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If Vancouver had the team which started the playoffs against Chicago, all healthy against Boston? We'll never know.

Another season has gone by and it’s time to look at the balance of things, and once again, it was a good year of firsts for the Vancouver Canucks.  They finished first overall in the league in points, goals, goals against, penalty killing, wins, and financials for the first time in franchise history.  For all intents and purposes, the Canucks, and not the Canadiens, Rangers, Leafs or any number of other teams, were the darlings of the league.  They started the free agent frenzy in 2010 by shoring up key areas on the team, and are probably the main reason why teams in the league are climbing all over themselves to sign players this year.  The model has been set.  Sign the right players and your team can make the finals, which is exactly what Vancouver did last season.

The Stanley Cup Finals are very difficult to make, let alone, win, as the Canucks proved this past season.  A return trip to the finals in this day and age is almost unthinkable, particularly in a city where the team goes all the way once every generation or so.  History tells us that after making the finals in 82 and again in 94 it took all of two seasons for the team to be revamped, and the coach to get fired after advancing no further than round 2 ever again.  In the 80’s the teams suffered miserable seasons, well below .500 until the cigar chomping icon, Pat Quinn arrived in town, and after Quinn took the team to the promised land, the team lingered in sub-mediocrity through rebuilding seasons with the likes of Mike Keenan, Mark Messier, Tom Renney and Alex Mogilny, until Brian Burke could rebuild the team the right way with draft picks and young players.  The question is now, what do the current Canucks do about the window of opportunity which will not be open much longer than the next 3 seasons?  History may not be on their side, or is it?

Coach:  Alain Vigneault

AV looks on in disgust as his Canucks leave Boston tied 2-2, the beginning of the end

I’m going to come right out and say it; Alain Vigneault is an excellent coach.  He may well be the right coach for this particular group.  He knows how to motivate them, and when to get them to play at their peak.  Vancouver was one Hamhuis away from winning this whole thing, and the man to thank would have been AV.  Or…. perhaps…. he didn’t pull Luongo for the 3rd period of game 3 and start Schneider in game 4.  He didn’t give Ballard enough confidence to play effectively.  He wasn’t brave enough to split the Sedins during the season and playoffs so that they couldn’t be so easily shut down.  And, perhaps, he isn’t patient or creative enough with gifted scorers or playmakers like Michael Grabner, Mats Sundin, Pavol Demitra and Ballard, and so the team struggles to score sometimes.  It’s all just speculation, and it’s easy to second guess when all a team needed was one stinkin’ game.  Alain Vigneault is the winningest coach in Canucks franchise history.  Has gotten more out of Burrows, Kesler, and the Sedins than any other coach might have.  He gets plenty out of key players like LaPierre or Jannick Hansen and his timely use of Chris Tanev, or Aaron Rome, shows that he’s got a good gut for how to coach this game.  The Canucks can win the big one with this guy behind the bench.

The difficulties start when we’re looking at the other coaches.  Is Melanson the right coach for Luongo and Schneider?  Why are the players constantly battling injuries on the back end?  Does it have something to do with player selection?  Why couldn’t the Canucks find a way to score goals against Tim Thomas?  He set a new NHL record for shutouts in the Finals against the highest scoring team in the league.  When was the last time you heard a Canucks player compliment his own coaching staff? Too many questions here.   They say in sports “the truly good coaches win the close ones”.

I’m still a doubter.
COACHING: GLASS HALF EMPTY

Goaltending: Roberto Luongo, Corey Schneider

Luongo was fishing for answers against Chicago again, and later, Boston.

The Captaincy experiment didn’t work, as many predicted, so Lu was stripped of the C and it was given to Henrik.  A full time goalie coach in Rogie Melanson was brought in to help keep Lu’s game simpler and more technically sound, which paid dividends.  His head seemed better than it was in years.  His stats indicated he was seeing the puck better than ever, and he was… except… in losses and away from home.  Let’s get something straight here.  Roberto Luongo is a first ballot hall-of-famer when it will all be said and done.  He will play productive hockey for another 6 or 7 years, rack up another 200-240 regular season wins, another 40 or so playoff wins and quite possibly, win a Stanley Cup.  He will have more regular season wins than Patrick Roy, and before father time catches up with him, in the ballpark for playoff wins along with the likes of Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante.  He is already 18th and climbing on the all-time list for shutouts, and third all-time in save percentage to none other than Dominik Hasek, and Tim Thomas who, at the age of 37, one wonders how long he can continue his pace and, if he does, gives credence to the 10 year contract Luongo has.  If Luongo plays as well as Thomas into his late 30’s, he well could finish first in wins and shutouts, both regular season and playoffs.  The key with goalies, folks, is patience.

He got his team to a Stanley Cup finals.

He was brilliant in games 7 against Chicago, and 5 against San Jose.  Brilliant.  He had two enormous game-stealing performances, shutouts I might add, against Boston in the finals and, one might say, he was directly responsible for winning the third game the Canucks won.  In the final game, the Canucks, the whole team, looked out of gas, undermanned and depleted.

He did what he could.

For those of you who were too busy crying in your beer to notice, or occupied burning police cars, a screened Marchant pass to an open Bergeron who slaps it past two more screens wasn’t an easy save.  A Marchant wraparound when Luongo is tied up by his own forward and can’t get across in time to stop it was a defensive miscue, again, not his fault.  A shorthanded breakaway should never happen, but a blown goaltender interference call when Bergeron’s dive carries him through Luongo and the net should happen even less.  3-0 B’s on opportunistic, hungry goals the Canucks forwards weren’t getting, simply put.  Luongo pulled for the extra attacker, 4-0 B’s on an empty net.

That’s how it happened.  It was a hockey game.  Look at this goalie and ask yourself if you’d rather have anyone else for this team?  Will Schneider be the answer for 40 wins a year, guaranteed?  No.  Luongo is a horse, and he will get his due eventually with retired numbers, and a hall-of-fame pass.

Schneider will prove to be a useful chip in the trade market.  Goaltending on the farm is phenomenal.  I think we’re okay here.

GOALTENDING:  GLASS HALF FULL

Defence:  Currently Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Sami Salo, Andrew Alberts, Chris Tanev, Alexander Sulzer, Aaron Rome, Alex Edler

Alexander Sulzer will no longer don the powder blue with the Monkey Island skeleton of the Milwaukee Admirals.

While Sulzer may not be the second coming of Christian Ehrhoff, he is much in the same mold.  Sulzer is mobile, possesses a huge shot, and has nice passing abilities out of his own zone.  Like Ehrhoff, and most of the Canucks, he’s not hulking or intimidating, but is mobile, strong on the puck, has good leadership and is physical when needed.  If there were ever a time to get excited about a castaway German player who has 1 career NHL goal, it’s with Sulzer, who will likely continue to cost the Canucks $4 million dollars of Keith Ballard’s rear on the bench.  It’s a project worth trying, and Gillis knows that the key to free agency this year is not big spending, but finding the right fit for the team.  Sulzer is that, if nothing else.

As for the other D-men, it’s encouraging to see the return of Kevin Bieksa.  Bieksa received a lot of the spotlight this past cup Finals, and deservedly so.  He had a career season, vaulting him into consideration for any teams top-2 defencemen.  I’ve always been of the belief that Bieksa, not Luongo, Kesler, or Sedin, should have been the number one choice for captaincy of this team.  He is the blue-line captain, and will continue to rise in excellence provided our best defenceman, Dan Hamhuis, plays injury free.  The Hamhuis/Bieksa combination is the best shutdown pair in the NHL right now, with all due respect to Keith and Seabrook.  They are mobile, physical, and intelligent heads up players who score timely goals, get timely hits, and beat people up in timely fashion.  I don’t think Patrick Marleau will be picking fights anytime soon, at any rate.

Salo will contemplate his career on a yearly basis henceforth. Naturally, he will never be injured again.

As for Salo’s return next year, he will be a welcome addition to the blueline again.  Much like Niklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne, Trevor Linded when he played and any number of veteran players nearing the end of their roads as players, Sami will, no doubt, evaluate his career on a yearly basis from now on, which makes perfect sense.  I highly doubt the heavy shooting Finn will play big minutes in the regular season, essentially reserving his strength for the post-season when the Canucks will try to win one for the old guy.  He is, still, and remarkably I suppose, a very competent defender.  A full season with Sami Salo in the lineup will help the second unit powerplay, provided the Canucks can get someone to replace Ehrhoff to quarterback the first. Rome, Ballard, Sulzer, Tanev, Alberts, are all nice pieces, but the first unit powerplay must be manned by someone who can change the game with a shot or a precision pass.

Enter Edler.

Edler must continue to develop into an offensive weapon, as well as play the body more frequently if the Canucks are to take the next step.

This must be the year Alex Edler puts everything together for himself on this team.  Before being severely injured last season, big Al was on pace for about 65 points, or, 15 more than Christian Ehrhoff.  This is the season that Edler becomes the dominant number 1 defenceman everyone dreams about, and the reason the Canucks will be taking care of their payroll so that they can re-sign him to an extension as soon as possible.  He is a big hitting, heady player, who must play the full season in order for this team to continue to succeed.  If Edler plays to his potential, the Canucks will be a whole new kind of dangerous, and a force to be reckoned with, yet again.

DEFENSE:  GLASS HALF FULL

Forwards:  Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Alexandre Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond,  Mikael Samuelsson, Manny Malhotra, Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, Maxim Lapierre

Injuries and questions mark the Vancouver Canucks' 2011 training camp

There are definite question marks for the Canucks headed into the 2011/12 season.  The health issues surrounding Mason Raymond (cracked vertebrae), Manny Malhotra (eye), an aging Mikael Samuelsson (Sports Hernia), Ryan Kesler (groin) and even Henrik Sedin (back) in addition to the Canucks not having signed Jannik Hansen to a contract yet, make this group speculative after two players on the first line.  The Canucks suffer from a lack of secondary scoring, that much is certain.  Kesler is a scoring centre with limited playmaking abilities, so he needs a playmaking winger to play alongside him.  Samuelsson, and Raymond ,even when healthy, were not the answers.

Nobody wanted to win more than Ryan Kesler last year

Last season Kesler, now a Selke winner, scored goals, shutdown opponents, played the body and put the team on his back an entire series until he pulled up lame against San Jose and became useless against a physical Boston team.  The Sedins did the bulk of the scoring in the regular season, and carried the team past San Jose until they became injured and shut down against a more aggressive and physical Boston team.  Other teams were paying attention.  Chicago, San Jose, Edmonton, have all loaded up on grit and muscle to combat the Western Conference champs.  The fear the Canucks must have now is that teams will be keying in on the Sedins and Kesler with brute force, hoping to injure them and daring their powerplay to make them pay.

The strategy certainly worked for Boston.

Cody, I have a feeling we're not in Brampton anymore.

There must be improvement then in the likes of Jannik Hansen, provided he signs, and one must believe that this is the final year that Cody Hodgson is given a chance to make this lineup.  With Center Malhotra and Lapierre presumably holding down the 3rd to 4th line roles, one might be tempted to believe that Hodgson will see some time up top with Kesler and Higgins on the second line.  This would make some sense, as Hodgson has offensive abilities but few defensive ones, and learning the centre position from one of the best in Kesler,  who may be asked to make up for the kid’s liabilities on defence, might be a good thing for the team.  He hasn’t really proven anything at the AHL level with the Moose, so gift wrapping this kid a position on the team doesn’t seem level with his track record yet.

Hodgson notwithstanding, the Canucks are going to have to hope for similar seasons from the Sedins and Kesler, and hope for health from Samuelsson. Unfortunately, it appears as though everyone had career years, so I’m predicting a downturn in goals from the Canucks, who seemed solved by the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Other scouts will have a good long look at that tape and realize that the Sedins are really not that hard to stop, and Kesler is just a matter of putting heavy bodies on him to slow him down.  It’s possible that Kesler could take another step in his development, but I believe him to have peaked, and the Canucks will have to look elsewhere for some scoring in the lineup.  Something needs to give.

FORWARDS:  GLASS HALF EMPTY 

GM: Mike Gillis

There is reason for optimism in Vancouver, if you`re Mike Gillis

They say you are the sum of your parts sometimes, and in this case, it is true.  Gillis has built a respectable management team from directors of personnel to scouting staff, right through to coaches and players.  He is impossibly confident, and while he may not ooze charisma, is a man of great integrity and solid ideals.  His model comes from influences around the world, including Manchester United’s mold for success at the international level for football. He is visionary in the way he manages cap space and has made timely moves to improve the roster.  He has not been hasty or impatient with the development of players, and he has rewarded players who have shown commitment to team principles and community ideals.  The Canucks have climbed Forbes list of franchise net worth every year he has been here.  His team made the Stanley Cup, and beat the hated Blackhawks.

Gillis is, in short, the finest GM the city of Vancouver has ever known.

Both Lapierre and Higgins were re-signed by Mike Gillis this summer.

His moves this summer have not been as flashy as last year when he landed Hamhuis and Malhotra, but he had less wiggle room to play with this year.  His biggest moves have been related to re-signing core players like Bieksa, Salo and now Higgins and Lapierre, while he has taken a few flyers on some forwards on the scrap heap, like Marco Sturm.  One wouldn’t say it’s been an increbibly mind-blowing haul of free agents, but keeping your own players is good for the team and loyal fan base, and overall the Canucks have been active.

He is going to have to do something about the forward situation irrespective of the new additions.  He has assets in Schneider and Hodgson with which he can swing a deal or two, and the potential always exists for a major shakeup if something horrible goes wrong.  In all, Gillis has managed to make every player on the Canucks valuable by virtue of their success in the playoffs.

The track record is now in place, so there isn’t much left to prove now, other than competing every year for the Stanley Cup.

GM: GLASS HALF FULL

Overall, next season looks pretty bright for the Vancouver Canucks, despite the nagging injuries and question marks at forward depth positions.  It might be best if the Canucks coast for a bit during the regular season and end up 3rd or 4th in the conference.  With the team mostly in tact, they might be a good sleeper come playoff time.

Canucks 2011-2012 prediction:  3rd place in conference, Eliminated in conference finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, AV fired, replaced by Craig MacTavish at the end of 2012.

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