For Canucks, things are looking up

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:55 PM ET

The Vancouver Canucks are not what you would call a healthy squad.

Ed Jovanovski had abdominal surgery on Wednesday and is out a minimum of six weeks. Captain Markus Naslund is nursing a lingering groin injury that has forced him to withdraw from the Olympics. Goaltender Dan Cloutier got hurt in November and is out for the season.

But despite all this, suddenly there is a degree of optimism in Vancouver. After a long night, the rosy fingers of dawn are popping up on the horizon.

First of all, Jovanovski's operation turned out to be much less intrusive than it could have been. The doctor who performed it is a virtuoso in these matters, having sliced the nether regions of people such as baseball's Nomar Garciapparra and football's Donovan McNabb.

Because the Jovanovski operation was performed relatively quickly, the doctor and the Canucks are encouraged.

"The procedure was short, which is what they were hoping for, and that's good news," Canucks general manager David Nonis said.

Although it had been widely whispered throughout the hockey world that Jovanovski likely would be out for the season with an injury of that nature, it now appears he'll be back. The lack of optimism had been based on the fact that when Tampa Bay's Brad Richards underwent such an operation, he was out for four months. But Richards' abdominal problems, it seems, were much worse.

As for Naslund, the belief is that rest is all he really needs. The rigours of the National Hockey League's schedule are not conducive to quick recovery from a groin injury. Instead, the Canucks' most- dangerous scorer presumably will get a recuperative break and be ready for the stretch run, and more importantly, the playoffs.

Cloutier? It's likely he won't be back. But after seeing Alex Auld play for two months, Canucks management has decided to take a chance on him.

Auld had been considered to be the goalie of the future. As far as the Canucks' present stance is concerned, the future arrived a bit sooner than expected.

So Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier, who, not unreasonably, gambled that the goalie market would heat up as the trading deadline approached, now has lost a prospective bidder for the services of Martin Biron.

When Cloutier first went down, Nonis targeted Biron but decided to bide his time, partly in the hope that Auld would develop and partly because the longer he waited, the more salary-cap room he would have.

Time has changed his perspective. Now, the Canucks will try to call up Wade Flaherty from their Manitoba Moose farm club to act as Auld's backup. Because of the convoluted restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement, Flaherty will have to clear waivers and the Canucks could lose him. But Patrick Lalime cleared waivers this week, so Flaherty probably will, too.

If Flaherty is lost, Nonis will go after a goalie -- but not an expensive one. After all, barring any further complications, Cloutier will be available for the playoffs and since players are not paid after the regular season, his presence won't affect the salary cap.

FOCUS

Now, the Canucks' focus is on a solid defenceman.

Even though almost every team in the league is in the market for a defenceman, Nonis has more money to spend than most of the high-level teams and he has some young talent he could give up.

Someone like Willie Mitchell, the rugged Minnesota Wild defenceman who is a local product and about to become a free agent, would fit the bill perfectly.

In the Northwest Division, the race for top spot and its critical high playoff seeding, is still wide open. It now appears that the Canucks, whose outlook had been bleak, have as good a chance as any team.


Videos

Photos