We're barreling down the stretch now with our season previews as camps are establishing their rosters. Jobs will be won, hearts will be broken, and some interesting developments can occur out of injury and necessity. Before you know it, the puck will drop on regular season hockey and we'll see how close to the mark (or how far off) we were with our predictions.
And now, the Vancouver Canucks.
Team M.O.: These guys are sound and balanced in every way yet they seem to run out of steam when they reach the playoffs. While they've currently spent beyond the cap and need to shed some salary, the group will still have a requisite blend of scoring, two-way prowess, and some of the toughest players you'll ever have to face up against.
Last Season: Third in the Western Conference, where they defeated the L.A. Kings before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Blackhawks were the better team then; though they sure as hell aren't now.
Offense: A lot of people thought that if the Sedins were broken up, they'd be doomed. Turns out Henrik Sedin didn't need his brother Daniel as much as everyone thought; though Daniel was on the shelf for 19 games Hendrik still earned the Art Ross Trophy for Most Valuable Player thanks to his strong playmaking and two-way skills. Daniel was no slouch though, as he generated enough offense to be a point-per-game even if he had managed to play in all 82 games. Alexandre Burrows enjoyed breaking the 30 goal mark playing with the Sedins but since he's on the shelf for the start of the season, there will be an opening up front for the first few games of the season. In spite of this, the team is very reluctant to break up the line of Mason Raymond, Ryan Kesler, and Mikael Samuelsson. Kesler (another Detroit native!) is regarded as the second-best two-way center in the league behind only Pavel Datsyuk (and as Datsyuk gets up there in age, there's no telling what could happen in the future.) Samuelsson broke the 30 goal mark for the first time in his career and while some may be worried about his consistency in terms of providing that, he's received far more ice time with the Canucks than he did with his former team, the Detroit Red Wings. Raymond's emerged as a solid point producer of all varieties, if he keeps it up he might make or break 30 and 30 this season (that's goals and assists in case you wanted to know.) Raffi Torres was brought over through free agency and while he can check, he was nearly a 20-goal scorer for the Columbus Blue Jackets before being traded to the Buffalo Sabres (and subsequently losing his scoring touch.) Manny Malhotra was brought over from the San Jose Sharks and while he's a solid checker, the Canucks might be able to squeeze 40 points out of him in a season by the time it's all said and done. Jannik Hansen is currently filling a defensive role for the club but given his success in the minors, he could very much end up providing some secondary scoring with the rest of his linemates. The fourth unit is full of requisite toughness, as Rick Rypien and Tanner Glass can hit and fight with the best of them while Darcy Hordichuk will be the team's enforcer; each player broke the century mark in penalty minutes for a combined 383 penalty minutes between the three of them.
Fighting for jobs will be a cast of new faces and prospects. Jeff Tambellini is getting his chance at filling Burrows's spot in the lineup and, at worst, will be the team's reserve scoring forward. Joel Perrault comes over from free agency and despite some concussion issues suffered while with the Phoenix Coyotes, he can still provide a solid role on a depth line and even provide some unexpected offense. Sergei Shirokov and Victor Oreskovich could crack the lineup in camp, but the team might just as well send them to their minor league affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, and give them the call up should other forwards become injured or falter.
All and all, you can't complain about that depth from top to bottom. Nothing else needed here.
Defense: The team's over the salary cap because while it was their expectation to move a defender, it appears they might be holding on to one a little bit longer than expected. The odd guy out looks to be Kevin Bieska, who despite missing nearly 30 games due to a leg injury was somehow a disappointment for the team last year. He'll look to be around because the oft-injured Sami Salo is, well, injured. Alexander Edler broke the 40 point mark, at the age of 24 it looks like the Canucks struck gold with that pick. Christian Ehrhoff put up some great numbers in his first season with the club, while his offensive production still broke 40 points he was a +36, which was a vast improvement from the -12 he posted the season prior. The team won the Dan Hamhuis derby through the off-season, acquiring a highly-sought after defender who can log tons of time while fulfilling a variety of different needs for the team. Keith Ballard came over from the Florida Panthers to give the team a solid puck-mover who hits like a truck (ever see his hip-checks?!) Shane O'Brien gives the team a great third-pairing defender who likes to engage in the rough stuff but he needs to watch his discipline both on and off the ice so he can remain part of a great club and not dispatched to a rebuilding team. Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts will battle for the final spot on the club, both providing a similar style that O'Brien brings.
They aren't about addition at this point, they're about subtraction. They need to deal a guy away because that defense is wicked deep; even if Bieska was dealt tomorrow and Salo missed a significant amount of time with injury.
Goaltending: The team couldn't get better than to have Roberto Luongo, he's in the prime of his career and if anything, his only downfall is the fact that he's been overused by most of the team's who've had him on their roster. Cory Schneider is not only expected to relieve some of his playing time but may very well challenge for the starting position himself (not likely given Luongo's talent and contract, but never say never.) Eddie Lack's been solid in preseason play and while he'll likely start off in the minors, he could be a welcome relief should either Luongo or Schneider become injured. Either way, great depth in goal. I think I've managed to say that for every category thus far with them.
Management: Though he received a great team crafted by both Brian Burke and Dave Nonis, GM Mike Gillis has managed to do everything right in ensuring the team is balanced in all facets of the game. If anything, the heat's on coach Alain Vigneault to get these guys past the first or second round of the playoffs and into the Cup Finals. He's got the tools, now he's gotta prove he'll put it together.
Prediction: First in the Northwest Division, in the playoffs, and likely to end up at the Stanley Cup Finals if not win it all.
Yes their preseason hasn't been lights out but Vancouver is notorious for being slow starters (must be all that smoke in the air from all the... nevermind.) Some new faces will need to learn the system and some veterans will have to readjust into their roles, but once the wheels are off then it's going to be lights out for just about every team in the league on a nightly basis. Competitive, balanced, and tough enough to withstand any team; these guys have the makings of a Stanley Cup Champion.