasons, one of which was his durability, and the Canucks will need a healthy Hamhuis if they are to return to the promised land for a shot at redemption.
How much hockey will Schneider play this year?
Had it not been for playing a back-up role on a dominant team that featured Vezina finalist Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider would no doubt have garnered some Calder consideration.
With a spectacular record of 16-4-2 with a 2.23 GAA and a .929 SV%, Schneider may shoulder an even heavier load this year. He may not platoon with Bobby Lou, but getting 30-35 starts is very possible, and given the uncertainty surrounding Luongo’s ability to carry the playoff load, Alain Vigneault will likely be more prepared to start Schneider in key playoff games should Luongo falter.
On top of that, it is a contract year for Schneider, and although he will be a restricted free agent, it’s hard to imagine that Schneider will re-sign in Vancouver unless he becomes their full-time starter.
In short, Schneider seems ready for the prime time, and yet the goalie market in the NHL is flooded, otherwise Vancouver may have traded such a valuable asset prior to the last year of his entry-level deal.
That, however, may be a blessing in disguise, as the Canucks now feature the best goaltending tandem in the league.
But who will step up and prove to be the go-to guy when the games matter most? It will be interesting to monitor the situation as it unfolds through the season and into the playoffs.
Will Kesler be the same dominant force after off-season hip surgery?
Following post-season hip surgery to repair the torn labrum Kesler suffered towards the end of the Sharks’ series, Kesler will almost certainly miss some time at the beginning of the season. How quickly he is able to return to his 41-goal Selke Trophy form will go a long way to determining how successful Vancouver’s season is.
Of course, coming off a President’s Trophy and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals has made his absence at training camp somewhat moot because it has opened the door for Cody Hodgson. Hodgson may get to start the season centring the second unit, which should give the Canucks’ top prospect a couple weeks to get his feet wet as an NHL regular.
But while other Canucks have been training for the upcoming season, Kesler has been rehabbing. Let’s just hope he can step into the lineup and find the stride he had throughout the regular season and through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin are the back-to-back Art Ross Trophy winners, but Kesler is the guy who excels in every aspect of the game due to his speed, strength and dogged determination to win at all costs.
In other words, Kesler is the engine that turns Vancouver from a good team into a powerhouse.
Can the Sedins rack up the points for a third straight year?
If the Sedins can have another scintillating offensive year in which they weave their Sedinery against the rest of the NHL, Vancouver should be in very good shape.
Especially in the early going, when Kesler is out of the lineup, it will be vital for the Sedins’ to pick up the slack. Under Alain Vigneault, the Canucks have had a mediocre record in the first month or so, and some of this has to do with Luongo being a notoriously slow starter.
Although 100 points each is not the lone prerequisite for Vancouver’s success, if they can repeat the numbers they’ve put up the last two seasons, it will go a long way to making the Canucks a Stanley Cup favourite once again.
The true test, of course, will come against teams like Chicago, LA, Boston, Nashville, and others who have a physically powerful defensive tandem to disrupt the Sedins by knocking them on their keisters.
Hopefully, the Sedins will once again have evolved from last year and be better equipped to put points up while playing against the league’s elite defensemen.
Don't you worry 'bout a thing, Bobby Lou...
It’s true that Roberto Luongo is one of the absolute best goalies in the business. But it’s equally true that his confidence in his own ability can be very thin, especially when the pressure’s on. What he needs is peace of mind more than anything, and the inner faith in his own ability to rebound from bad goals.
His tendency against Chicago for the last three years and against Boston in the final to let the goals pile up is not a good pattern; not only does it demonstrate to his opposition a fragile state of mind, but it shows his teammates that he’s nervous, which makes playing in front of him very challenging.
In a lot of ways, your goalie sets the tone for your team, and Vancouver has a tremendous team that unravels when things snowball on Luongo. But if he can forget his ego, relax, and move on from bad goals and bad performances, he will be just fine, and so will the Canucks.
On the other hand, if he holds a grudge against the media for being hard on him and feels the need to have his ego flattered the way he did after his scintillating Game 5 performance against Boston, he will remain overly concerned with himself.
As he should have learned from Tim Thomas, having fun and being unconcerned with accolades and criticism is the key to remaining in the moment.