The Vancouver Canucks embark on a 2006 season where many questions will need to be answered. For the first time in nearly six years, there are spots available on the team and the top three lines are not set in stone from the outset. There is a new coach, a new goaltender and rustlings of even a new captain. The back three defensemen will all be fresh faces and Markus Naslund will have a new best friend to hopefully reignite the West Coast Express with. However, with all the changes, this team should be much better suited to make a run into June. In the “new NHL,” it is more important than ever to be a four line team which can come at you in waves, and most importantly, with speed.
For the past five seasons, the team boasted consistent scoring from the supposed big three; however after that, things became scarce, if not unpredictable. The playbook was out; if you stop Bertuzzi/Morrison/Naslund, you stop the Canucks. If anything, the focus last year shifted to the Sedin twins and Carter, but nonetheless, the team was still centered on one dominant line. With the off season acquisitions of Taylor Pyatt, Marc Chouinard and Jan Bulis, the team has tried to identify its lack of a balanced attack and shape themselves in the mold of teams such as Buffalo, Edmonton and Anaheim, which could run three to four lines at you and produce on any given night. If the Canucks can replicate this plan successfully, they should be in the middle of the hunt in the Northwest. The biggest stumbling block will be team chemistry; new faces bring new challenges and the familiarity that had existed previously is no longer there.
The Canucks lost a total of 53 goals when Anson Carter and Todd Bertuzzi were jettisoned early in the off-season. Add Jarkko Ruutu and Richard Park and the Canucks have new players listed on each of the four lines of the depth chart. There is talk that the loss of Bertuzzi is actually addition by subtraction due to the cloud that hung over team surrounding the infamous Steve Moore incident. Nevertheless, his talent and size is a significant loss by any measure. In the case of the Carter, it had taken the Sedins numerous line-mates and five seasons to find someone they could connect with. That said, this group of role players should provide the Canucks with a much more balanced and unpredictable attack. Perhaps most importantly this year is that both Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund are both healthy and rejuvenated. They will both account for some of the goals lost from the departures of Bertuzzi and Carter.
Jan Bulis netted twenty goals from limited ice-time last season; if he can establish chemistry with either the Sedin or Morrison and Naslund, he should be able to improve his output and make up for some of the aforementioned losses. The Canucks also have some players who are expected to live up to expectations as they begin to mature. One such player, Matt Cooke, will be leaned on heavily to replicate the success he had with Morrison and Naslund following Bertuzzi’s 2004 suspension when he moved into the top right wing slot and produced 17 points in ten games. Rookie Jessie Schultz, a free agent acquisition two years ago, is also expected to carry some of the load (possibly on the Sedin line) after depositing 37 goals for the Canucks farmhand in Manitoba last season.
?This is easily the Canucks biggest question mark as only stalwart Mattias Ohlund is a sure thing on the Canucks back end. Although Sami Salo is returning, there are still some lingering questions regarding his injured shoulder. If he can regain his form, increased ice-time should result in a few more points and a steady dose of booming shots from the point against opposition netminders. If his shoulder remains an issue, the Canucks will be devastatingly thin. Aside from the two key returnees, the Canucks acquired hard-nosed blue-liner Willie Mitchell from the Minnesota Wild; he should provide some assurance in their own zone. After that is where things get interesting.
The team is putting a lot of weight on the shoulders of soon to be stud defenseman Luc Bourdon. Although Bourdon should eventually emerge as a bona fide NHL defenseman, chances are he will not have the impact of a Dion Phaneuf, despite the expectation he will assume a top four role in Vancouver. Expectations for newly acquired Lukas Krajicek are not nearly as high although he too will be expected to log significant minutes on the defense as well as seeing some added time on the second power play unit. Kevin Bieksa is back and is a quality fifth or sixth defenseman who will also be counted on to drop the gloves on an otherwise shy team.
The Canucks also acquired Yanick Tremblay and Rory Fitzpatrick. Tremblay most likely will be collecting a good deal of frequent flyer miles as he is shipped back and forth from Manitoba. The X factor could be Fitzpatrick as many believe he is finally reaching expectations and could enjoy a breakout season much like the team saw with Nolan Baumgartner last year. Regardless, this is a team that is much thinner on the back end this year than last and the key to the Canucks success will be their ability to keep Mitchell, Ohlund and Salo healthy for 82 games.
Even Roberto Luongo can’t seem to dispel critics about Vancouver’s sporadic goaltending which has plagued the organization since Kirk McLean’s pads stopped Robert Reichel in 1994 versus Calgary. Despite Luongo’s sparkling numbers on bad teams, many people question his big game ability having never been to the playoffs. Furthermore, Luongo has never played in a hockey mad city such as Vancouver – one with a reputation as a goalie graveyard. That said, Luongo should prove the $6 million per year contract he was given upon arrival, and be the backbone of this Canucks team. If he does not stay healthy, however, they are in trouble. Mika Noronen, a legitimate prospect, bolted for greener pastures in Russia and left the Canucks with good-guy veteran Wade Flaherty, who is 37-years-old. Flaherty has seen some NHL duty but has spent the majority of his days providing stellar goaltending in the AHL. At his age, even the 15 games he would have to provide if Luongo stays healthy could be too much. Look for the team to bring in another netminder to at least challenge Flaherty for this job.
Much like their entire roster, nothing is definite on this team. There is talk that the top power-play unit for the Canucks could be the Sedin twins accompanied by Markus Naslund with Ohlund and Salo as the rearguards. On paper, this looks like a beautiful situation, but this combination has been utilized before with little success. Even if it does work, this would leave the team with little to put out on the ice for the other minute of power-play time. Another key aspect of their power-play, will depend on how much Lukas Krajicek can provide offensively and if the team can get something out of perennial 15 goal scorers such as Taylor Pyatt and Matt Cooke. One thing is certain, the power play will have a much different look than the predictable unit that produced a pedestrian 18 percent mark last year. On the penalty kill, the Canucks boast some of the better defensive, responsible forwards in the league. Trevor Linden should be back for another go around, while Brendan Morrison, Jan Bulis and the Sedins should help improve what was a dismal penalty kill. Also, the addition of Willie Mitchell will make life difficult for any player who wants to spend time surrounding Mr. Luongo with the man advantage.
Again another big move by the Canucks was made when they removed head coach Marc Crawford, who had been with the team for seven seasons but had failed to lead them past the second round. His replacement, Alain Vigneault is a new voice for an almost new team. His style, though, is considered not that much different from his predecessor. He is a demanding leader who expects the most out of his troops and if anything, he should get the Canucks playing a more defensive style game. The big question is how the older players will respond to the person who coached their minor league affiliate just one season ago.
As mentioned earlier in this article the Canucks were one of the busiest teams in the summer. Asides from the blockbuster deal that landed Roberto Luongo, the Canucks brought in 15 new players. Trying to build a team in the mold of Buffalo and Edmonton, GM Dave Nonis relinquished star power for depth and built a team intended to be four lines deep. On defense, he added veteran stalwart Willie Mitchell who will be a rock on the point while also adding quality depth guys Rory Fitzpatrick and Yanick Tremblay. Up front, Taylor Pyatt and Marc Chouinard will looked upon for 15-20 goals apiece and the team expects Jan Bulis to notch 25-35 goals on one of the top two units.
For the Canucks, there are really only four names worth mentioning. First, Ryan Kesler, who had an unspectacular rookie season that was rewarded by a $1.9 million dollar offer courtesy of Bob Clarke, will be counted upon for serious minutes and increased production. The shifty center will be needed to be at his physical best while using his tremendous speed to improve on the ten goals he produced last season. On the point, the Canucks are banking on Luc Bourdon to be a top five defenseman and provide some of the edge that was lost when Ed Jovanovski signed in the desert.
Still considered a prospect, newly acquired defenseman Lukas Krajicek, had a decent rookie season on a bad team playing limited minutes. His time won’t increase that much in Vancouver, but he will be given the chance to prove he is as effective offensively. Finally in goal, Corey Schneider should be a top flight goaltender in the future, where that will be is uncertain as with Luongo in Vancouver, he could become a valuable trade asset given he has been one of the most dominant College goaltenders in recent years while at Boston College. Some other names to keep in mind are Alexander Edler, Michael Grabner, Jessie Schulz, Jannik Hansen and Juraj Simek, who all had good rookie camps this season.