Originally Published: September 27, 2013

Vancouver Canucks: Let's try this again

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

If Toronto perceives itself as the center of the hockey universe, then Vancouver must surely be the center of hockey angst. Whether it's post-2011 finals riots or blowouts with the local media or a months-long goalie saga, Vancouver always seems to be home to teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing of one form or another.

Things are no different as we head toward the 2013-14 season. The Canucks are coming off two straight first-round playoff disasters after being swept aside by the San Jose Sharks last May, and nominal starting netminder Cory Schneider shockingly traded to the New Jersey Devils at the draft. Throw in the arrival of new coach John Tortorella and you've got enough fodder for a year's worth of newspaper or Internet columns. The constant agitation in some ways obscures the reality that this remains a very good team that, if it can stay healthy, shouldn't be very far removed from Stanley Cup discussion.

With all due respect to Roberto Luongo, who for nearly a full year was thought to be on his way out of Vancouver after being replaced by Schneider but is once again the starter, the biggest change by far is the arrival of Tortorella.

After flaming out in New York -- ending his term with seemingly nonstop confrontations with the media and disappointment on the ice as his Rangers were easily dispatched in the second round last spring by Boston -- Tortorella is looking for a fresh start in Vancouver. All of his bluster and terseness and idiosyncrasies aside, he remains a hard-nosed, well-prepared coach more than capable of leading a team deep into the playoffs.

Luongo will start in net, but GM Mike Gillis has not provided a meaningful backup plan and has Eddie Lack, an AHL netminder who missed most of last season with a hip injury, and Joacim Eriksson fighting for time behind Luongo.

Also gone are a handful of regular role players who provided depth: Keith Ballard, Max Lapierre, Derek Roy, Andrew Ebbett, Mason Raymond and Cam Barker, among others. That means an opportunity for a group of young players to step forward.

If Ryan Kesler is to be believed (and why would the former Selke Trophy winner lie?), Tortorella coming aboard should be good for a few points in the standings based simply on the emotion the new coach will bring to the table.

"He's going to want us to play hard every night," Kesler told ESPN.com recently. "Every night he's going to expect more."

If Kesler can avoid the injury bug that has bitten him the past couple of years he is exactly the kind of guy Tortorella will lean on. At his best Kesler is a dominant NHL player, and if he can get back to the form that saw him win the Selke in 2011, the Canucks will be contenders. An early indication of how Tortorella might rely on Kesler came early in the preseason schedule when he played more than 26 minutes in a game.

The Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik, are entering the last year of their contracts but continue to be elite point producers, and there is a good clutch of defensemen led by Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa.

"We still believe," Kesler said.

For all the talk about Luongo's imminent departure and then his surprise re-emergence as the team's go-to guy, Kesler believes Luongo is poised for a monster year. The former Vezina Trophy nominee and Olympic gold medalist certainly has shown he's capable.

A couple of youngsters may emerge to add some youthful skill down the middle in Hunter Shinkaruk, selected 24th overall in June's draft, and Bo Horvat, the ninth overall pick in the draft who came to the Canucks via the Schneider deal. Both are getting every opportunity to make a case for themselves.

Maybe it was the lockout or injuries that reduced Vancouver to a one-line show last season, relying too heavily on the Sedins, but the Canucks' offense suddenly went south and finished 19th in goals per game while their power play fell to 22nd overall. The year before? The Canucks won the Presidents' Trophy and were fourth on the power play and fifth in goals per game.

What if this is the start of a decline for the Sedins? What if Kesler can't stay healthy? What if Luongo's feelings are really hurt or, for whatever reason, he can't shoulder a significant load in goal for the Canucks? Yes, those are questions, but are they really weaknesses?

Staying healthy will be key not only for Kesler, but also for David Booth, who has seen his once-promising career virtually destroyed by injury. The former Florida winger hopes to be a solid second-liner, but it's anyone's guess as to whether he can fulfill that role. If he can't, the team is going to have to get better depth scoring from elsewhere in the lineup to keep other teams' defenses honest.

The Canucks also will be without Zack Kassian for the first five regular-season games as he serves the remainder of an eight-game suspension for whacking Edmonton's Sam Gagner in the face during a preseason game. Kassian was being considered as a linemate for the Sedins.

The more significant issue is what has happened to this team in the playoffs the past two years. Since blowing 2-0 and 3-2 series leads against Boston in the 2011 finals, the Canucks have gone 1-8 in their back-to-back first-round losses. We've seen teams such as Chicago and Pittsburgh bounce back from a couple of soft playoff outings following deep runs with more playoff success. Do the Canucks have that kind of bounce back in them? Or has the window closed on this team's Cup hopes as they are currently built?

Just as the Southeast Division used to be the subject of much derision in the Eastern Conference, the Northwest Division wasn't home to much in the way of competition or drama in recent years. This year, Vancouver can look forward to some good old-fashioned scratching and clawing, not just to win the Pacific Division but to qualify for the playoffs. Nothing wrong with that. Plus, the travel, always a bear, should be more manageable for the Canucks, who have always been on the cutting edge of trying to mitigate the obstacles connected with their traditional travel schedule.

Burnside: This is the tougher of the two Western Conference divisions by far, and we're pretty sure it'll send five teams to the playoffs. Our thinking is that the Canucks finish fifth in the Pacific but end up as a wild-card team.

Custance: Sixth in the Pacific Division.

LeBrun: Sixth in the Pacific Division.

Melrose: Fifth in the Pacific Division.

Strang: Third in the Pacific Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer


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