Vancouver Canucks season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:34 PM ET
ESPN.com

Vancouver Canucks

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

We confess. A season ago, we liked the Vancouver Canucks not just to win the division but also to win a Stanley Cup. How were we to know that the team would collapse in a morass of in-fighting, underachievement and injury? A dramatic makeover that includes the departure of the sometimes acerbic coach Marc Crawford, the almost always surly Todd Bertuzzi and the almost always injured Dan Cloutier, along with solid young defenseman Bryan Allen and young netminder Alex Auld, has some thinking the Canucks might return to the lofty heights we predicted a year ago. We don't think so. Alain Vigneault, in his second NHL coaching gig, has promised to shake things up on the left coast, but unless he can shake some offense into the lineup and shake Willie Mitchell into Ed Jovanovski, the Canucks are going to be life and death to even make the playoffs, even with Roberto Luongo between the pipes.

Offense: Even with the Steve Moore episode hanging over Todd Bertuzzi, one imagined the new NHL would have been a thriving environment for the power forward. It didn't happen. Bertuzzi slumped to 71 points and the big man's inconsistent play led indirectly to Crawford's decision, wise or not, to break up what had been one of the NHL's most potent forward combinations: Bertuzzi, Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison. Naslund slumped, too, finishing with 79 points. Morrison had just 56, although he played hurt for much of the season. Perhaps most troubling was that when the Canucks had the opportunity to squeak into the playoffs, Naslund could not provide the leadership needed to get them there. In the face of overwhelming disappointment, the Canucks were buoyed by the emergence of twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin as bona fide NHL stars. Henrik, the center, was second in team scoring with 75 points and left winger Daniel was fourth (71). By the end of the season, they were the go-to guys and they responded. Look for both to continue to evolve not just as producers, but as leaders for the Canucks, perhaps playing with Naslund as a potent all-Swede unit. The question facing both Sedins will be how they respond without right winger Anson Carter, who signed on the eve of training camp with Columbus. His 33 goals were a team-best, as were his seven game winners. The arrival of Jan Bulis will do little to fill that void.

Defense: The Canucks were in the middle of the pack defensively, some of which could be traced to the fact they used five goalies. The loss of Sami Salo, injured at the Olympics, and Ed Jovanovski, who missed most of the season's second half, crippled the Canucks on both sides of the puck. Salo and his big shot will return, but Jovanovski is in Phoenix, replaced for all intents and purposes by Mitchell. Also gone are the useful Nolan Baumgartner and Keith Carney, giving the Canucks a whole new look on the back end. In Jovanovski's absence, veteran Mattias Ohlund becomes the blue line leader. He led all Canucks with 25:40 a night and had 13 goals. The one unknown quantity along the blue line will be Lukas Krajicek, who comes over in the Luongo deal. He will be expected to eat up minutes along a blue line that looks, on paper, to be much thinner than a season ago.

Goaltending: This is what it's all about as far as Canucks fans are concerned. For years, the theory was that the only thing standing in the way of a championship run was the goaltending. It cost them, but Luongo is expected to be that guy. But a word of caution. This will be the first time Luongo has been expected to deliver the goods on a nightly basis in a true hockey market. In Florida, Luongo was praised if he stopped 40 shots and the Panthers lost 4-3. In Vancouver, he should face fewer shots, but he'll have to deliver the wins. Also, in the new NHL, goalies who can control rebounds as opposed to simply blocking shots will be the ones that enjoy success. Luongo is more of a shot blocker.

Coaching: Vigneault has been around the block as both a scout and minor league coach since his first NHL coaching gig in Montreal between 1997 and 2001. Having worked in Canada (both in Montreal and in Winnipeg, where he coached the Moose last season), he understands the pressures, which puts him ahead of the curve. His major challenge will be in trying to help the team recover from the schisms that marked last season's disappointing turn. It's expected he'll ask for more defensive accountability than Crawford and he'll be a little more conservative offensively, which makes sense given he doesn't have all that many tools up front.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
9th The Canucks may have upgraded in net, but their defense isn't as strong. They don't look much better on offense, either. The Canucks will be fourth in the division and will again miss the playoffs by a hair, finishing ninth in the West.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. The Canucks enjoy a loyal, vocal fan base and there is unmitigated excitement over Roberto Luongo's arrival and, generally, relief that the Todd Bertuzzi era has come to a close in Vancouver.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Roberto Luongo comes to Vancouver with a hefty new contract and loads of expectations. With better support, he'll be expected to make his best case yet for a Vezina Trophy. While Todd Bertuzzi and Ed Jovanovski are gone, Markus Naslund remains a top-50 fantasy talent, and Sami Salo could benefit with more power-play responsibilities. Twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin also showed enough improvement in 2005-06 that they should challenge for point-per-game totals. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Canucks:
1. Luc Bourdon, 19, D, Moncton (QMJHL)
Statline: 30 GP, 3 G, 25 A, 62 PIM
2. Cory Schneider, 20, G, Boston College (HE)
Statline: 23-12-2 record, 2.03 GAA, .930 SV%
3. Kirill Koltsov, 23, D, Omsk
Statline: 44 GP, 9 G, 8 A, 100 PIM
4. Julien Ellis, 20, G, Shawinigan (QMJHL)
Statline: 27-19-0 record, 3.45 GAA, .900 SV%
5. Alexander Edler, 20, D, Kelowna (WHL)
Statline: 62 GP, 13 G, 40 A, 44 PIM
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Vancouver Canucks
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record42-32-8 (92 points)
DivisionFinished fourth in Northwest
ConferenceFinished ninth in West
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Ryan Kesler
The Detroit native might be the most famous 10-goal player in the NHL right now after the Flyers tried to sign him to an offer sheet, which the Canucks matched. As a result, Kesler will be paid $1.9 million or about $190,000 per goal. Talk about pressure.
Winger: Markus Naslund
Three years ago, Naslund looked like he was headed to a scoring title, and with a more open NHL, there's no reason he shouldn't be around the 100-point mark. Assuming he is healthy (he took the Olympics off last season to rest up), the question now is whether he's got the right mind-set to get there.
Defense: Lukas Krajicek
He's the wild card in the Bertuzzi/Luongo deal. If he can eat up some minutes and chip in some offense, the Canucks will come out ahead in the biggest trade of the offseason.
Goalie: Roberto Luongo
This is Luongo's show. There isn't a viable backup, so he'll have to play close to 70 games, which may be asking too much.

Key Moves
It's all Luongo all the time now in Vancouver. Willie Mitchell will help stabilize the defense in the absence of the talented Jovanovski. Up front, the Canucks did little to improve their lot, hoping that Naslund and Morrison returning to form will be enough. They will miss Anson Carter.

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