VANCOUVER – The NHL season has not begun yet, but Alain Vigneault’s plans are already in danger of being tested, tweaked and, possibly, scrapped.
Heading into the lockout shortened campaign, the Vancouver Canucks coach wants to keep his players fresh by monitoring their ice time closely. Ideally, he would like to roll four forward lines and six defencemen.
But the absences of injured centre Ryan Kesler (shoulder, wrist) and winger David Booth (groin) have created two holes on the club’s second line that could dictate otherwise.
“We’re going to have to do a good job, especially at the beginning, of spreading the ice time around and making sure that the minutes our players are giving us are quality minutes,” Vigneault said.
Under the extraordinary conditions of a 48-game schedule, last witnessed in 1994-95, it’s impossible to predict how things will go, Vigneault said. But the club’s research shows that a similar roster is needed in a 48-game schedule as in the regular 82-game version.
Accordingly, Vigneault plans to stick with what he knows—a veteran lineup—and make adjustments going forward as the Canucks attempt to win a third straight President’s Trophy as the top regular-season team and get back to the Stanley Cup finals after losing to Boston in 2010-11.
“I’m going to, obviously, start with things that have worked in the past,” Vigneault said. “But I firmly believe that talent has no age. If anybody can step in and contribute to this team, they will be here.”
Journeyman Andrew Ebbett and Jordan Schroeder, Vancouver’s first-round draft choice in 2009 are vying to fill Kesler’s spot. Second-year pro Zack Kassian, acquired from Buffalo in the controversial Cody Hodgson trade last February, appears to have the inside track on replacing Booth.
Vancouver’s other three lines remain largely intact.
The most significant long-term change is in goal with Cory Schneider ticketed to become the starter after displacing Roberto Luongo in last spring’s playoffs. Luongo, who is notorious for slow starts to the season—usually in October—has looked sharp in workouts after honing his game with Quebec goaltending guru Francois Allaire during the lockout.
Luongo will provide goaltending insurance until his long-expected trade is finally completed and the club acquires a veteran backup.
With much of the attention on Luongo’s future and the second line, Vancouver’s major off-season signing—defenceman Jason Garrison—has commenced his Canuck tenure with little fanfare. But there’s no doubt Garrison, a 28-year-old White Rock, B.C., native who signed with his hometown club after playing his first three NHL seasons in Florida, will play a prominent role.
He will replace departed free agent Sami Salo alongside Alex Edler and see action on the power play.
“(Garrison) is a player that, really, I didn’t have a read on, because we didn’t see Florida very much,” Vigneault said. “I had heard a tremendous amount of great things from people that knew him personally, people that had played with him.
“He had nothing but great reviews from our players as they were practising here prior to the start of the training camp.…I can honestly say he’s lived up to billing.”
Chris Tanev, 23, who has excelled in call-ups from the minors the past two seasons, will also play top-six defensive minutes after toiling for Chicago of the AHL during the lockout. Free-agent signings Cam Barker and Jim Vandermeer bolster a blue-line corps that has been hit hard by injuries in recent 82-game seasons and will be challenged again to remain healthy.
“Depth is going to be very important for teams, and the fact that we have quite a few defencemen right now is going to be something real positive for us,” Vigneault said.
Vancouver’s success will rest largely in the scoring hands of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The twins, who won the NHL scoring title in 2010 and 2011, respectively, saw their production decline in 2011-12. Henrik furnished 81 points while playing all 82 games, while Daniel was limited to 67 points in a season limited to 72 games because of a concussion and another injury.
If Vigneault is able to stick to his plan, he will keep a tight lid on the Sedins’ minutes while giving the third and fourth lines more playing time in wake of the second-line health issues. The twins usually play less than other teams’ stars and, even in a compressed season with games meaning something from the start, Vigneault does not want to risk playing them too much.
“They’re just the type of guys that want to do everything that they can for the team, and I’ve got to look at the big picture,” Vigneault said.
The Sedins have spoken to the coach about the possibility of playing more, but the twins said they are fine with Vigneault’s stated goal.
“Every player on this team wants to play a lot,” Daniel Sedin said. “But we’re at our best when we run four lines and everyone plays limited minutes. It’s going to keep everyone fresh. Usually, our team is best, I think, when we get everyone involved.”
In 2011-12, Vancouver ranked fifth in goals-for (241) and fourth on the power play (19.8 per cent) as Daniel Sedin (30), Alex Burrows (28) and Kesler (22) accounting for approximately one-third of the goals (80 altogether.) With Kesler and Booth out and Hodgson gone, secondary scoring will take on greater importance as the Canucks try to contend for the Cup.
Vigneault said he has “turned the page” from last spring’s disappointing first-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings. But after a long summer and extended labour dispute, the early exit does not sit well with Daniel Sedin.
“Every time you lose that last game of the season, it still hurts,” he said. “We’re a team that should be competing for the Stanley Cup. That’s where we want to get to this year.”