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Friday, September 28, 2007
Updated: September 30, 4:05 PM ET
2007-08 Team Preview: Vancouver Canucks

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Roberto Luongo had more wins than any other West netminder (47) last season.

The Starting Line

By Scott Burnside

We admire the plucky Canucks and their passionate talk about winning a Stanley Cup. And if Vezina Trophy finalist Roberto Luongo plays his brains out as he did a season ago, we suppose anything is possible. OK, we actually don't believe that at all. We still can't believe the Canucks not only made the playoffs, but also won the Northwest Division last season.

Our disbelief stems from the pop-gun offense the Canucks iced a year ago, the same pop-gun offense they'll ice again this season. The Canucks beat another offensively starved team in Dallas in a ponderous seven-game series to open the playoffs, and then were waxed by Anaheim in five games in the second round. The Canucks, who entered the playoffs having scored fewer goals than all other Western Conference playoff teams, managed just eight goals in the Anaheim series. Fans will point out that three of those games went to overtime. True. But the Canucks still managed to score just eight goals in five games.

The offense isn't going to get any better this season. With teams focusing more on the talented Sedin brothers, Henrik and Daniel, the offense might dry up even further and with it the chances of repeating as division champs.

OFFENSE
Not to be too dismissive of the Canucks' offensive talent, there were actually a number of bright spots, starting with the play of the Sedins. Daniel and Henrik recorded 84 and 81 points, respectively, missed just one game between them and averaged 18:03 and 18:25 a night in ice time, respectively. They are very good, young players who are finally coming into their own as NHL stars.

GM Dave Nonis never really managed to replace Anson Carter, who had 33 goals playing with the twins in 2005-06, and finding a scoring winger for the twins remains an unfulfilled task. There remains the belief in many quarters that onetime scoring ace and team captain Markus Naslund will somehow rediscover his scoring touch. Still, his point totals have declined from a career-best 104 points in 2002-03 to 60 last season; one wonders if that ship hasn't sailed for good. Brendan Morrison, likewise, remains a bit of a mystery after he had 20 goals last season, but the belief is the talented center is capable of more. Kevin Bieksa emerged last season as a possible point machine on the back end with 42 points in his first full NHL season. Bieksa showed he's got game by averaging 24:16 a night in ice time.

DEFENSE
As tepid as the team was on offense, it was positively brilliant defensively. Having Luongo between the pipes will do that for you, but Nonis has put together a top-notch defensive roster led by Willie Mitchell and Mattias Ohlund, who logged 22:12 and 24:47, respectively. The team finished fifth overall in team defense and owned the top-ranked penalty-killing unit in the NHL. Sami Salo, who was plus-21, and Brent Sopel round out the top five, although Salo will miss some time at the start of the season while recovering from a hairline fracture in his wrist sustained during camp. Lukas Krajicek, who came over in the Luongo deal, is still learning the ropes. The 24-year-old averaged 18:30 a night and should only get better.

GOALTENDING
When Nonis stole Luongo out from underneath the Florida Panthers on the eve of the 2006 draft, there were a few who questioned whether Luongo could stand up to the pressure of playing in a Canadian city where the game is king and the playoffs an expectation. Um, guess that's not really an issue. Luongo had more wins than any other Western Conference netminder (47) and was one off the record-setting pace set by New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. Both were Hart Trophy nominees, a testament to their importance to their clubs. Now, the $64 question is whether Luongo can produce the same kind of performance. Unless the Canucks suddenly find some offense to give Luongo more of a cushion, it seems an almost impossible task. Cory Schneider, the 26th pick in the 2004 draft, takes over as the Canucks' designated bench door opener in place of Dany Sabourin, who is in Pittsburgh. With all due respect to Schneider, if fans hear his name other than infrequently, it's a bad sign.

COACHING
Alain Vigneault has certainly made the best of his second chance as an NHL coach. He managed to turn a traditionally offensively oriented, defensively suspect team into the New Jersey Devils of the West. It may not necessarily be pretty to watch, but for Canucks fans used to seeing lots of fireworks and not much playoff excitement, Vigneault's brand of hockey is a welcome change. The challenge for any coach who has early success in a new situation is in getting players to replicate that commitment and make it part of their hockey DNA. That's the challenge this season in Vancouver, where expectations are sky-high for the Canucks -- perhaps too high.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

EXTRA CREDITS
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LAST-SEASON REVIEW
• Record: 49-26-7
• Division: First in the Northwest
• Conference: Third in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in the first round by Detroit



PLAYERS TO WATCH

Pratt

Goalie: Roberto Luongo
After years of toiling in relative obscurity in South Florida, Luongo embraced the Canadian NHL experience wholeheartedly, often accepting the role as the go-to guy in the dressing room for local writers. Hard to imagine he won't be the starter for Canada when the Olympics come to Vancouver in 2010.

Defenseman: Kevin Bieksa
The Grimsby, Ontario, native was selected 151st overall in the 2001 draft, but has emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Canucks. Can he build on his breakout season?

Forward: Taylor Pyatt
If Markus Naslund is truly in decline, perhaps Pyatt is the homegrown answer to the Canucks' offensive questions. He had a career-best 23 goals, nine on the power play.

MORE FROM BURNSIDE

Buzz Cut
How will Vancouver fans, for the most part supportive of Todd Bertuzzi through all his trials and tribulations, treat him now that he'll be coming to town a couple of times a year to wreck havoc as a member of the Anaheim Ducks?

Where They Will Finish
The Canucks will finish fourth in the Northwest Division and seventh in the Western Conference.

ESPN VIDEO

SPORTSNATION

Where do you think the Minnesota Wild will finish this time around? Who will lead the Wild in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!

FANTASY TAKE

Naslund

The Sedins are arguably late-first/early-second round fantasy picks this season. They could both approach triple-digits with the right linemate. Speaking of linemates, it will take time for someone to settle into the role, so keep an ear to the ground as being the Sedins' right winger is one of the most productive jobs in the league. Markus Naslund should have a mild bounce-back season. All the defensemen cancel out each other's value, while Roberto Luongo is a first-round pick. -- Sean Allen

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