The Vancouver Canucks begin the 2011-2012 NHL season Thursday with a home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Canucks are hoping to accomplish what the Penguins were able to do in 2009, win the Stanley Cup a year after losing it.
Like that Penguins team, the Canucks return a roster, mostly intact, that won the Presidents' Trophy, led the league in scoring and goals allowed and came within one game of winning the Cup. They return the last two Art Ross winners, a Hart winner, a Selke winner and a Vezina nominee in net.
Needless to say they are once again amongst the front-runners in the NHL this season.
Getting back to the finals is a tough proposition. The playoffs are grueling and the further you progress through them, the shorter your recovery time is. Vancouver went as far as you can go, seven games in the finals.
Coming off the shortest offseason in franchise history and facing a Western Conference full of teams that made big moves to knock them off, the Canucks have their hands full.
So, will they do it? Will they climb that mountain?
If they do, here are the reasons why it will happen.
For a coach that has been behind the bench for a ton of wins, there is a great deal of criticism and angst about the Canucks' bench boss.
Had the Canucks lost in the first round last season, there is a strong likelihood he would have been fired. They didn’t, and therefore he returns for another season.
He needs to take a good look at what has hamstrung his team in the past.
The most frustrating aspect to Vigneault’s coaching is how he handles success. Vancouver has a team loaded with offensive weapons, and they often score early and often.
When they get leads, Vigneault takes the foot off the gas.
By doing that he has let teams back into games and series. The media have ripped Vancouver for not having a killer instinct to put teams away. That lack of instinct starts with the coach.
Vigneault needs to continue to push his players and make them believe that any game or series is still up for grabs until you're shaking hands with the opponent.
If he can embrace that mentality, so will the team, and the Canucks will benefit because of it.
Ryan Kesler is the heart and soul of the Canucks. He is a fierce competitor whose desire to win is written all over his face.
Over the past two years, he has turned into a superstar in the NHL.
He can play in both ends, kill penalties, score goals and cause havoc in front of the net on power plays.
Due to a hip injury he suffered in the playoffs, he will not be ready to start the season as he recovers from surgery. Vancouver needs him to come back at 100 percent.
If he cannot play at the level he has in the past, Vancouver will suffer in almost every aspect of their game.
In many ways, they go as Kesler goes.
The one big departure Vancouver suffered this summer was defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who jumped ship to join the Buffalo Sabres.
While Ehrhoff wasn’t known for his shutdown abilities, he could move the puck and was a key part of the league’s best power play last year. They will need to find a way to make up for his 14 goals and 50 points last season.
The candidates to do that start with Alex Edler. Edler will take over the point on the power play, and with more opportunities, we could see his already impressive numbers rise.
When healthy, Edler has shown he can move the puck and score.
If he can step in and the power play doesn’t miss the beat, the Canucks will be tough to beat again.
Vancouver’s search for a scoring winger to play alongside Ryan Kesler did not produce much fruit this summer.
The only “scoring” winger brought in was veteran, and wobbly-kneed, Marco Sturm. It is hard to imagine that he will be an improvement over Mason Raymond.
The candidates for Kesler’s running mates are Mikael Samuelsson, Chris Higgins, Cody Hodgson, Sturm and Jannik Hansen.
On paper, it doesn’t appear that they have found that winger yet.
A big question looming out there is the prospect of trading for that guy. The Canucks have some trading chips, most notably backup goalie Cory Schneider, that could bring in a scoring winger.
Whether someone currently on the roster steps up or they make a move, if the Canucks find scoring for Kesler, they could be Cup-bound again.
A lot has been made about the Canucks' toughness, or lack thereof, and how it may have cost them in the finals.
Surely everyone remembers the Bruins pushing them around all seven games. Tim Thomas had a lot to do with Boston’s win, but so did the Bruins’ physical play.
Vancouver needs to be tougher and stand up for each other, and looking at their new fourth line, it appears they have.
Maxim Lapierre will center the fourth line along with Aaron Volpatti and the recently acquired Dale Weise. Volpatti and Weise are not and will not be afraid to drop the gloves, and Lapierre is a major league pest that will drive the opposition crazy.
Vancouver should be tougher, but will it make the difference? Will it give the Sedins room to work their magic?
It will have to.
It is hard to imagine a more enigmatic player than goalie Roberto Luongo. He is blamed for everything, from every Canucks loss to high unemployment. It’s all his fault.
Whether you love him or hate him, Luongo is the No. 1 goalie. That isn’t going to change any time soon.
He has shown that he can bounce back from tough playoff series. Last year, after losing to Chicago the previous season, he turned in his best season as a pro.
Nobody worries about how he’ll be in the regular season.
The questions all pertain to the playoffs and the big pressure games. How will he handle it? Will he flub easy shots like he did in Boston?
He will get a great deal of attention this playoff year. If he handles it and puts the team on his back, Vancouver can win the Cup.
If they do, Luongo will be the number one reason they do.