New faces abound in Vancouver
|After a disappointing 2007-08 campaign, the Vancouver Canucks focused their attention toward providing goalie Roberto Luongo with more offensive weapons for the 2008-09 season.
Unfortunately for the Canucks, that was the size of the gap in the standings.
Despite having world-class netminder Roberto Luongo, the Canucks struggled to keep pace in their extremely tight division in 2007-08 and failed to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in four years.
Following another disappointing season, changes were made. On April 14, the Canucks relieved General Manager/Senior Vice President Dave Nonis of his duties. He was replaced nine days later by former player agent Mike Gillis, who then opted to retain Alain Vigneault as coach.
While Vigneault is staying in Vancouver, others have left town. Markus Naslund, who played the last 11 seasons with the Canucks, signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers in July, while veteran Trevor Linden decided to hang up the blades. Brendan Morrison, who enjoyed four 20-goal campaigns with the club, bolted for the Anaheim Ducks via free agency.
Tragedy struck the franchise on May 29, when 21-year-old defenseman Luc Bourdon was killed in a motorcycle accident. The team's first-round draft choice (No. 10) in 2005, Bourdon had two goals and a plus-7 rating in 27 games last season.
The Canucks, though, have done their best to move forward. In desperate need of a high-scoring wing, veteran Pavol Demitra signed a two-year deal July 10. Demitra, 33, had 54 points in 68 games last season with the Minnesota Wild. It marked the first time in 11 campaigns that Demitra didn't score at least 20 goals. The Canucks also acquired forward Steve Bernier from the Buffalo Sabres on July 4 in exchange for draft picks.
"Throughout his NHL career, Pavol has proven himself to be an offensive contributor wherever he has played," Gillis said. "Pavol is a strong two-way hockey player with excellent quickness and finish. His playmaking abilities will be an asset on our power play and make him a great addition to our top six forwards."
Regardless of who is playing up front, the Canucks will have a chance to win on a regular basis. Why? Because their last line of defense is arguably the best in the business.
Still very much in his prime -- he turned 29 in April –Luongo is coming off his third straight season of at least 35 victories. In 2007-08, Luongo appeared in 73 games and went 35-29-9 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. He has appeared in at least 70 games in each of the past four seasons.
Luongo will be joined by Curtis Sanford, who opted to return to the Canucks by signing a one-year contract in July. Sanford, who turns 29 on Oct. 5, went 4-3-1 last season with a 2.83 GAA. Should Luongo stay healthy, Sanford probably won't start more than 10 games. However, he's a highly-capable backup, which suits Vancouver just fine.
Mike Gillis tinkered with his roster in his first summer on the job, and unquestionably the biggest change heading into this season features the departure of Naslund. The Canucks' captain since 2000, Naslund signed as a free agent with the Rangers on July 3.
With Naslund on the opposite side of North America, the Canucks needed to move quickly to fill the void. One day after Naslund left, Gillis acquired Bernier from the Sabres. Just 23, Bernier had 16 goals between Buffalo and the San Jose Sharks last season.
Less than a week later, the Canucks added Demitra to the mix. While he scored 15 goals for the Minnesota Wild last season, Demitra has three 30-goal seasons on his resume and has found the back of the net 20 times or more on nine occasions.
Bernier and Demitra will help relieve some pressure off twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who are entering their eighth seasons with the Canucks. Both were solid again in 2007-08, as Daniel went 29-45-74, while Henrik had 15 goals and 61 assists.
Vancouver will also be banking on power forward Ryan Kesler, who is coming off a breakout season. In 80 games, the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder had 21 goals, 16 assists and 79 penalty minutes. His numbers were basically identical to Taylor Pyatt's, who had 16 goals and 21 assists. Pyatt, 27, will be aiming for his first 40-point season in the NHL.
Bernier and Demitra won't be the only newcomers. After being released by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kyle Wellwood was signed to a one-year deal. The 25-year-old had 8 goals and 13 assists in 59 games for the Leafs last season. Darci Hordichuk will also get a look after playing the last three seasons with the Nashville Predators.
Alexandre Burrows returns for what will be his third full season in Vancouver, and the Canucks are hoping the 27-year-old can at least duplicate his numbers from 2007-08. Burrows appeared in all 82 games last season, notching 12 goals, 19 assists and 179 penalty minutes. Mason Raymond, who was grabbed by the Canucks in the second round of the 2005 draft, also will fight for playing time after going 9-12-21 in just 49 games.
This is probably where the Canucks are weakest, which means Luongo can expect to see a lot of rubber this season.
While there are three older, capable defensemen still in the fold in Willie Mitchell, Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund, things get a little hairy after that. The untimely passing of Bourdon certainly threw a wrench into the Canucks' plans.
At the age of 22, Alexander Edler is set to begin his second full season with the big club. The team's third-round selection in 2004 appeared in 75 games last season and tallied 8 goals, 20 assists and a highly respectable plus-6 rating. He'll be joined by another young defenseman, as 25-year-old Lukas Krajicek is set to return after appearing in only 39 games last season due to a shoulder injury, along with Kevin Bieksa, who missed a large chunk of last season after his calf muscle was lacerated.
In need of some depth, the team signed Rob Davison as a free agent. Davison ended the 2007-08 campaign with the New York Islanders after being acquired in a deal with the San Jose Sharks.
Three reasons for optimism
* Roberto Luongo. Many would argue the Canucks have the best goalie in the world, which means the Canucks will have a chance to win on most nights. As long as he remains healthy, Vancouver will contend for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
* After spending the past two seasons in Minnesota, Pavol Demitra could very well experience an offensive re-birth in Vancouver. It's more than likely that Demitra -- who was brought in to replace Markus Naslund -- will skate alongside Daniel and Henrik Sedin, which should translate into a plethora of offensive chances.
* At the age of 24, Ryan Kesler is emerging as one of the bright, young power forwards in the game. There's no reason not to believe that the American-born Kesler can't build on his 21-goal campaign in 2007-08, which would give the Canucks another offensive weapon.