Canucks: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
In some ways, it's still hard to believe the Vancouver Canucks didn't win their first Stanley Cup in June. They had it all -- dominating offense, agitating forwards, a deep, composed blue line and a Vezina Trophy-nominated netminder.
Still, the Canucks' meltdown against Boston in a series in which they led 2-0 and 3-2 remains one of the most curious choke jobs in Stanley Cup finals history. The question moving forward is whether that bitter disappointment galvanizes this still-talented unit or whether it shatters them.
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. The good news
The reason many believe this Canucks team will be right back in the thick of the Stanley Cup chase is the same as last season: Vancouver's lineup is filled with high-end skills.
You start with the talented twins, Daniel and Henrik Sedin; throw in Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler, who hopes to return from offseason hip surgery, emerging defensive star Kevin Bieksa and Roberto Luongo in goal, and the Canucks' cupboard remains well-stocked.
Christian Ehrhoff bolted for the big dollars in Buffalo, but the blue line remains deep and capable of keeping the team at the top of defensive categories. The offense, meanwhile, will be buoyed by the return of Mikael Samuelsson, who missed the entire postseason after surgery to repair an adductor tendon and sports hernia.
2. Ryan Kesler
We had a nice chat with the sometimes prickly Kesler in New York before training camp and he simply wasn't sure when he'd be game-ready after his hip surgery. Like him or not (opposing players would likely line up in the latter camp), Kesler has emerged as one of the game's best all-around players. He plays hard, and when he stays away from the diving and chirping, he's a franchise player. OK, even when he dives and chirps, he's a franchise player.
He finished with a career-best 41 goals and was a beast for much of the playoffs, especially in the second round against Nashville when he single-handedly bumped the Preds from the postseason. His absence and ability to return to elite status will be a major indicator of the Canucks' ability to make another deep playoff run.
"I expect big things this year," Kesler told ESPN.com. "I expect to produce more offensively. I expect to be a better leader. All facets of my game, I expect to become better at. But my first thing is getting healthy. That tops my list right now. I want to come back stronger and faster than last year."
3. Statistically speaking
How good were the Canucks? Well, they led the league in wins, goals per game and power-play efficiency, while also leading in goals allowed per game and ranking third in penalty killing. They were dominant at both ends of the ice. Playing in arguably the worst division in hockey, there is little reason to believe the Canucks will see much drop-off, although to repeat such statistical dominance would be a significant test.
4. Mentally speaking
OK, so we've pumped the Canucks' tires, but the reality is, this team could not close the deal on its first Cup. Yes, they were banged up by the Cup finals, but we defy anyone to show us a team that isn't nicked up through three rounds. And yes, it hurt losing defenseman Aaron Rome, who was suspended for the balance of the Cup finals after his late, blindside hit on Nathan Horton.
Still, for us, this comes down to the Canucks' mental toughness -- do they have enough? GM Mike Gillis didn't spend much time or money in the offseason looking for such toughness, which suggests he believes that toughness lies within. There are nagging injuries to Kesler and Mason Raymond, whose return is uncertain after he suffered a fractured vertebra in the Cup finals when Johnny Boychuk took him awkwardly into the boards.
"I think our group, especially our core group, we're motivated," Kesler said. "We're not going to have that hangover. We didn't win anything. We played that same amount of games [as Cup champion Boston], but we didn't win anything. We've been there, but we haven't done it. We're a mature enough group. We're focused. I think that run made us a closer group. We're going to be fine."
5. No hangover here, or is there?
Since the lockout, only the Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to parlay a Stanley Cup finals loss into a Stanley Cup win the following season. You have to go back to 1983-84 to find the next team that went from a Cup finals loss to a Cup win when Edmonton did so after losing to the Islanders. Still, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault isn't interested in spending much time talking about a Stanley Cup hangover.
"I don't think it applies to us. Our goal is to win and we didn't win," he said. "For us, it's the same focus that I saw at the beginning of last year. I expect the same thing from my group now."
The key for the Canucks will be not to look too far ahead, but to remain focused on the task at hand on a daily basis.
Speaking of mental toughness, the biggest question mark this season hangs over Luongo, who will have to wait until spring to prove he has the mental goods to lead the Canucks to the Promised Land.
We're not going to plant the Canucks' collapse solely at Luongo's feet, but a netminder who looked wobbly in the first round when the Canucks nearly blew a 3-0 series lead against Chicago came completely unglued in the latter stages against Boston. Luongo allowed 18 goals in the final five games, including three ghastly performances in Boston, where he allowed 15 goals and was pulled twice.
Perhaps even more puzzling than his mercurial play was his failure to understand the dangers in engaging in debate over the play and actions of his counterpart, Tim Thomas.
Maybe this will all be a learning experience for Luongo and he'll be carting around a Stanley Cup in June and all of us that had the temerity to question his mental makeup will be forced to make many a public mea culpa. Or maybe that breakdown will be the defining moment of a career marked by unfulfilled expectations.
7. In the shadows
Here's the problem for Gillis: If there is real concern within the locker room that Luongo can't pull it together come playoff time, then what does he do with Cory Schneider?
The backup netminder had a 16-4-2 record and .929 save percentage when Luongo needed a rest. He also relieved Luongo when he went sideways in the opening round against Chicago and twice on the road in the Cup finals.
Yes, Luongo's deal stretches well into the next millennium (actually 11 more years), and Schneider might be an attractive bauble to dangle at the trade deadline to add some defensive depth. But what if Schneider actually gives the talented Canucks their best chance to win a Cup? Something to consider.
8. The twins
For all the garbage the Sedin twins put up with from some corners of the hockey world, anyone who spent any time in the team's locker room following the Canucks' Game 7 loss will understand they are two of the more stand-up players in the game. Yes, they are a bit of a curiosity with their likeness and extraordinary skill set, but they care deeply and publicly acknowledged their culpability in the team's disappointing close. And it's true the two have yet to fully embrace the playoffs in a way comparable to their regular-season heroics (they combined to go minus-20 in the postseason).
With Kesler absent at least early on, the Sedins may see their roles expanded. In the past, Vigneault has been reluctant to use them too much on the penalty kill because of their even-strength and power-play importance.
9. The hole
Make no mistake, there is a hole on the blue line with the departure of Ehrhoff. When the Canucks' blue line was decimated by injury, Ehrhoff logged big minutes, helped the power play and was, in general, a rock. But his departure also opens the door for others, and we're guessing fans will soon come to appreciate youngster Chris Tanev a whole lot.
Bigger, better conditioned and ready to step into a more prominent role for the Canucks, Tanev represents something important for the Canucks: the value of opportunity. Management and the coaching staff had an open mind about Tanev, Vigneault said. Undrafted and unheralded, Tanev was called up from Manitoba of the AHL and played well in a support role and earned his spot. Other players see that and will work extra hard knowing they could get that kind of shot, too.
10. Keith Ballard
One of the more interesting storylines will be where, if at all, defenseman Keith Ballard fits into the team's plans. After coming over from Florida, Ballard fell out of favor with Vigneault. He was a healthy scratch at times, and when he returned to the lineup in the Cup finals, he didn't play particularly well. With the departure of Ehrhoff maybe Ballard (who has four years left on a deal that pays him an average of $4.2 million annually) can work his way back into a more meaningful role. That's an awful lot of money to pay a player to do extra skating drills on game days.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering ninth NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• You have to love Alain Vigneault's take on all this. No lamenting the blown lead or the negative elements of getting that far and not winning.
He sounds like a guy who feels comfortable in both his own coaching skin and the talents of his roster to take that small, crucial step to a championship.
"I want them to remember that last game," he said. "[That's important] because no one wants to have that feeling again." -- Scott Burnside
Best bet: Roberto Luongo
Though he may not finish first amongst goalies in the fantasy rankings at the end of every season, Luongo is about as reliable as anyone when it comes to playing up to his draft position. He's projected to have the best all-around stats among fantasy goalies for 2011-12 (using the standard categories of wins, GAA and save percentage) and is worthy of a first-round pick. -- Tim Kavanagh
Risky pick: Ryan Kesler
Kesler has two straight seasons with nearly 75 points in the bank. Playing on the team's second line, he doesn't have the best pick of wingers to work with, but Kesler will have more variety this season. Instead of just Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson, now Christopher Higgins, Marco Sturm and maybe even converted winger Cody Hodgson will be vying for roles. Hip surgery means Kesler may miss the first couple weeks of the season. -- Sean Allen
Sleeper pick: Cody Hodgson
Hodgson is going to either have a breakout season or be relegated to the list of bust prospects. He has shown the skill set of an elite center as he's been developing, but a switch to the wing may be the only way for Hodgson to have a future with the Canucks. Barring that, he needs a change of scenery to an organization that doesn't have the likes of Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler as their top center. -- Sean Allen
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Canucks:
• June 27: Re-signed D Kevin Bieksa.
• June 29: Re-signed C Maxim Lapierre and D Andrew Alberts.
• July 1: Re-signed D Sami Salo.
• July 1: Signed LW Marco Sturm.
• July 2: Signed RW Mark Mancari.
• July 3: Re-signed LW Chris Higgins.
• July 5: Signed C Andrew Ebbett.
• July 7: Signed D Alexander Sulzer.
• July 14: Signed RW Mike Duco.
• July 25: Signed RW Byron Bitz.
• July 28: Re-signed RW Jannik Hansen.
• Sept. 9: Re-signed RW Victor Oreskovich.
• D Christian Ehrhoff (rights traded to NY Islanders, signed by Buffalo)
• LW Raffi Torres (unrestricted free agent, signed by Phoenix)
• RW Guillaume Desbiens (unrestricted free agent, signed by Calgary)
• LW Tanner Glass (unrestricted free agent, signed by Winnipeg)
• LW Jeff Tambellini (unrestricted free agent, signed by Swiss club ZSC Lions)
• C Alex Bolduc (unrestricted free agent, signed by Phoenix)