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By Pierre LeBrun
The Canucks likely replayed Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinals with the Chicago Blackhawks over and over again in their minds this summer.
They were 2:44 away from a 3-1 stranglehold in their series before Martin Havlat tied it and Andrew Ladd won it in overtime. The Hawks never looked back, winning the next two in stunning fashion to send the Canucks packing, capped by a wild 7-5 affair to clinch it in Game 6.
Vancouver's season ended earlier than it had hoped after recording one of the NHL's best second-half records.
"I think those past experiences, from the regular season to the playoffs, are going to make our team better," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault told ESPN.com. "We're going to learn from those. There's a few areas in our game that we feel we need to improve on, and if we're able to do that we feel we're going to be a better team."
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Canucks heading into the new season:
1. Going for it
The Canucks believe they should have been in the Western Conference finals last season. They're aiming higher in 2009-10.
"We think we've got a very strong team," Vigneault said. "We are talking with our guys about the Stanley Cup -- that's our ultimate goal. Since I've been here, this organization has taken progressive steps every year towards solidifying itself as one of the NHL's premier teams. Everything we do here is first-class.
"It starts with our ownership, investing money in the team. You look at the renovations we've done as far as the dressing room, the video room, the coaches' room; it's just amazing. Without a doubt this organization wants to be the best in the NHL at what it does, and we certainly want to win that Stanley Cup."
2. Blue-line beefing
Just like managers in baseball say they can never have enough pitching, NHL coaches love having depth on defense. While the team did lose talented workhorse Mattias Ohlund to free agency, GM Mike Gillis added Mathieu Schneider, Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich to a group that already included Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler and Shane O'Brien.
"Without a doubt, we feel we've given ourselves more depth on defense, we've also upgraded our skill level on defense," Vigneault said. "Sometimes you say you can never have enough defensemen. We've got guys who can move the puck. Ehrhoff and Schneider, those are guys that can beat the forecheck and make the first good outlet pass so we can spend less time in our zone and spend more time in the other zone and attack."
3. Youth gone wild
There's youth at forward that's knocking on the door regardless of where they start the season.
"Up front we have some young kids, whether it's [Cody] Hodgson or [Michael] Grabner or [Mason] Raymond or others, we feel there's some young players that are closing in and we're hoping they'll take the opportunity to contribute more and take a big role on our team," Vigneault said.
The 24-year-old Raymond has the most NHL experience, with 121 games to his credit. The 19-year-old Hodgson -- Vancouver's first pick, 10th overall in the 2008 NHL draft -- oozes talent, and his impact may be felt sooner rather than later after getting a taste of pro hockey late last season in the AHL (six points in 11 playoff games). The 21-year-old Grabner had 17 points (10-7) in 20 AHL playoff games last spring. There's also 23-year-old Russian Sergei Shirokov, who has impressed in camp and preseason. He put up 40 points in 56 KHL games last season.
4. Stepping up
Last season, Alexander Burrows and Ryan Kesler made the huge step from role players to core players. Now the Canucks are hoping more will follow.
"If you look at our core group, starting with Roberto [Luongo] in goal, then you go to the Sedin twins and look at our defensemen that have been here for a while, like Willie Mitchell, Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo, we have a pretty strong foundation," Vigneault said. "Right now, what we need is for the parts around that foundation to step up and take a bigger role and contribute more. Burrows and Kesler are part of our core, but we need some of the other guys, like an Alex Edler, to step up and give us more, or guys like Raymond or Kyle Wellwood.
"Wellwood came to camp in the best shape of his life, and he's going to get an opportunity to play and play good minutes. We need those guys to step up and help this team and this organization take the next step."
5. Louie, Louie
The last time we saw Luongo was in the stunning May 11 exit party against Chicago, when arguably the game's best goalie was torched for seven goals. He blamed himself after the loss, calling it the toughest of his career, and then abruptly ended the media scrum in the visitors' dressing room at United Center and broke down in tears.
"Roberto is the foundation of our team," Vigneault said. "When you talk about the example and the model as far as what a Canuck player is like -- it's him. Not just with his work ethic, but you look at that last game against Chicago and him accepting responsibility for that last game. Well, that's what winners do. They accept responsibility for what's going on; they don't point fingers at others, they don't make excuses.
"Obviously he was disappointed at that result, but I think it's going to motivate him more and get him hungrier so that a situation like that doesn't happen again."
6. Special teams
The Canucks were middle of the road in both penalty killing (16th) and on the power play (17th) last season, areas that the team must improve if they're going to challenge for the conference lead. The additions of Schneider and Ehrhoff should help on the power play.
The Canucks won only three of 10 shootouts last season, the worst record among Western Conference teams. The Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, went a combined 0-for-3, while Burrows was 1-for-6. Pavol Demitra was the best of the bunch at 3-for-7. Perhaps Hodgson can improve this area?
8. Keeping Kesler
Remember all the fuss three seasons ago in September 2006, when then-Flyers GM Bobby Clarke made Kesler a one-year, $1.9 million offer sheet? Few people outside of Vancouver had even heard of Kesler, let alone thought giving him that kind of money made any sense. Turns out the wily Flyers executive knew what he was doing.
Kesler has flourished ever since, becoming a reliable and versatile forward who basically does a little of everything for the Canucks while also getting under the skin of opponents. He's coming off a career-high 26-goal, 59-point campaign and is almost surely a lock to make the U.S. Olympic team. He's also in the last year of a deal that pays him $1.75 million, and the Canucks have already approached his camp about an extension.
9. A scheduling note
All teams will be affected by the Olympics this season, but none more so than the host city. The Canucks are kicked out of GM Place for quite a while, on the road from Jan. 30-March 10 for a mammoth 14-game road trip. Yikes.
"Every team this year, because it's an Olympic year, is going to be faced with two major challenges: player injuries, because of the condensed schedule, and the challenge of the schedule," Vigneault said. "We have 14 games in a row on the road, and at two other time frames we have to play nine games in 14 nights and eight games in 13 nights. So each team at some point or another in the schedule will face different challenges. We're just going to have to deal with it."
10. Olympic exposure
Not only will the Olympics have a direct effect on the Canucks' schedule this season; there are a number of players on the team who may be busy during those two weeks. The Olympic hopefuls include: Luongo (Canada), the Sedin twins (Sweden), Kesler (USA), Salo (Finland), Edler (Sweden), Ehrhoff (Germany), Demitra (Slovakia) and Mikael Samuelsson (Sweden).
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 45-27-10
• Division: First in the Northwest
• Conference: Third in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in second round by Chicago
• We love this team on paper, but the Olympic road trip is a disaster waiting to happen. They'll hang on for second place in the Northwest and sixth in the Western Conference and then be a very dangerous playoff foe.
• Alain Vigneault enters his fourth season behind the Vancouver bench, having led the Canucks to the postseason in two of his first three seasons.
It's interesting to see how he has not only survived a new GM hiring a year and a half ago, but actually thrived with Mike Gillis. His coaching acumen will be fully tested in February and March when his team battles a monster road trip that could derail Vancouver's season.
F -- Daniel Sedin
• A lot of players are labeled "point-a-game" guys, but Daniel had 82 in 82 last season. Perfect.
F -- Henrik Sedin
• OK, these twins are scary similar. Try 82 points in 82 games last season. Yeesh.
Fs -- Alex Burrows/Mikael Samuelsson
• Tough to say at this point which of these two guys will cement the coveted Sedin winger job, but Burrows certainly deserves it after playing well there last season and producing a breakthrough 28-goal, 51-point season. But the Swedish Samuelsson, a July free-agent pickup, could also be a good fit.
D -- Willie Mitchell
• The Canucks' alternate captain was a plus-29 last season while playing in all 82 games.
D -- Sami Salo
• Effective when healthy, but hasn't reached the 70-game plateau since 2004.
Best Bet: Daniel Sedin, F: Naturally, in ESPN's standard game, the goal-scoring Sedin twin is the more valuable one. Daniel gets that edge thanks to his power-play goals and shots on goal. At almost 30 years old, it may be too late to hope for any more than a point per game from the twins, but that is still plenty for fantasy owners to enjoy from one of their top forwards. The Canucks are returning largely intact this coming season, and Alexandre Burrows appears to be a good fit as the third man on the Sedin line.
Risky Move: Henrik Sedin, F: Henrik's prospects in the ESPN standard game suffer from the fact he would rather set up his brother than take a shot on net. Although he'll surely finish with about the same point total as Daniel, Henrik is definitely the set-up man of the family. His shots on goal and power-play goal totals won't be up to snuff, and he can therefore be considered a tier lower than Daniel; as a No. 4 fantasy forward.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Vancouver Canucks finish this season in Northwest Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.