Well, it’s that time of the year again. Another hockey season is nearly upon us. The question of concern for this blog: How will the Vancouver Canucks do this year?
Let us start by revisiting last season, briefly. The much-underestimated Canucks confirmed the ineptitude of most hockey pundits by not only making the playoffs (most ‘reputable’ pundits and publications predicted no better than a 10th place finish) but winning the Northwest division in the process. The Canucks then proceeded to make it through to the second round of the playoffs, dispensing with the Dallas Stars only to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks.
Why? A few reasons. Most notably, Roberto Luongo. Luongo proved himself not only one of the best goalies in the league, but capable of winning many games with his performance alone. Another is that coach Alain Vigneault instilled a work ethic, team spirit, defensive awareness, and will to win in tough circumstances that had been sorely lacking for many years. Also, the Sedin’s came out and proved they are the offensive leaders on this team, each scoring in excess of 80 points. Finally, the defence, led surprisingly by Kevin Bieksa, was spectacular.
So, what about this year? There is reason to believe, I think, that the Canucks will be even better this season. Another division title and at least another round in the playoffs are on the cards.
Let me defend the assertion. First, the Canucks, in acquiring veteran D-man Aaron Miller, have arguably the best defence core, top to bottom, in the NHL. Bieksa, Willie Mitchell, Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo, Lukas Krajicek and Miller each bring something different to the table–and something that most teams would surely love to have. Second, forwards Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund, both of whom were disappointing offensively last season, are in the final year of their contracts. In other words, they both have something to prove–and that means an increase in production for the both of them is likely. That should mean the Canucks have two offensively gifted lines (Sedins and Pyatt; Naslund, Morrison and whomever Coach V decides to play with them) to complement solid third and fourth lines (any combination of Linden, Kesler, Cooke, Cowan and Ritchie/Isbister/Burrows/Raymond/Hansen). Third, and most important, Luongo is even hungrier in terms of his desire to take the Canucks even further into the playoffs this time around.
What about the competition? The most improved team in the division is undoubtedly the Colorado Avalanche. The signings of Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan will dramatically improve a team that was not far out of the playoff picture last season. They remain weak at the back, and their goaltending is questionable, but they are a team to be wary of for the aforementioned reasons.
The Edmonton Oilers will be better than they were last year, but that is not saying much. Yes, picking up Sheldon Souray and Joni Pitkanen will help improve their power play. But, picking up Souray and Pitkanen will help every team the Oilers play pad their offensive stats even-strength. The Oil ‘improved’ their offence by essentially replacing perennial 70 point man Smyth with 45 point man Dustin Penner. Enough said.
The Calgary Flames saw fit, after performing poorly last year and ignominiously bowing out of the playoffs in the first round, to fire Jim Playfair (good move) and replace him with ‘Iron’ Mike Keenan (horrible, incomprehensible move). Yeah, that’s right: the one and the same Keenan who has not completed a single, full season behind any team’s bench since winning the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994; the same Keenan who has a penchant for alienating and dividing the dressing room usually within about eight minutes of taking over head coaching jobs; the same Keenan who prefers berating his ‘star’ players and replacing them with aging plumbers he coached previously with the Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks prior to 1992; the same Keenan who thought he would stick it to contract malcontent Roberto Luongo by trading him to the Vancouver Canucks (along with Lukas Krajicek) for Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld, and Bryan Allen (the former two were discarded by the Florida Panthers for little, if anything, within a year). Anyway, you get the idea. The Flames are in for an interesting season. Look for them to struggle to make the playoffs.
The Minnesota Wild are the ‘wild’ card (yeah, pretty clever, I know) in the division. They traded goalie Manny Fernandez to Boston, meaning Niklas Backstrom will be the unchallenged starter this year. If Marion Gaborik can stay healthy, they are going to be as good or better than last year. If nothing else, the eight games they play against each of their Northwest rivals will be a battle.
My predicted division standings, then:
Look for Vancouver, Minnesota and one of Colorado/Calgary to make the playoffs.
Look for the Canucks to make it to the Western Conference Finals. They are not quite ready to progress further than that, yet.