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Not a pretty picture

All you can really say about the Vancouver Canucks is: Good luck, Roberto Luongo.

There isn’t a whole lot to like about a team that was on the verge of being a power in the West a couple years ago besides its All-Star goalie. There’s no offense to speak of, a defense that’s too old, slow and soft, and a new general manager who has zero experience in running a hockey team.

But stranger things have happened. It is a long season, and things aren’t always as they appear. No one could have expected the Canucks to lose seven of their last eight games last year and fall from the verge of a division title to last place and out of the playoffs.

It was a shocking turnaround and signaled big changes throughout the organization. General manager Dave Nonis was fired and replaced with high-profile player agent Mike Gillis. The question is: Will Gillis’ success representing players in his former career translate into overseeing a franchise better than it’s been done before? The Canucks have been around since 1970, never won a Stanley Cup and have won two series’ during the same playoffs just once in 25 seasons since reaching the 1982 Finals.

Knowing he has Luongo under contract for this season and next, Gillis started to reshape the Vancouver roster around the 29-year-old puck-stopper, who has clearly been the Canucks’ best player the last couple of seasons.

In 2002-03, Markus Naslund (102), Brendan Morrison (71) and Todd Bertuzzi (97) combined for 270 points, making up the most potent line in hockey. Bertuzzi has long since departed, and the remaining two left the organization over the summer. Naslund and Morrison both took the free-agent route out of town when it became clear Gillis was taking Vancouver in another direction.

On top of that, long-time fan-favorite Trevor Linden, maybe the franchise’s most recognizable player ever, retired. It’s a good thing the fans in Western Canada are so passionate about their Canucks because their patience is being tested.

Gillis made a number of tough decisions that, in all honesty, you can’t really dispute. Naslund and Morrison are aging vets who were showing diminishing returns. Linden’s time had come, regardless of the change in the GM office. But what will be interesting is how Gillis proceeds with the Sedin twins – Henrik and Daniel – who are both in the final year of contracts that lead directly into unrestricted free agency next summer.

It’s not an easy call. On one hand, the Sedins are really all Vancouver has left at the outset of this season in terms of marquee talent up front. Then again, exactly how good are the twins? Both are 28. Henrik is more the set-up guy, never having scored more than 18 goals in a season and producing at a rate of basically a point a game each of the last three seasons. Daniel scored 36 goals two years ago, but that’s the only time during his seven seasons he’s deviated from between nine and 29 goals.

Certainly both will be asked to fill first-line roles this season, and that might be a bit of a stretch. Assuming both will want to continue to play for the same team, it’s a double hit on the payroll, and they won’t come cheap. It’s a unique situation for all involved.

Last season: 39-33-10, 88 points, fifth place Northwest Division, 11th place Western Conference. The Canucks melted down in their final eight games of the regular season, resulting in seven losses, to shockingly go from the middle of the playoff pack to the outside looking in for the second time in three years.

Imports: RW Pavol Demitra (2007-08 team: Minnesota Wild), C Kyle Wellwood (Toronto Maple Leafs), LW Darcy Hordichuk (Nashville Predators ), D Nolan Baumgartner (Dallas Stars), C Ryan Johnson (St. Louis Blues), RW Steve Bernier (Buffalo Sabres/San Jose Sharks), D Rob Davison (New York Islanders), C Jason Krog (Atlanta Thrashers), D Lawrence Nycholat (Ottawa Senators).

Exports: RW Trevor Linden (retired), LW Markus Naslund (New York Rangers), C Brendan Morrison (Anaheim Ducks), C Ryan Shannon (Ottawa Senators), D Aaron Miller (available free agent), RW Brad Isbister (Ottawa Senators), C Byron Richie (available free agent), D Mike Weaver (St. Louis Blues).

Three keys to the season: Hate to hit on the obvious, but it looks like Luongo is going to have to be Superman to keep the Canucks afloat. People say he faltered late last year, almost pinning the blame for Vancouver’s fortune on Luongo, but his overall numbers last season (2.38 goals-against average and .917 save percentage) were pretty darn close to those of the year before (2.28 GAA and .921 save percentage) when everyone was singing his praises. Luongo is being asked to do too much, and to his credit he doesn’t sound off. The 72 games in which he appeared for Florida in 2003-04 were the fewest in which he’s played in each of the last four years. He’s a workhorse, and he’s just moving into the prime years of his career. Gillis would be smart to look for ways to lock Luongo up longer term.

Second, somehow the Canucks are going to have to mine some goals from a group of forwards that doesn’t look very capable of lighting the lamp with great frequency. Steve Bernier, the inconsistent yet still young forward who bounced from San Jose to Buffalo and now to Vancouver in the span of a couple months, is going to get a crack at joining the Sedins on the top line. Pavol Demitra, 33, has been in offensive decline since the 2002-03 season, yet he’s being asked to fill the No. 2 center role. Two unproven forwards – Mason Raymond and Taylor Pyatt – could flank him. The Canucks will try to build a two-way third line with Ryan Kesler centering Matt Pettinger and Kyle Wellwood. That leaves roles players Alex Burrows, Ryan Johnson, Darcy Hordichuk and Jason Krog to battle it out for an energy fourth line.

Third, the defense is going to have to move the puck and display more physical effectiveness than in the recent past. Mattias Ohlund, Willie Mitchell and Sami Salo are all in the over-30 club, yet they figure to log the most minutes along with Kevin Bieksa, the late-blooming 27-year-old who was limited to 34 games last season due to injury. Alexander Edler burst on the scene with a strong rookie season and is a candidate to move up the ladder if he can avoid the sophomore slump.

On the hot seat: Alain Vigneault could become an early-season scapegoat if the Canucks break slow out of the gate, especially considering all the change that occurred around him while he managed to survive last year. Vigneault is a defense-first coach, but the Canucks have been labeled “boring” of late, and that’s not a good way to appease an otherwise supportive market. Gillis is said to want his team to be more offensive. There could be a clash of styles here.

Poised to blossom: Raymond, up to 182 pounds from a listed 165 last season, is one of the few Canucks forwards with blazing speed. He’s working on building his upper-body strength, and keeping his feet is the biggest challenge, but he got his feet wet with 49 games last season and managed nine goals and 21 points. He should get a lot of minutes early and will probably see some special teams play, so if there’s a player who might be ready to take advantage of his opportunity, it just might be this native of Cochrane, Alberta.

Analysis and prediction: Train wreck. They won’t score, they won’t be good defensively outside of an overworked Luongo, who better be prepared to face 35-40 shots a night. The coach will probably get fired, the fans might turn on them. It’s just not going to be pretty at all.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Sep 29, 2008