2008-09 Team Preview: Vancouver Canucks
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunMike Gillis was a busy man in his first summer as an NHL GM, changing one-third of his roster with more changes likely to come.
But the reality is, most of the significant changes may be two or three years away from being truly felt. The most important changes were in the team's thinking. From the way the Canucks scout to the way they develop players, Gillis has reshaped how they do things, and both his critics and supporters will have to wait a bit before deciding whether it's working.
"I think whenever you invest heavily in any initiative, it usually takes a little bit of time to see the results," Gillis told ESPN.com. "Although, this year in camp, we have some young players pushing for jobs that weren't part of this organization before I got here.
"So we're hoping to see some results as early as this year, but if we don't, we know we'll see them in following years."
In the short term, the Canucks on paper look to have largely the same dynamics at play -- great in goal, solid on defense and short on offense. But several faces have changed. Trevor Linden and Markus Naslund, the two men who have largely worn the "C" in Vancouver for two decades between them, are gone. Longtime Canucks leader Brendan Morrison is also gone. Don't underestimate the effects of those defections in the Canucks dressing room, where new voices will need to be heard to shape the new leadership group.
There are few teams in the NHL that have seen their preseason predictions vary so widely as Vancouver. Some believe the Canucks will not only be back in the playoffs, but also with a move or two perhaps in line for a long run. Other pundits see a last-place finish in the Northwest Division.
The truth might be in the middle. They should make the playoffs, but not much more.
The Canucks were last in the Northwest with 207 goals last season (2.51 goals per game), which ranked them 23rd overall in the NHL.
Gillis has aggressively tried to address the scoring woes, offering up an eye-catching $20 million over two years to undecided free agent Mats Sundin. Gillis tried to get into other possible trades and signings and, in the end, did reel in Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier. They basically replace Naslund and Morrison. The 23-year-old Bernier has good upside; he's a power forward in the making who should eclipse the 20-goal plateau given the ice time and first- or second-line duty he'll receive.
Gillis took a flier on former Maple Leaf Kyle Wellwood, but the enigmatic forward got off to a bad start by showing up to camp out of shape.
But let's not fool anyone here. The Canucks' offense is led by the Sedin twins, who combined for 150 points last season, led by Henrik's team-leading 76 points and Daniel's team-best 29 goals. They are the most consistent offensive contributors on this team and will continue to be this season. But will they be around past 2008-09? Both are slated for unrestricted free agency July 1. Gillis must sign them to an extension or move them in order to avoid losing both for nothing. Keep an eye on that possible drama as it unfolds this season.
Led by the veteran Mattias Ohlund (another UFA-in-waiting), the Canucks are a deep and strong defensive unit as long as they are healthy. In 2007-08, the Canucks didn't get a full season out of Ohlund, Kevin Bieksa, Willie Mitchell, Lukas Krajicek or Sami Salo. Those injuries, however, allowed for the emergence of Alexander Edler, who was a pleasant surprise after being forced into action. Gillis acquired the hard-hitting Rob Davison and his presence will be felt. Lawrence Nycholat and Nolan Baumgartner add organizational depth.
Roberto Luongo didn't get a Vezina Trophy nomination last season, an indication he wasn't quite up to snuff by his lofty standards. His 2.38 GAA and .917 save percentage put him in the top 15 in both categories, solid numbers indeed. Except Luongo is a franchise goalie who should be top-five in those statistics every season. An injury-riddled lineup in front of him certainly didn't help his numbers, and he may have also been distracted on the home front with his wife's difficult pregnancy. Luongo came back to camp in September seemingly rejuvenated and refreshed, aiming to put himself back where he belongs among the game's elite. He's also expected to see at least 70 starts this season, a heavy workload.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe Canucks have a new GM (former player and agent Mike Gillis) and entered the Mats Sundin sweepstakes to no avail. They also have a new captain in star goalie Roberto Luongo, even though league rules prohibit him from actually wearing the letter on his sweater. Awarding the captaincy to Luongo may be the start of wooing the goalie to extend his contract with Vancouver when it expires at the end of the 2009-10 season. Roberto alone keeps this team in the hunt.
The courting of the Sedin twins has already begun with an informal dinner and discussions about the future of the franchise. All things being equal, it appears the two sides would like to get something done and the Sedins have indicated, at least in public, a willingness to take somewhat of a hometown discount to stay in Vancouver. Pavol Demitra joined his former agent and should help the offense, which continues to be a major issue for the Canucks. Mason Raymond will go a long way to helping the offense if he is able to stay healthy this season. Youngsters, such as 2008 first-round pick Cody Hodgson, Cory Schneider, Michael Grabner and Alex Edler, are true bright spots on the horizon.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 39-33-10
• Division: Fifth in the Northwest
• Conference: 11th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• After opening at home against Calgary on Oct. 9, the Canucks head out on a six-game road trip from Oct. 11 to 21 with stops in Calgary, Washington, Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago and Columbus. An early test for a team hoping to jell quickly after all the changes.
Experience: 6 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Alain Vigneault deservedly retained his job, but it wasn't without some anxious moments. Gillis, understandably, wanted to make sure his coach was on the same wavelength as him and wants the Canucks to play a more aggressive, offensive-minded game. Naslund, most notably, wasn't a big fan of Vigneault's defensive strategy, and, certainly from purely an aesthetic point of view, the Canucks weren't that much fun to watch last season. But, to Vigneault's defense, with the Sedin twins as his only consistent source of offense, what were his options? He'll do his best this season to squeeze out more goals from his revamped roster.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Daniel Sedin
Entering his eighth season with the Canucks. Has averaged around 75 points in three consecutive seasons. You know what you're getting.
F -- Henrik Sedin
Entering his eighth season with the Canucks. Three consecutive ... well, you know the rest. See above.
D -- Willie Mitchell
Entering his third season with the Canucks. May emerge as an important leader on a team looking for new ones.
D -- Kevin Bieksa
Entering his fourth season with the Canucks. Looking to bounce back from injury-riddled 2007-08 season.
Answer: We asked Mr. Gillis:
"I think people are making a prognosis based just on players that have been replaced and not really looking at the young players that were here that are pushing for opportunity," said Gillis. "If we upgrade across the board [other youngsters having better seasons], we should be able to generate more offense.
"We spent many, many hours in meetings discussing where offense could come from with the group that we have. We do have a good defense. And I think we can generate more offense from our defense. And if some of these younger forwards step in and produce, I think we'll be OK."
We suspect Gillis will try to add an impact forward before the March 3 trade deadline.
Bust: Kyle Wellwood, C: He's a gifted player, but a slow start shows he doesn't deserve anything more than fourth-line duty right now, and he may not bounce back.
Fantasy outlook: By failing so far to lure free-agent Mats Sundin with a two-year, $20 million offer, it looks as if the Canucks will again struggle to score goals. Despite the departure of former captain Markus Naslund and one-time No. 1 center Brendan Morrison, the additions of Demitra and Bernier should at least make that a wash since the ex-Canucks registered subpar seasons. Thankfully, the club features one of the best goalies in the world in Roberto Luongo. His 35 wins, 2.38 GAA and .917 save percentage was an "off" year for him, but something no fantasy owner should dismiss. -- Jim Wilkie