(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
After two consecutive Presidents' Trophies, the Vancouver Canucks took a step back in the abbreviated 2013 campaign. That was to be expected. It's tough to win hockey's greatest trophy one time, let alone twice in a row. They were bound to come down from on high.
Less expected, however, was the step back the Canucks took in the playoffs. Eliminated by the LA Kings in just five games the postseason prior, a worse performance seemed unlikely. But then they managed to do it, losing four straight to the San Jose Sharks.
The sweep, Vancouver's first in over a decade, necessitated changes, the most notable of which was the end of the Alain Vigneault era after seven years behind the Vancouver bench. It was only just as well. The media had been after him all year, and when you're at odds with the media in Vancouver, you're going to have a tough time of it. So naturally, Vigneault was replaced with John Tortorella.
Can he squeeze a turnaround out of a team that appears to be shrinking out of the NHL's elite?
With the assist on this Alex Burrows goal, Henrik Sedin took sole possession of the franchise scoring lead in Vancouver.
I want to say that the goaltending saga in Vancouver came to a merciful end this offseason, but it really didn't -- it just saw a brand new chapter. After attempting to move Roberto Luongo and his cumbersome contract for over a year, the Canucks gave up, instead flipping Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils for the 9th overall pick on draft day. Suffice it to say, most were surprised, Roberto Luongo especially.
After going the entire summer without saying much of anything, which is never a good sign, Luongo reported to camp and seems poised to have a good year, but one gets the sense he's playing less for the Orca and more out of spite for the teams that wouldn't accept his request for asylum.
With the pick they acquired, the Canucks drafted centre Bo Horvat, and he'll be on the opening night roster, so take that, people who said they didn't get immediate help.
Departing the club are Mason Raymond, the speedy winger who played six seasons for the club and put up 25 goals back in 2009-10, and centres Derek Roy and Maxim Lapierre, both of whom were allowed to walk and did so, holding hands, all the way to St. Louis.
Clearly feeling the exiting forwards were far from irreplaceable, Mike Gillis spent the summer digging through the bargains bins, looking for pivots. He turned up Brad Richardson, whom the Canucks signed to a two-year contract that will pay him $1.15 million per year, and Mike Santorelli, who will make just $550,000 this season.
The biggest acquisition on the blueline: Yannick Weber, the no name brand of Webers.
Forward: Daniel and Henrik Sedin continue to be the offensive engines of this team -- the twin engines, if you will -- but at 33 years old, and after a year in which both players dipped just below their usual output, there are questions about whether they're on the downturn of their careers. More questions: can they continue to produce under John Tortorella, who will expect more out of them defensively? Playing defence takes time and energy, and that's time and energy Alain Vigneault preferred the twins spent in the offensive zone. It led to Art Ross seasons for each. Can they get back to that level of production when they'll also be expected to get back into the defensive zone with more frequency and urgency?
The Sedins' linemate is up in the air. It's been Alex Burrows for the past four seasons, and he remains an option, but John Tortorella will give Zack Kassian every opportunity to win that role. Kassian might be able to provide a little toughness on that top line, which will help the Sedins immensely.
Another thing that will help them is a healthy Ryan Kesler, who wasn't rehabbing a surgically-repaired body part for the first time in two years. With Kesler healthy and taking attention away from the Sedins, the entire club operates better. If he can avoid injury and probable running mates David Booth and Alex Burrows can do the same, the Canucks will have two lines, something they didn't have that last year.
Neither did they have a third line centre, a hole that Brad Richardson will have the first crack at filling. Wingers Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins could flank him.
Defense: The Canucks boast a deep blueline, with four defenders -- Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Jason Garrison, and Dan Hamhuis -- that might be the best of the bunch on any given night. Ideally, their top defender is Alex Edler, who can skate, hit, defend, pass and shoot the puck at elite levels, but struggles to do all of those things at the same time and with any consistency. If John Tortorella can coax some consistency out of Edler, the Canucks might have one of the best bluelines in the West.
The biggest issue will be finding Edler a complementary partner. Bieksa, the lone right-sider in that quartet, simply doesn't work there, meaning either Edler is going to have to play his off-side (which history has shown doesn't work), Garrison or Hamhuis will, or Chris Tanev, the 5th defenceman on the depth chart, will be playing a top-four role. He's looked good there, but if he holds down the job, it raises questions for other pairings.
Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa work well together, but if they play together, does Jason Garrison -- he of the Canucks' most lethal weapon, his aggressive, powerful slapshot -- play on the third pairing with Yannick Weber or Andrew Alberts? Who does?
Goalies: Roberto Luongo is back, and not because he wants to be, but because his contract is nigh impossible to move. Fortunately for him, Cory Schneider is gone, and happy-go-lucky backup Eddie Lack isn't quite the same kind of threat to Luongo's throne. With the starter's job back, a chip on his shoulder, and the Olympics coming up and Luongo hoping to retain the job with which he closed the 2010 Games, he should be highly motivated to refind his game and re-establish himself as one of the league's top netminders.
Mike Gillis had a great first few years as GM, but he's hit a wall with this team. None of his moves are working out and the club is stagnating. Is this just a run of bad luck or has has time in Vancouver run out? This year will likely determine that.
Among his big offseason decision was who the new coach would be, and he chose the much-maligned John Tortorella, chased out of New York for meanness. He might be the right fit in Vancouver, who could use a shakeup after seven years of Alain Vigneault's casual approach. But he might also be a terror that alienates his players and struggles to get the team to buy-in. Should be fun to watch.
Is it too self-aggrandizing to pick your own song here? Big Old Goal, man.
The Sedins. They're one of hockey's finest treats to watch, provided you're not cheering for the other team.
Roberto Luongo. There is nothing in the NHL more entertaining than the saga this poor guy is enduring, except for maybe his Twitter account.
The death of the Northwest Division. There was a time when the Northwest Division was hockey's toughest, but that time was long ago. For the past several years, it's been a cakewalk for the Canucks. Unfortunately, it's no more, and the new Pacific Division has some tough teams. Are the Canucks built to handle a truly competitive division?
The new division is going to give Vancouver some trouble, but they remain a deep, talented team in goal, up front, and on the back-end. Barring a collapse, perhaps because John Tortorella's system simply isn't a good fit, this group should be in the playoffs.