VANCOUVER – After being retooled from the front office all the way down to the fourth line, the Canucks will have a different look this NHL season.
The question that remains to be answered is have the Canucks made enough changes to return to the playoffs?
“The guys are upset the way things ended last year,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo, whose play will decide the Canucks success this year. “I know I am. We’re hungry to get back at it this year.”
The Canucks folded going down the stretch last season, losing seven of their final eight games to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. That cost general manager Dave Nonis his job and led to some house cleaning behind the bench and on the ice.
When former player agent Mike Gillis was hired to replace Nonis he promised a different way of doing things. So far he hasn’t disappointed.
He kept Alain Vigneault as coach, but assistants Barry Smith and Mike Kelly were fired. He tried to hook free agent Mats Sundin with a whale of an offer and tossed tradition out the window when Luongo was named team captain.
On the ice, captain Markus Naslund and centre Brendan Morrison – who along with Todd Bertuzzi once formed one of the most feared lines in the NHL – left as free agents. Local icon Trevor Linden retired.
When Sundin didn’t bite on Vancouver’s two-year, US$20-million offer, Gillis signed Pavol Demitra instead. The Canucks acquired big forward Steve Bernier in a trade from Buffalo, picked up enigmatic scorer Kyle Wellwood after Toronto put him on waivers, and signed free agents Ryan Johnson, Darcy Hordichuk and Rob Davison.
The Canuck training camp has also been stocked with young players like Cody Hodgson, the 18-year-old centre Vancouver took 10th overall in this year’s draft, Mason Raymond, a 23-year-old speedster from Calgary, and Jannik Hansen, a 22-year-old left winger from Denmark.
“We designed this whole training camp around making sure every player felt they had an opportunity to make this team,” said Gillis. “So far, it’s been pretty good. I thank that galvanized the group.
“The guys we brought in, everyone one is a character guy. They’ve been recognized before on teams as character people. They will be recognized here, and already are, as character people.”
The Canucks struggled to a 39-33-10 record last year. One of the team’s biggest problems was scoring. Vancouver managed just 213 goals last year. Only six teams scored fewer.
Bernier has spent the exhibition season playing on a line with Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The move to the West Coast gives the 23-year-old a chance to revive a career that seemed to falter after a promising start in San Jose.
“They play a style that I have never seen before,” said Bernier. “A lot of cycling. It’s tough to know where to go.
“They like to have the puck, both of them. I just need to find where to go to take a good shot or be in front of the net.”
Demitra – who signed a two-year, US$8-million contract – had 15 goals and 54 points in 68 games with Minnesota last year. His best season was in 2002-03, when he had 38 goals and 57 assists for St. Louis. So far he’s looked comfortable on a line with Raymond and Taylor Pyatt.
While scoring goals is a must for Vancouver, hardnosed centre Ryan Kesler thinks the team’s biggest improvement has been in the toughness department. Hordichuk and Johnson add some grit that was lacked last season.
“I personally like those moves a lot better than some of the moves the other teams made,” said Kesler, who looks at home playing with Alex Burrows and Hansen. “Those guys are going to be the guys that put us over the top, not the big superstars. I think we have the right intangibles in here.”
“I think we are having teams come in here and realize that to get two points in this building you are going to have to fight and scratch for them,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to abuse people and we’re going to be proactive in taking the game to the opponent.”
Injuries on the blue-line hobbled the Canucks last year. Defencemen Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Lukas Krajicek missed over 123 games through injury. With the defence healthy again the Canucks have a better chance of winning the close games.
For the Canucks to reserve their fortunes they will need stellar play from Luongo most nights. The big goaltender seemed to tire under the media scrutiny he received last season, especially as he dealt with his wife giving birth to the couple’s first child.
“There is a really good vibe going on around in the locker-room right now,” said Luongo, who looks recharged and anxious after the summer. “We have a lot of confidence in ourselves. We know we can get the job done.
“It’s like the first year I got here. There was a couple of new additions, the guys really didn’t know what to expect. The only difference is now we know what to expect. We know what type of team we have and we know we can get the job done.”
The tinkering with the Canucks might not be finished yet.
Gillis extended Vigneault’s contract by just one year. The coach could be on a short leash if the Canucks stumble out of the gate.
The Sedin twins and Ohlund are both entering the final years of their contracts. Talks are underway to sign new deals.
Luongo has two years left on his contract, but if he doesn’t see the team as a Stanley Cup contender, he may want out sooner. The Canucks could also put him on the block if the team is out of playoff contention by the trade deadline.