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Canucks put their trust in headliners

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Mike Gillis had big decisions to make, and some payroll juggling to perform, but the general manager found a way to keep the big-name stars Vancouver Canucks fans want to see in place, and now everyone in the Pacific Northwest can set their sights on that big shiny cup the NHL awards every summer.

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Roberto Luongo(notes) is locked up for 12 more years in Vancouver.
(Tom Szczerbowski/US Presswire)

Those are the expectations the Canucks should get used to now that the Sedin twins and All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo are locked up in long-term deals. Gillis' roster and salary cap management can't be overlooked. First he had to determine if Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes) were in the Canucks' future plans. He knew he wanted the productive pair back, and because they travel only in pairs, that meant working out two high-priced deals. With the clock ticking down to the opening of unrestricted free agency, Gillis made a personal visit to the twins in Sweden and laid out his plan.

The Sedins liked what they saw, each agreeing to five-year deals that wouldn't break the bank – and allowed Gillis to focus on Luongo, who was entering the final year of his contract. Gillis raised eyebrows around the league when he signed Luongo to 12-year, $64 million extension, but he had his key pieces in place.

A payroll casualty was defenseman Mattias Ohlund(notes), who after 770 games and 11 seasons in Vancouver signed a seven-year deal as a free agent to play for Tampa Bay. Ohlund's consistency and experience will be missed, but there was no way he could fit into the Canucks' salary structure.

Gillis had a solution there, too. He signed 40-year-old defenseman Mathieu Schneider(notes) to boost the team's offensive production and fill in on the power play. Schneider, however, is battling a shoulder injury and will miss at least the first 10 games of the regular season.

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Ehrhoff

The Canucks parted with a pair of prospects in an effort to win now and acquired Christian Ehrhoff(notes) and Brad Lukowich(notes) from the San Jose Sharks, who thanked Vancouver for taking some salary of their hands. Ehrhoff could thrive in a new environment. His development has been slow and inconsistent, but he has a rocket shot that only needs to get on net. Lukowich will provide some veteran leadership and qualify minutes left by Ohlund's departure.

Last season: 45-27-10 (100 points). First place Northwest Division, third in the Western Conference (as a result of winning a division, but fourth in terms of points) and seventh in the overall standings. Vancouver qualified for the playoffs after missing two of the three previous seasons. After sweeping St. Louis in four close games, the Canucks watched a 2-1 series lead against Chicago go up in smoke as the Blackhawks won the last three games.

Imports: D Christian Ehrhoff (San Jose), D Brad Lukowich (San Jose), D Mathieu Schneider (Montreal), G Andrew Raycroft(notes) (Colorado), RW Mikael Samuelsson(notes) (Detroit), D Aaron Rome(notes) (Columbus),

Exports: D Mattias Ohlund (Tampa Bay), LW Taylor Pyatt(notes) (Phoenix), G Jason LaBarbera(notes) (Phoenix), C Jason Krog(notes) (Atlanta), G Drew MacIntyre(notes) (Atlanta), G Curtis Sanford(notes) (Montreal) and LW Jason Jaffray(notes) (Calgary).

Re-signings: C Henrik Sedin(notes), LW Daniel Sedin, C Kyle Wellwood(notes), D Shane O'Brien(notes) and C Rick Rypien(notes).

Salary cap: The Canucks are at the cap, and only because they placed Mathieu Schneider on long-term injury which squeezed Vancouver under the ceiling. Gillis will have more money juggling to pull off when he wants to bring Schneider back.

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Schneider

Three keys: With recent extensions, coach Alain Vigneault, Roberto Luongo and the Sedin twins can't come into the season with one bit of complacency. These four men will lead the team to its destiny, whether it's winning the Stanley Cup or falling short.

The Canucks are favored to win the Northwest Division for a second straight season. Calgary appears improved on paper while Edmonton and Minnesota are lurking. If any of the four aforementioned falter, the Canucks will fall well short of their ultimate goal as well.

Second, Vancouver needs its defense to jell and avoid a late-season meltdown like the one that occurred against Chicago, which rallied from a 2-1 deficit in games to win the second-round playoff matchup. Some blamed Luongo, but he wasn't getting any help in front of him.

The Canucks have a nice mix on the blue line, but they're paying handsomely for it, too. Kevin Bieksa(notes), Sami Salo(notes), Willie Mitchell(notes), Alexander Edler(notes) and Christian Ehrhoff are all earning between $3.1-3.75 million while Brad Lukowich and Shane O'Brien are not far behind at $1.56M and $1.6M, respectively. And don't forget about Mathieu Schneider's $1.55M that doesn't count until he's activated off long-term IR.

Third, second-line scoring is going to be critical, and the Canucks would appear to have this covered. Pavol Demitra(notes) will start the season on long-term IR as his shoulder needs more time to heal from offseason surgery. Between Ryan Kesler(notes), Alex Burrows(notes), Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier(notes), Mason Raymond(notes) and newcomer Mikael Samuelsson, Vancouver is deeper at secondary scoring than at any time in recent memory.

On the hot seat: It's not like he's going to lose his job or get moved, but Roberto Luongo is expected to be at the top of his game. Luongo stumbled in the '09 postseason, but he's now accustomed to the Stanley Cup playoffs after waiting all those years to finally reach them.

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Ryan Kesler broke out during his fifth season in the NHL to score 26 goals and 59 points.
(Bruce Bennett/Getty)

He's only 30, and has been consistent in stopping the puck during his three seasons with the Canucks – between .917-.921 each season – he just has to do it again and be at his best during the most important time of the season.

Poised to blossom: With all the pre-camp attention paid to 19-year-old center Cody Hodgson(notes), Vancouver's first-round pick (10th overall) in 2008, it appears rookie Sergei Shirokov, 23, is more poised to make the opening-night roster. He was a nice fit with the Sedin brothers during the preseason, even leading the team in scoring with two goals and seven points. Shirokov missed a week with a knee injury, but jumped back in for the final two games, impressing management with his efforts.

Time has passed: The Schneider signing, while a good idea on the surface, will end up being a bust due to recent struggles with lingering injuries. There's more offensive upside on the Vancouver blue line than meets the eye, and the Canucks aren't lacking for experience on defense. Schneider is a luxury payroll can't afford.

Prediction: Vancouver is hosting the Winter Olympics. The focus could be on this beautiful city again in late spring when the Canucks surprise the Sharks, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Flames and all-comers in the West to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.