It is one thing to say you want something. It’s another to go out and get it.
After losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs for the second straight year, Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis vowed his team would be deeper and tougher to play against. With training camp just around the corner, it appears the former player agent is a man of his word.
Gillis is in just his third year as an NHL GM, but has taken command of the franchise and turned Vancouver into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the first time since superstar goaltender Roberto Luongo’s arrival.
The Canucks proved they can score goals last season, but an atrocious penalty kill and wilting defence ultimately sunk the team in the long run. Through trades and free agent signings, Gillis has addressed these issues – bringing in quality defensemen Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, and signing Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres to provide the team with some much-needed grit up front.
The one festering issue that remains in Vancouver is what to do about the “C” on Luongo’s jersey. The added pressure and responsibility of being the captain seemed to weigh heavily on his shoulders by season’s end. Luongo and Gillis are set to meet in mid-September, at which point it is being speculated in Vancouver the captaincy will go to either the Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin or Selke Award Finalist Ryan Kesler.
The 2010-11 Canucks are as deep a team there is in hockey, and among the elite in the Western Conference. From the goalie-on-out, this is a team built to withstand the rigours of a long playoff run.
Whether Bobby Lou is the captain or not, he’s expected to do more this season – with less playing time. Blue-chip prospect and former AHL goalie of the year Cory Schneider will enter the fold, and is expected to play upwards of 15-20 games. That should lighten the load for Luongo and keep him mentally sharp entering the post-season.
Luongo’s playoff numbers were less than stellar in ’09 (3.22 GAA, .895 SV%), but so too was his defence. This year, Luongo should get more help in his crease clearing rebounds and opposing forwards.
With the signings of Ballard and Hamhuis, the Canucks now possess a top six that stacks up with any in the league. Alex Edler (5 G, 37 A) and Christian Ehrhoff (14 G, 30 A) both had a solid regular season in 2009-10, but they took their games to another level in the playoffs.
It appears Kevin Bieksa will not be traded – for now – and if he can avoid another freak injury, his talent and junk-yard dog approach can really help this team. Add perennial tin-man Sami Salo to the mix in November or December, and this Canucks defence can skate, score and hit with the best of them.
For a team with a reputation of having a defence-first mentality, the Canucks surprised many last year by scoring 148 goals: second in the league to the Washington Capitals (156).
Reigning MVP Henrik Sedin topped the league last year with 112 points, but most encouraging for the franchise is he did it largely without his twin brother Daniel, who missed 18 games with a broken foot. With a healthy Daniel in the line-up, and a penchant to improve year after year, it is a distinct possibility the twins find themselves both among the league’s top five in scoring.
Mikael Samuellson (30 G, 23 A), Ryan Kesler (25 G, 50 A), and Mason Raymond (25 G, 28 A) will once again provide solid second-line scoring for this team, and new recruits Malholtra and Torres should round out grittier third and fourth lines. Centre Cody Hodgson, Gillis’ prize first round draft pick in 2008, will also have a real shot to make this roster, but must show some of the intangibles that earned him an OHL player of the year award in 2009. Alex Burrows may have reached his peak last year with 35 goals, but should contribute on both ends of the ice when he returns from shoulder surgery in November.
Vancouver will battle it out with the likes of Chicago, Detroit, and San Jose for top spot in the West, but have the advantage of playing in a weak Northwest Division. The Canucks should feast on their divisional foes and finish first in the Western Conference.