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GM Nonis says Canucks closer to contending despite missing NHL playoffs

Tuesday, 08.04.2008 / 3:45 PM / Features
The Canadian Press
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GM Nonis says Canucks closer to contending despite missing NHL playoffs

VANCOUVER - Missing the NHL playoffs is unacceptable but Dave Nonis says the Vancouver Canucks are closer to becoming a Stanley Cup contender than they were a year ago.

Insisting he's not a glass-half-full guy, the Canucks general manager made the assertion Monday at a media availability after his club missed the playoffs for the second time in three years and went from first to worst in the Northwest Division.

"We are not as far away as we feel right now," Nonis said of a team that had 10 fewer victories and 17 fewer points than the one that advanced to the second round of the playoffs a year ago.

On March 21, Vancouver was playing for first in the Northwest Division and third seed in the Western Conference but missed the playoffs by four points after a season-ending 1-7 collapse.

Nonis, who is entering the final year of his contract, said the Canucks are better because they're deeper than the club that came out of the NHL lockout two seasons ago and the farm system is well stocked.

"We have a deeper reserve list to either bring players up or make moves with assets we now have that we didn't have before," Nonis said.

"We have (salary) cap space that we haven't had in a long time. We're further along today than we were 12 months ago."

The post-mortem will focus on the stretch drive collapse. It will include how all-star goalie Roberto Luongo was handled and how his teammates played under pressure in unfamiliar roles.

Nonis said injuries to key defencemen resulted in rookie Alex Edler, seventh on the blue-line depth chart at training camp, playing 22 minutes a game.

The second line disappeared with season-ending injuries to veteran Brendan Morrison and promising rookie sniper Mason Raymond. Others had to fill in.

"We were asking players to do things that they were able to do for short periods but maybe they weren't capable of doing for the whole year," Nonis said.

But there will be changes. There is a need to boost scoring after the Canucks managed only 10 goals in their seven losses down the stretch. Captain Markus Naslund and Morrison become free agents July 1. Trevor Linden will likely retire.

"You can expect change but I don't think it will be as sweeping as 14 new bodies on opening night (two seasons ago) but in today's NHL you're going to see change regardless," Nonis said.

But holes remain to be filled. Roster players or those in the system will get chances to plug them or be assets to trade for players who can.

"I would expect you will see a ... much different group once we get to training camp," the GM said.

Nonis said, while he will have significant cap space to work with, the free agent pool is not deep.

"We'll be active in that market," he said. "We'll be a team that actively pursues players all over the lineup."

In addition to scoring, the Canucks are looking to upgrade their fourth line where Byron Ritchie, Jeff Cowan, and Brad Isbister saw action or were healthy scratches.

"When you talk about free-agent signings, that's an area, in some respects, that's as important as finding some scoring," said Nonis who noted the Canucks scored eight more goals than the Anaheim Ducks, the defending Stanley Cup champions.

He said the Canucks will stick to a blueprint that emphasizes prudent spending to fill key holes like the acquisition two seasons ago of shut-down defenceman Willie Mitchell. Free agents can augment a team, not build it.

"If you're building it on July 1 (the start of free agency), you're going to have a bad year," Nonis said.

Coach Alain Vigneault said he would like a do-over in his handling of Luongo, whom he described as a hard-working, demanding athlete who always said he was ready to play.

During the Canucks' swoon, the netminder was lifted from a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, went to Florida for the birth of his daughter the next day only to be yanked from a 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild.

Luongo later said there was "other stuff" going on in his personal life but did not elaborate.

"We look at it now and he was probably more fatigued mentally than he was letting on," Vigneault said. "If I could do it over again, yeah, I'd probably do things differently.

"But we were in a playoff push, where every game is huge. I don't know how I cannot play our best player."