Canucks enter season solid in all phases of the game
The Canucks might have assembled the best team in the franchise's history. Now can they win the club's first-ever Stanley Cup?
Is this the year?
It's a question Vancouver Canucks fans have asked themselves on an annual basis since the franchise entered the National Hockey League in 1970. So far, the answer has been no. But in 2011, Vancouver may get the answer it wants to hear.
Sure, it was disappointing when the Canucks lost in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Chicago Blackhawks last May. Vancouver had high hopes after it racked up 103 points and won the Northwest Division.
But Chicago's roster was hit hard by salary-cap issues this summer, while Canucks GM Mike Gillis shored up his blue line with the additions of Dan Hamhuis via free agency and Keith Ballard in a trade with the Florida Panthers. Those acquisitions came just a few months after Gillis locked up budding star forward Ryan Kesler to a six-year, $30 million contract. Kesler will be the club's No. 2 center behind Henrik Sedin, who won the Hart and Art Ross trophies last season after scoring a career-best 112 points.
"We've always had a lot of pressure on us to succeed, especially being in a Canadian city and having fans as passionate as our fans," Kesler told NHL.com. "Is there added pressure? Probably a little bit. But we know that we have a really good chance. There're not many years where you feel you have a really good chance, and this year I feel we have a really good chance. We can go a long way."
CANUCKS 2010-2011 SEASON PREVIEW
BUTTON'S BREAKDOWN: Do the Canucks have a nemesis? The Chicago Blackhawks certainly fit the definition. The past two seasons have been ended for the Canucks by the Hawks and while losing is disappointing, the manner in which the Canucks have exited leaves a very bad after taste.
This is a team that can score (2nd best goals for per game) and has depth of scoring throughout their lineup. What more can be said of the Sedins? Henrik wins the scoring title despite playing without his brother for 19 games and then is voted the league's MVP. Daniel scores at well over a point-per-game pace and in combination they form a duo that excels in all aspects of the game. Ryan Kesler established himself as one of the premier two-way players in the NHL. He has the skills, toughness and competitiveness whereby he can impact the game and make a difference in so many ways. Alexander Burrows, Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson round out a group of top six forwards as good as any team in the league.
The key for the Canucks getting rid of the potential for more bad after taste may very well lie in the acquisitions of Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis. They are very good defensemen with the ability to skate and handle the puck and are capable of utilizing these to their advantage both offensively but perhaps more importantly defensively. The league has shown that if a team gives up a lot of scoring chances, it doesn't matter how good your goaltender is, the good offensive players are going to take advantage. Certainly that was on display the last two playoffs versus the Blackhawks. Alexander Edler is very capable and getting better. Christian Ehrhoff was excellent for the Canucks last season and a return to form for Kevin Bieksa gives Vancouver an excellent blend of players who can limit the scoring chances against and give the Canucks a better chance to experience playoff success.
Roberto Luongo is one of the very best goaltenders in the game and now doesn't have to spend any unnecessary time worrying about "Captaining" the team. He will be a beneficiary if the team can become better in limiting scoring chances. Another way for the Canucks to limit scoring chances is to improve on their discipline. They were one of the most penalized teams last season and this puts a lot of pressure on the penalty killing but also a burden on the players who have to perform in this area. It is a long season and the Canucks don't have to prove their toughness to anybody.
They are a team capable of competing for the Stanley Cup but to give themselves the best chance, they must learn from the lessons of the past and ensure they don't beat themselves.
Obviously, Henrik Sedin is the Canucks' No. 1 center. He'll be joined on a line by his brother, Daniel, who had 29 goals and 56 assists last season. It's likely the twins will be joined by Alexandre Burrows, one of the game's better power forwards, who led the Canucks with 35 goals and was third with 121 penalty minutes. Once again, expect Vancouver's top line to be one of the most dangerous in the League.
But the ability to create offense won't stop there for the Canucks, as Kesler tallied 25 goals and a career-high 75 points last season. Kesler, 26, is expected to center 25-year-old Mason Raymond (25 goals last season) and Mikael Samuelsson, who enjoyed his first 30-goal season in 2009-10 at the age of 33.
Free-agent Manny Malhotra could be the third-line center the Canucks lacked last season. The 30-year-old is coming off a 14-goal campaign for the San Jose Sharks and is excellent in the faceoff circle. Malhotra likely will find himself between Tanner Glass and Jannik Hansen, who had 15 points in 47 games for the Canucks last season.
The fourth line is primed to entertain the home crowd, as Rick Rypien is expected to center Darcy Hordichuk (142 penalty minutes last season) and Victor Oreskovich, who had 6 points in 50 games for Florida. Also in the mix is Alexandre Bolduc, who was held without a point in 15 NHL games in 2009-10.
The Canucks' blue line should be a strong point this season, thanks to the additions of Hamhuis and Ballard. Hamhuis, a Smithers, B.C., native, had 5 goals and 19 assists for the Nashville Predators last season and is steady in his own end of the ice.
Ballard, 27, is entering his sixth NHL season. He has 149 points (33 goals, 116 assists) in 397 games. It's possible he could be paired with Hamhuis, or Canucks coach Alain Vigneault may elect to split them up and share the duties with Alexander Edler and Christian Ehrhoff.
Not lost in the shuffle is Kevin Bieksa, who may be the club's most skilled defenseman. The 29-year-old had just 3 goals last season, but he's also enjoyed a pair of 40-point seasons. He could join Shane O'Brien, at least while Sami Salo recovers from a torn ACL suffered July 22.
He may not be the captain anymore, but Roberto Luongo remains one of the best goaltenders on the planet.
Aiming to concentrate strictly on stopping the puck, Luongo relinquished the captaincy Sept. 13. It will be interesting to see if he can improve his statistics from last season, when he won 40 games and posted a 2.57 goals-against average. Now 31 years old, Luongo is just 30 victories shy of 300 in his career.
Cory Schneider finally may get a well-deserved, full-time NHL job. Schneider, the team's 2004 first-round draft choice, has just 10 NHL games on his resume. He went 35-23-2 with a 2.51 GAA for AHL Manitoba last season.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Tremendous top-six -- Let's face facts -- this team is downright scary up front. Henrik Sedin was the League's MVP last season, and could notch 100 points for the second-straight season. Along with his twin brother, Daniel, as well as Alexandre Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson, the Canucks are not going to experience any difficulty scoring goals.
Better on the blue line -- Canucks GM Mike Gillies realized his defense needed to improve if his team ever is going to rid itself of postseason failures. With Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard now in the mix, it's going to make life much easier on Roberto Luongo, who didn't have enough help last season.
Lou gotta believe -- If Luongo is healthy, the Canucks have a chance to win every night. It's that simple for Vancouver and its goaltender, who has posted a sub-3.00 goals-against average each of the last nine seasons. It also will be interesting to see if Luongo thrives without having the responsibilities of being team captain.