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.