Opportunities on the ice

KEN WIEBE -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

They've got a new head coach that folks around these parts are quite familiar with.

They've got the franchise goalie many felt they've been lacking the past few seasons.

And they've rid themselves of the baggage -- and enormous potential -- of the man who could no longer feel entirely comfortable in a Vancouver Canucks uniform.

The official start of training camp begins today in Vernon, B.C., and while there are plenty of things to work out over the next couple weeks, the winds of change have brought a renewed optimism surrounding the Vancouver Canucks.

Yes, Todd Bertuzzi is gone, as is a big chunk of last year's blue-line.

Among the new recruits on the back end is hard-hitting Willie Mitchell.

But the biggest difference with the Canucks is between the pipes, where Dan Cloutier and Alex Auld have been replaced by Roberto Luongo.

Bench boss Alain Vigneault is optimistic about his return to the NHL and excited about the battles that loom.

"Without a doubt, there are battles not only for jobs but for ice time," Vigneault said from Vancouver. "Everything is open, except for one position and that's goaltender. Roberto's the guy and he's going to be in net. Everything else, as far as roles, ice time and combinations, it's all open. We'll have four days in Vernon, then we'll go into the main part of our camp, which is eight games in 11 nights.

"Guys are going to get an opportunity to prove themselves, but it's like in life sometimes. That opportunity might only be there one time and you've got to make sure that in one game, you're making that impression because there might not be a second game. If you want to stick around and play for this team, make an impression and make it early."

With that in mind, here are five questions the Canucks will attempt to answer before the puck drops on the season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 6 (in no particular order):

1) WHO HAS THE RIGHT STUFF?

There is at least one and possibly two vacancies on right wing and several players who suited up with the Moose last season should be in the mix. Jesse Schultz, who scored 37 goals in 2005-06, begins with the inside track since Jason King signed in Sweden, though Schultz didn't impress Vigneault during prospects camp. Lee Goren, who opened last season with the parent club, also figures to be among those considered for full-time duty. With the departure of Anson Carter, who remains a free agent after a breakout campaign, the Sedin twins need a new wingman.

2) WHAT TO DO WITH RYAN KESLER?

The Canucks 2003 first rounder and 2004-05 Moose MVP is a restricted free agent who was contemplating holding out for more money Canucks general manager Dave Nonis said there would be no new offer forthcoming and Kesler was rumoured to be close to coming to terms. Then on Monday, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Kesler to an offer sheet worth a reported $1.9 million, which is more than double what the Canucks felt was fair money. If this were the NBA and not the NHL, a sign-and-trade deal would be worked out. However, Nonis must now decide if Kesler is worth the money or if he'd prefer the second-round pick the Canucks would receive as compensation if they decide not to match the offer. Nonis is expected to accept the offer and under the new CBA, that means he can't trade Kesler for at least one season.

3) ARE THERE ANY HOLES IN THE MIDDLE?

Depending on what happens with Kesler, who could also be moved to right wing if he's re-signed, there may be another opening at centre ice. Brendan Morrison, Henrik Sedin and Marc Chouinard have jobs to lose and Trevor Linden will be used to take draws, though he might take a regular shift on the wing. Speedster Brandon Reid is a candidate, though there are whispers he may be heading back to Europe if he doesn't earn a roster spot in The Show. Rick Rypien turned heads during prospects camp and will either make the club or be among the first call-ups. "He was really solid at both ends of the rink," said Vigneault. "The only thing he didn't show were his fighting skills and he didn't have to do that here against his teammates. He was, by far, the best player we had at this camp."

4) WILL LUC BOURDON DO ENOUGH TO MAKE THE TEAM?

Last September, the Canucks 2005 first rounder from New Brunswick turned heads and nearly made the club. He played very well for Canada during a gold-medal performance at the world junior hockey championship in Vancouver, but injured his ankle before helping the Moncton Wildcats advance to the Memorial Cup final. With Ed Jovanovski, Nolan Baumgartner, Bryan Allen, Eric Weinrich, Sean Brown and Keith Carney all playing elsewhere, Bourdon will be given every opportunity to earn his first NHL paycheque.

5) WHO'S NO. 2?

Everybody knows that Luongo is going to carry the load and that the backup will only likely play 10 to 15 games but the decision could have a big impact on the farm team. Wade Flaherty enters as the favourite, thanks to his MVP season in Manitoba and his familiarity with Luongo from his days in Florida and on Long Island. The Canucks lost Brent Johnson in the waiver draft last season and may look to turn the tables in early October, if they don't bring in another experienced guy to push Flaherty before that.


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