Note: The depth chart is revised in the article. Just scroll down.
Leaves are changing, the temperature is starting to drop and pumpkin beer is in the stores (honestly why take that stuff off the shelves?). It can only mean one thing: hockey's back. As we head into the 40th anniversary of the Vancouver Canucks, anticipation is seemingly endless that they're landed the pieces to finally push them to the next level. Of course 29 other teams are saying the same thing but it's nonetheless enjoyable to bathe in the hot springs of hopeless optimism before the freezing spray of the Siberian prison shower hose pulls us back to reality.
Join us as we walk through all things hockey for Vancouver, including the new guys and sad goodbyes, strengths and weakness, the depth chart (subject to change when the Vigneault wind blows) and fearless predictions.
Last season started with a great deal of promise: our goalie was given a lifetime deal (THAT THE NHL HAS NO PROBLEM WITH), the Sedins were ready to assume the Swedish void left by Naslund, Kesler and Burrows were amped to rock again, they landed a plum of a free agent in Samuelsson and a great pick-up in Ehrhoff, Hodgson and Shirokov were the talk of the town and even the fatties (Wellwood, Bernier and SOB) came to camp with new contracts and slimmer waistlines. It was a magical time.
The regular season ended that magical vibe in a hurry. Before the puck dropped, Hodgson was cut and controversy around that decision grew (Shirokov joined him six games later). Daniel broke his foot, leaving us with a visually-awkward single twin. Demitra was physically MIA until the winter, mentally MIA all season. Luongo went down briefly which caused minor heart problems across the Province. Grabner saw his first NHL game before he succumbed to the dreaded pre-game soccer injury. Mathieu Schneider returned from offseason surgery and promptly bitched his way straight to Manitoba. Mitchell's season was cut short by some Russian thug. Bieksa had another unfortunate run-in with a skate blade and was out for months. Lukowich was around for a game or two before he went under the knife. You get it: there were a few injuries, the extent of which was so comical that Bieksa actually played forward a few times, a shrewd coaching decision since he often doesn't play defense. Ancillary stories included a discussion of macroeconomic theoretical applications between Burrows and referee Stephane Auger, some idiot with a laser pointer, the Green Men, surviving the longest road trip in NHL history, the Winter Games and the end of the road for a place once called GM Place.
Despite the negatives, our boys soldiered on and had one hell of a regular season, ranking second in goals scored (3.27 per game), a respectable 6th best powerplay (20.9%) and enjoyed career years from Kesler, Burrows, Raymond, Samuelsson, Daniel (!), Ehrhoff and Edler. Their top line officially became more productive than the WCE in its heyday. Oh and that Henrik Sedin fella forced recognition upon himself with his career season by becoming the first player in franchise history to win either the Art Ross and the Hart Trophy. Also worth mentioning were the decent rank and file efforts due to all those injuries from guys like Rome, Glass, Hansen and Raycroft (yes, we were stunned too).
Thanks in part to the ineptitude of others in the NW, Vancouver ran away with the second straight division title and earned themselves home ice advantage and a first round blind date with the Los Angeles Kings. Surely a team that will suck to play in the coming years, Vancouver had deeper scoring and more experience in net, dispatching the Kings in six games. They met Chicago again in the second round and - once again - Chicago earned the bragging rights (and eventually a shiny silver cup) by thoroughly exploiting Vancouver's weaknesses and injuries, eliminating them in six.
Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Raffi Torres, Manny Malhotra, Victor Oreskovich, Joel Perrault, Jeff Tambellini, Bill Sweatt,
Brendan Morrison (maybe), Peter Schaefer (maybe), Mason Raymond (re-signed), Jannik Hansen (re-signed), Tanner Glass (re-signed), Shane O'Brien (re-signed), Alexandre Bolduc (re-signed), Cory Schneider (re-signed), Sean Zimmerman (re-signed), Mario Bliznak (re-signed), Chris Tanev, Lee Sweatt, Tyler Weiman
Kyle Wellwood, Willie Mitchell, Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner, Ryan Johnson, Andrew Raycroft, Brad Lukowich, Pavol Demitra, Nathan McIver, Matt Pettinger, Yan Stastny, Michael Funk, Lawrence Nycholat
Pithy Questions & Blunt Answers
> Question: Can Henrik Sedin build on his totals from 2009-2010?
> Answer: Who cares?
Hank did everything that could have been asked of him, but asking him to duplicate, or build upon, those totals is another matter. Some like Gabe from Behind the Net have him pegged to take about a 15-20 point dip. Others have him pegged to score even more than 112 points. Does it really matter? Are we honestly going to be pulling fans of ledges if he scores, say, 85 points? I don't think he needs to prove himself to anyone and, should he regress back to the high double-digits, how productive his line is far outweighs what Hank himself does (if he's true captain material, he knows that already). All the attention on #33 could be ideal since it's ignoring brother Daniel who, though he missed 19 games, still had his best year in scoring, is more of a pure goal scorer and was on pace to have shattered some of Naslund's existing franchise records for left wingers. Their value is usually best seen through their unique tandem and there aren't many (any?) teams that can stop them consistently. Be happy we get four more seasons of it.
> Question: Who replaces Burrows on the top line?
Schroeder, Hodgson, Morrison, Samuelsson, Tambellini, Shirokov, Tobias Funke, Torres, Malhotra, your mom
Wanted: A first line winger, nose for the net, lightly proficient in Swedish highly desirable. Top six guys don't fall from trees (unless you live in Detroit or Chicago) so someone internally needs to replace Alex Burrows who will be out until probably November. The most logical compliment would be fellow Swede Samuelsson (latest reports suggest he's the winner), creating a line that caused Jonathan Quick severe indigestion in the playoffs. But then you're tinkering with an already productive second line. From a depth standpoint, you could promote a bottom six vet like Malhotra or Torres, though it makes more sense to keep Malhotra entrenched on the third line. Torres may not be a bad fit since he's a similar crash-and-bang type winger, but if you believe in keeping duos together (Sedins, MayRay/Kes) then Torres maybe better off with Manny. Morrison has had a strong camp so he's in the mix and Tambellini has shown decent wheels and hands (doesn't get much prettier than this). Regardless of how they replace Burr the mix up changes the complexion of at least two forward lines not to mention influences the most dynamic identical twin duo the league has seen. Ever.
So...yeah, tread carefully.
> Question: Will the secondary scoring be just as successful?
> Answer: Most likely.
Vancouver had an embarrassment of offensive riches last season but the pressure is on for a repeat effort from those not named Sedin or Kesler. Losing the team's leading-scorer in Burrows for a few months is already a big hurdle to leap, so many eyes will be on Samuelsson and Raymond to pitch in. Samuelsson's shooting percentage was 6.3% higher than it was in Detroit; one year later and one year older, can that be sustained? Raymond broke through last season and he has to prove he's not a one hit wonder. Torres is owning the preseason, but he too needs to prove his stop in Buffalo was an aberration. On defense, Ehrhoff will be relied on for his cannon but can he string together another 40 point plus season? Will Edler take another step forward in his development or will he be blasting more shots wildly off target? Can Hamhuis be effective at both ends of the ice and will Ballard flex an offensive upside as well?
If you answer no to most of these questions, then is your bar properly stocked?
> Question: Can the defense stay healthy & effective without Willie Mitchell?
> Answer: (a) Flip a coin and (b) yes.
The injuries can't possibly be as bad as last year right? In 2009-10, half of their starters (Mitchell, Salo and Bieksa) received significant injuries and three of their replacements failed (Schneider, Lukowich and Rome's playoff injury). When Nolan Baumgartner sees post season play and SOB is suddenly thrust into the top four, that's a bad sign. While they'll miss Mitchell and what little is left of Salo, Ballard and Hamhuis are freakishly healthy guys (missing a combined 22 games in 11 seasons, or rather what Salo misses yearly on groin strains). They also bring experience with tough zone starts, plenty of hitting and ample PK experience. Lastly they allow a different composition in front of Luongo: Ballard and Hammer should be able to shutdown most lines, but splitting them up allows the more offensive-minded Edler and Ehrhoff space to roam and relegates a top four guy like Bieksa to the third pairing with Alberts (who has had a very strong camp). You can't predict what injury landmines lay ahead but there's no reason to think Mitchell was the glue that held them together and, if he was, it's not like that model produced playoff success anyway. With the offseason moves and some burgeoning talent waiting down in Manitoba or the juniors, the defense looks better now than it ever has in the Luongo era.
> Question: Will Vancouver's putrid penalty killing improve?
> Answer: They're deep in the stink if it doesn't.
An Alain Vigneault-led hockey team isn't timid. They're aggressive (dare I say truculent?) which often means they find themselves sitting in a special box for a few minutes each game. His first year at the helm they were the 19th most penalized team followed by 29th, 28th and 18th last year (hey, progress!). Handing out PIMs left and right isn't terrible assuming you can kill them off. Vancouver's PK was the best overall in 2006-07, but then 14th, 16th and finally 18th last year. Mix in a shaky goalie, a weakened defense, perhaps bad coaching (hello Ryan Walter!) and is it any wonder Los Angeles scored at will in April? We looked at this theme in early 2009: most of the teams that make it to the SC finals have at least a top 10 PK, something the Canucks needs to aim for.
The good news is our summer toys should help right this trend. Malhotra's past PK and face off experience alone should be key. Manny and Kesler provide a formidable one-two punch in any shorthanded situation. On the backend, Hamhuis was on the ice for 54.6% of Nashville's total time shorthanded in the regular season, roughly 2:39 per game. Ballard was slightly beneath that: 49.6% of Florida's total time shorthanded, 2:42 per game. Lastly don't forget the bench contributions from Newell Brown and Roland Melanson.
The old adage that your goalie is the best PK'er still holds truth. And despite the reinforcements, the PK could still flatly suck and be pinned to the bottom half of the league. But there's more reason to be optimistic that fixing the penalty kill is a priority for 2011.
> Question: Will this finally be the big year we've been expecting of Luongo?
> Answer: Probably not, but it shouldn't matter.
We know the boxcar with the big guy: he'll start off slow (in fact his groin injury is bit ahead of schedule), storm to life in the late fall/early winter, keep them afloat as we welcome spring and then...well, there's no great way to answer that question. We know he's progressively gotten worse each post season he's been to, but there are other variables to factor in, not the least of which was the thinly-veiled defensive corps last spring that couldn't clear a puck to save their lives.
Though it would be nice, the fact is we don't need Luongo to stand on his head a la 2007. He doesn't need to lead the league in GAA, be top five in save percentage or be whispered as a Vezina guy again (but, you know, don't let that stop ya from trying!). If the Canucks keep scoring and if the defense stays healthy and composed, then all Luongo really needs to be is above average which he must definitely is (his cap hit notwithstanding). The team in front of him affords him that luxury. The war of words about his contract is over, he has Melanson, the big C has been relinquished and has a deeper defense in front of him. The stage is set for a statement year filled with those jaw-dropping saves. If he falters again, rest assured Cory Schneider has been waiting ever so excruciatingly patiently for his chance as a starter.
Our Least Frustrating Guess At The Depth Chart (subject to change with the wind)
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - ???
Jannik Hansen - Manny Malhotra - Raffi Torres
Tanner Glass - Alex Bolduc -Guillaume Desbiens
Alex Edler - Dan Hamhuis
Christan Ehrhoff - Keith Ballard
(On the bubble: Rick Rypien (injured), Schaefer, Hodgson, Tambellini, Rome, Lack)
The Yank: Where's my monkey? I usually let him make the picks. Because that's what the professionals do. Speaking of professionals, THN picked us to win it all, so we're doomed.
People are eying Vancouver because they look solid on paper: lots of scoring, deeper defense and a world class netminder. That's all fine and good but means nothing; as we've seen before, the nightmares usually start with an onslaught of injuries, a prolonged slump by a top six guy and just plain bad luck and all of a sudden you're flipping to basketball (I know, gross).
All things being equal, Vancouver should stay ahead of Calgary or Colorado in the Northwest, meaning at least a top three slot and home ice. But can they make a dent in the spring and finally crack the Chicago jinx, steamroll a Detroit or outlast a San Jose? No one can answer that and it feels too convenient to predict sudden Cup glory on the 40th anniversary of never having one.
I'm content knowing the puck will drop with a strong Canucks group out there, stocked with the best talent we've seen in years. A third straight NW crown is ours to lose. We'll roll the dice on the post season when we get to it, but I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't like one more crack at Chicago.
Sean Zandberg: Top of the Conference and Stanley Cup predictions are only natural for this team and I feel are warranted, because I feel the same way. We have a team that is deep in all areas. I feel we have an even better team than last year, with the likes of Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres replacing Kyle Wellwood and Steve Bernier in the bottom 6 for starters. We are bigger, more physical and can score more, on paper anyway. The defence is as deep as it will ever be. There are no more excuses. It's time for the team to fulfill its destiny.
This is the first time that I am predicting great things for the team. This is the best Canucks team I have ever seen. Now they have to come together, play and fight as a team through any adversity and take the next step. There is enough experience and leadership in this group to get it done.
Prediction: 1st in the West, maybe 2nd to San Jose. A Stanley Cup Finals appearance should occur. Anything beyond that is unacceptable. A 3rd round exit may get us over the 2nd round hump but will not sit well with me. Personally I think San Jose will give us a run for our money in both regular season and playoff categories.