October 08 2010 12:46PM
The 2010-2011 regular season kicks off in earnest for the Vancouver Canucks tomorrow, as they face the Los Angeles Kings. It is a return to the past, as the Canucks celebrate their 40th year inthe NHL by playing their very first opponent, 40 years to the day from their first very regular season game.
Canucks fans are brimming with excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. Can their beloved Canucks finally break through to the promised land and hoist Lord Stanley's cup?
The Vancouver Canucks have been picked by many sources to win the Northwest Division, Western Conference and even the Stanley Cup (read here - TSN, Rogers Sportsnet, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports (Puck Daddy) )
Those are lofty expectations to fulfill, but the Canucks appear to have the horses in place to pull this cart all the way across the finish line. Not only that, but Vancouver's management have provided a supporting, secondary cast to keep this team rolling along. As we look at this cast characters more in-depth, we see how Mike Gillis has built this team for ultimate success.
The Canucks have arguably the most formidable top 6 forward in the Western Conference, and possibly the entire league. Reigning points leader and league MVP Henrik Sedin returns amid plenty of rumours that he will be named the team's next Captain by Saturday. Brother Daniel is set for a full season again and, with Alex Burrows injured to start the season, countryman Mikael Samuelsson will join them to complete the high-powered top line. Two-time Selke nominee Ryan Kesler centers the second line with Mason Raymond and Raffi Torres, who is replacing Samuelsson has he moves up the ranks. The third line got a serious upgrade in grit and jam, as they added Manny Malhotra and Peter Schaefer to join Jannik Hansen. This unit features three players willing to hit (and hit hard), will be excellent on faceoffs and the penalty kill. The fourth line features almost a complete overhaul, with only Tanner Glass returning to start the year. Glass will be joined by Guillaume Desbiens and Alex Bolduc to add some decent muscle and grit to round out the lineup. Jeff Tambellini was also added to add some speed and versatility to the lineup and will likely see some decent ice time this year. Finally Andrew Peters was added to literally give some extra punch to lineup but will see only limited time this year.
Canucks management dumped the players that weren't fitting their mold to build championship winning hockey. They did not bring bacl Kyle Wellwood or Ryan Johnson. They traded away Darcy Hordichuk, Michael Grabner and Steve Bernier to manage cap and to bring in players that were better suited for a long, successful playoff run.
So the Canucks have two high-powered top lines, a 3rd line set to improve their checking and penalty killing, and a younger, hungier 4th line.
The biggest area of change in the off-season for the Canucks was the defense. Vancouver's lack of depth on defense and some flaws in play is what ultimately led to their playoff demise last year, as the Blackhawks exposed gaping holes in their defensive roster. So the management team set out to overall and improve the defense and to make it deeper, to being in more NHL-ready defensemen who can step in to the lineup, in case of injury.
The Canucks traded for Keith Ballard, they signed free-agent Dan Hamhuis, they decided against bringing back Willie Mitchell and they traded away Shane O'Brien for Ryan Parent. They were nervous about Mitchell's health following a concussion last year and couldn't afford his salary. They knew O'Brien had issue with on-ice and off-ice discipline, and he had a very underwhelming training camp, so in order to remove him from the environment, they traded him away. They also have Nathan Paetsch, Nolan Baumgartner, Kevin Connauton, Lee Sweatt and Evan Oberg in their system. So the Canucks solved their issues with an exposed lack of depth on defense. Even with Sami Salo hurt for a considerable stretch to start the season, Vancouver has plenty of depth to shoulder the load.
Roberto Luongo is focusing on just goaltending now. He relinquished his captaincy (although many believe he was strongly encouraged to do so). He has been told he going to play fewer regular season games, He has a new full-time goaltending coach. It's all about re-focus and re-dedication for Luongo and keeping him fresh and able and ready for 4 rounds of playoff hockey.
Cory Schneider now enters as the full time backup, and is expected to see anywhere from 20-25 games this year to lighten the load on Luongo. Schneider has proven himself at every level at which he has played. He looked very capable during pre-season, at times looking downright brilliant. He is more than ready to handle these duties and should be a strong back-up for the former captain all season.
There are no more excuses for the Vancouver Canucks this year. They have all the pieces in place to make a deep run in the playoffs. Management has tailored this team and the players' experience to optimize performance and success. Canucks fan in this city, province and around the world are ready to celebrate the ultimate NHL success. In their 40th year, as we celebrate and look back on everything that this team has accomplished, it is time for the Vancouver Canucks to write a new chapter. It is time for the Canucks to surpass the past, to exceed any previous achievements and bring the Holy Grail of Hockey back to the West Coast.
The Canucks are ready to win. Fans are ready to see them win. After Olympic glory on our own soil, we are gluttons for hometown victory. We want more. And frankly, we want it now.