October 5, 2011
NHL preview: Vancouver
By HOSEA CHEUNG, QMI Agency
FANTASY POOL HERO: Daniel Sedin
UNSUNG HERO: Chris Higgins
TOUGH GUY: Victor Oreskovich
SLEEPER: Keith Ballard
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Cody Hodgson
ON THE DECLINE: Mikael Samuelsson
The Vancouver Canucks are waking up from their Stanley Cup hangover with a bitter taste still in their mouths.
After coming within one game of the franchiseís first championship, the Canucks are hungry for another shot - and, they hope, a better result. But the path is even more treacherous this time around, with a slightly tougher and improved Western Conference.
The Presidentsí Trophy winners are back with virtually the same roster after a summer lacking in changes.
Led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the same squad that finished first in almost every category last season is again the Cup favourite.
Winning the division title should be a breeze and claiming another league regular season title is doable, but all of it will be pointless if the Canucks donít succeed in the playoffs.
In a city still marred by the riot that broke out after the Cup final, the bar is set very high for the Canucks. Bottom line: Anything short of a Stanley Cup is a bust.
The major pieces on offence are still in place, although a couple players will arrive late. Centre Ryan Kesler (hip) and winger Mason Raymond (back) are not expected to be available to start the season and may not be back until mid-November. This opens up roster spots on the second line. Behind the back-to-back Art Ross-winning Sedins, the team boasts an abundance of forwards. New addition Marco Sturm will compete with the likes of Alex Burrows, Mikael Samuelsson, Chris Higgins and Cody Hodgson for spots, while another battle rages for a couple of bottom-six positions. Look for last seasonís top scoring team to contend for that same distinction again.
The only significant shuffle in the back end is the loss of Christian Ehrhoff, who signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Sabres in July. While the defencemanís 50 points will be tough to fill, the Canucks are relying on their top pairing of Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis - who were a force in the playoffs before Hamhuisí injury - to play an even more offensive role. The emergence of Chris Tanev, 21, and a more confident Keith Ballard should provide stability while Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts add to the depth. A healthy Sami Salo and Alex Elder would help as well.
In a poll on a radio stationís website, about 40% of Vancouver fans said the Canucksí biggest concern heading into the season was goaltending. Obviously, the reactionary fan base is still unhappy with the playoff inconsistency of Roberto Luongo, who had two shutouts in the final while allowing 20 goals overall. However, goaltending should not be Vancouverís top worry. Last season, the duo Luongo and Cory Schneider - who is expected to see an increase from his 22 starts - led the league with a 2.20 goals-against average. Expect much of the same this time around.
One of the bigger questions entering the season is whether Canucks general manager Mike Gillis did enough to improve a team that was only one win away from the Cup. The answer is no. His off-season moves were minimal and team toughness remains a concern. The Canucks also did not acquire a bona fide second-line winger to play with Kesler when he returns, even though high hopes fall on a re-energized Sturm. However, the core group remains intact and that means coach Alain Vigneault still has a highly competitive group to work with.
The biggest difference with the 2011-12 Canucks is they now know what it takes to make it to the Stanley Cup final. That experience is vital to the players, who felt the heartache of coming oh-so-close just months earlier.
The Canucks are hoping the short off-season following the long playoff run wonít cause early fatigue, especially since the team has started slowly in past years. According to coach Alain Vigneault, players came into training camp in better shape than a year ago. Thatís a good sign for a team that prides itself on being the fittest in the NHL, with an ability to dominate third periods. Whether all that translates into a Stanley Cup win remains to be seen.