Last year's run to the Stanley Cup Finals for the Vancouver Canucks in many ways acted as a platform for a few previously-unheralded players to prove what they were capable of. Jannik Hansen became a fan favourite, Alex Burrows cemented his status as one of Vancouver's all-time playoff heroes, and new additions Max Lapierre and Chris Higgins proved invaluable as depth players.
This spring, if the Canucks are to give themselves a chance at finishing what they started last year, they will need those same players to get back to the level they were at, and a few more will have to step up. In the vein of my "Canucks to Watch in 2011-12" post from September (brilliant stuff, eh? Two of them aren't even Canucks anymore), here's my list of a few key players to keep an eye on when the second season gets underway on Wednesday.
If the Canucks were the gang from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, David Booth would be Charlie Day. Wildcard, bitches! No one knows what to expect from Booth in the post-season, because he's never been there. In fact, look at his profile on HockeyDB and all you will see are six measly games in 06-07 with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. It's both nerve-wracking and exciting having a player like this in your top six in the playoffs. The Canucks did not possess a player with Booth's skillset on their second line last year, so hopefully he is able to raise his game and be a difference-maker for the club. Look for him to be a mainstay with Ryan Kesler and see ample time on the 2nd PowerPlay unit.
A lot of Canucks fans were upset when Cody Hodgson and his offensive abilities were traded at the deadline, but watching Sami Pahlsson anchor the third line since then has mitigated the pain. He's been fantastic in all areas of the game, winning over 60% of his faceoffs and showing much more offensive ability than most anticipated. He's the kind of player who excels in the spring when the checking gets tighter (honestly, he's a clutch n' grab machine), and has a Stanley Cup to show for it. Pahlsson will anchor the third line with Jannik Hansen, and AV will be able to utilize this line in ways that he never could have with Hodgson.
The 4th Line
I'm lumping this group together, because it's totally different than last season and will likely feature a rotating cast of characters. This line was a mess last spring, so much so that they barely played in the finals while the Bruins were able to effectively roll four solid lines. Beefing up the fourth line was clearly a priority for Mike Gillis last summer, and AV now has a ton of options to work with. Manny Malhotra and Dale Weise have been mainstays on the line for much of the season, and I don't expect that to change. Other options include Max Lapierre (who's proven valuable on any line he plays on), Byron Bitz, Zack Kassian, Mason Raymond, Andrew Ebbett, Mike Duco and Steven Reinprecht. This is one area in which the Canucks are clearly better than last year — the lineup is full of players AV can trust in a multitude of situations — and you would think this will come in to play at some point.
The biggest question mark for this club going into the post-season is the health of their best sniper. Fortunately, it appears he will be ready for game one on Wednesday. But even still, how will he feel? Will he be as effective? Just because he will play on Wednesday doesn't mean we're in the clear; concussions are touch-and-go at best, and this is a team that hopes to be playing hockey for the next couple months.
Finally, we get to Lou. More than anything, I want to see this team win with Luongo. After years of questions and doubts, it would be extremely satisfying. But one of the team's biggest strengths is their ability to deploy two elite goaltenders, and that advantage is null if Cory Schneider is stapled to the bench. This could mean giving Schneider a start every other game regardless of performance, or handing him the reins right away if Luongo falters. Twice in the playoffs last year, Luongo was shelled two games in a row before Schneider was even considered. That won't happen this year.
The success of this team always sits on the shoulders of guys like the Sedins, Kesler, Burrows, Bieksa, Edler, Hamhuis and the goaltenders. But in the playoffs, you need more, and in many ways I think the Canucks are better equipped to deal with a long run that they were last year. Are there any other players you'll be keeping an eye on?