September 28, 2011
It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
The Vancouver Canucks closed out the 2010-11 season with a loss, which is pretty much bog standard for them, but the difference was that last season's loss came in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
It was a heartbreaking end to the most successful season in franchise history, as the team won their first ever Presidents' Trophy, Ryan Kesler(notes) won the Selke, Mike Gillis won GM of the year, Roberto Luongo(notes) and Cory Schneider(notes) shared the Jennings Trophy, and Daniel Sedin(notes) matched his brother's Art Ross from the year before.
The individual accolades meant very little compared to what might have been had the Canucks been able to win one more game, but they couldn't, and now they'll have to start from scratch.
In an improved Western Conference, a return to the Final is anything but a certainty, and it doesn't help that the Canucks lost their top-scoring defenseman and their best hitter. While some would argue that they took a step backwards and some would disagree, it's probably safe to say that they haven't improved. Still, the organization expects a better result this year.
Are they right to? Can the Canucks get back to the Stanley Cup Final?
The largest departure for the Canucks is defenseman Christian Ehrhoff(notes), who put up 50 points, the most among the team's defenseman, and was a major component of the league's best power play. While most Canuck fans will tell you that his absence is no big thing, it is. No one else in the Canucks' defensive corps has ever put up 50 points. While the team might be a little more defensively sound, they'll miss Ehrhoff's offensive production.
Rather than replace Ehrhoff's scoring, the Canucks chose instead to replace his Germanness, signing former Nashville Predators blueliner Alexander Sulzer(notes). Ehrhoff's spot in the top six will likely be filled by young blueliner Chris Tanev(notes), who worked his way up from the Rochester Institute of Technology to a spot on the Vancouver blueline in last June's Game 7, and Ehrhoff's scoring will likely be replaced by Alex Edler (24 points) and Kevin Bieksa(notes) (22).
Gone too is Raffi Torres(notes), a staple on the Canucks' third line and the most (or least) photogenic player the Canucks have ever employed. While he drew ire for some of his late-season hits, he also provided a useful measure of grit and could surprise with a multi-goal game here and there.
Again, rather than replace his offense, the Canucks merely replaced his redheadedness, acquiring anti-Canuck tweeter Mike Duco(notes) in a trade for KHL-bound winger Sergei Shirokov(notes). Expect Chris Higgins(notes) to fill Torres's spot on the third line.
The Canucks did directly address one hole, filling the gap left by Mason Raymond's(notes) back injury through the acquisition of Marco Sturm(notes). Sturm, an 8-time 20-goal scorer, comes at a bargain because of the questions surrounding his knees. He and the Canucks are confident, however, that he has another 20-goal season in him. Still, that's no guarantee. With Kesler and Raymond out to start the year, the Canucks may rely more heavily on the Sedins than usual.
Additionally, the Canucks completely retooled their fourth line personnel, letting Scrabble champ Tanner Glass(notes) and the late Rick Rypien(notes) go to Winnipeg, and bringing in Steven Pinizzotto and the aforementioned Duco in their place.
The Canucks are a deep team at forward, with creepy, telepathic twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes), the last two Art Ross champions, anchoring their first line, and the bitey Alex Burrows as their triggerman. It's one of the league's finest first lines. As long as it's clicking, the Canucks will be a contender.
Lurking behind the Sedins, as he often does, is reigning Selke winner Ryan Kesler, who is coming off his first-ever 40-goal season, but also off of offseason hip surgery. The late start to the season doesn't bode well for his chances of returning to the 40-goal mark but, at the very least, it's made his Twitter account more interesting.
While Kesler isn't exactly flanked by superstars, the Canucks have a glut of middle-six wingers that can contribute, including Jannik Hansen(notes), Mikael Samuelsson(notes), Chris Higgins, Marco Sturm and, when healthy, Mason Raymond.
The team will also be welcoming back third-line centre and faceoff specialist Manny Malhotra(notes), who has fully recovered (insofar as is possible) from the devastating eye injury that nearly cost him his vision late last season. Miraculously, he played in the Stanley Cup Final, but he has since admitted that he is only just now getting back to 100%.
At defense, the Canucks will be led by the pairing of Dan Hamhuis(notes) and Kevin Bieksa, who re-signed with the team this offseason to the tune of $4.7 million per over the next five years. Behind them, are Alex Edler and Sami Salo(notes), and bringing up the rear is the likely pairing of Keith Ballard(notes) and Chris Tanev. All six are capable puck-movers and should nicely power the Canucks' puck possession system.
In goal, the Canucks will continue to be led for the next decade by Roberto Luongo, the Vezina-nominated netminder that got them to within one win of the Stanley Cup (or ruined everything, depending on who you're talking to).
While many believe (wrongly) that Roberto Luongo is a choker, he also happens to be one of the league's most consistent goaltenders from season to season. Ignore, for a moment, his contract, and recognize that he finished in the top three in every major statistical category in 2010-11. In short, the Canucks will be just fine with him between the pipes.
"Twins." So which Sedin twin is Danny Devito? Both of them. See, Devito represents the unorthodox, shifty, guile-based Sedinery half of the Canucks' twin engine. Ryan Kesler is the other, brawnier half, represented in this metaphor by Arnold Schwarzenegger who, like Kesler, spent much of his career without a shirt.
This is the sixth year behind the Canucks' bench for Alain Vigneault, the two-time Jack Adams nominee and a one-time winner, but don't think that he's sitting pretty. If the Canucks struggle in the first half of the season, he could take the fall, especially considering the way GM Mike Gillis believes in this team.
Don't expect it, though. Gillis is a patient GM. For instance, Gillis has patiently waited for the draft picks made by Brian Burke and Dave Nonis to pan out, which is far more patient than Burke and Nonis ever are or were.
Cody Hodgson(notes) has been the supposed breakout star for about three seasons now, but this year affords him his best opportunity yet. With Ryan Kesler not expected back to the lineup until November, Hodgson looks to get his first opportunity in the Canucks' top six. But he'll have to make the most of it right away, especially since Alain Vigneault may or may not hate his guts.
"Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? Canuck fans."
With Mason Raymond's return to the lineup an uncertainty, the Canucks will be relying on Marco Sturm for speed and scoring punch at the wing, and that's a tall order. Sturm has had two major knee surgeries in the past three years. Last year, he only played thirty-five games with the Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals, and he only scored five times. The Capitals were especially unimpressed with him, and if he's lost a step, Canuck fans will be too.
Don't let the riot colour your perception of Vancouver fans. This is what they're normally like after games.
This defense has a lot of question marks. Sure, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa are a solid, economical, shutdown pairing, but after that, there's a lot of uncertainty. Alex Edler could be an all-star, but he struggles with consistency. Sami Salo hasn't played an 82-game season in his entire NHL career, and his last 70-game season came before the lockout. It isn't wild speculation to assume he'll miss a few games. Keith Ballard has been a 40-point defenseman, but he had seven points last season, and Chris Tanev looks promising, but he doesn't even have a full season under his belt. He could struggle.
Not to mention this group tends to collect man-games lost due to injury like Pokemon cards. The Canucks overcame some major injury and consistency issues on the backend last season, but it remains to be seen if they can duplicate the feat, if they have to.
The Canucks remain among the Western Conference elite. They have the benefit of playing in the NHL's worst division too, which should guarantee them a playoff spot and could help them to repeat as Presidents' trophy champions.
But no one in the Canucks' organization could care any less about the regular. This team had plenty of goals last season; this year, all they want is to get back to the Final. They'll be in tough to make that happen.