VANCOUVER, B.C. – One of the consistencies of the Vancouver Canucks over the last several seasons has been the NHL team’s inconsistency.
Sandwiched between winning two Northwest Division titles is a year of missing the playoffs. Last season, the Canucks almost crippled themselves with an eight-game losing streak in January, then recovered to bolt down the stretch with a 23-7-2 record.
When Mike Gillis took over as general manager last year he promised to do things differently. Some of his ideas and moves may have initially raised eyebrows, but he seems to have brought an identity and stability to the franchise that has the players believing the Canucks are ready to challenge for a Stanley Cup.
“A year ago there wasn’t an established identity of what this team was all about,” said soft-spoken forward Ryan Johnson, one of the more analytical Canucks. “There were a lot of questions, a lot of new faces.
“Now, this team certainly has a sense of direction of what kind of team it wants to be and is going to be. We feel like we left a lot on the table last year and we’re ready to pick it up from Game 1. I think you are going to see a much more mature team and a much more focused team.”
The Canucks won their division last year with a 45-27-10 record. They swept the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the Western Conference semifinal.
The loss to Chicago exposed some of Vancouver’s weaknesses. Gillis spent the summer re-signing the core of the team, bringing in a top forward, and adding speed and depth to the defence.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo was locked up with a 12-year, US$64-million contract. Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who each had 82-point seasons last year, agreed to five-year, US$30.5-million deals.
With his veterans in place, Gillis signed unrestricted free agent forward Mikael Samuelsson to US$7.5 million over three years. The former Detroit Red Wing brings the experience of winning a Stanley Cup along with the scoring potential of playing on a line with the Sedins.
After losing veteran defenceman Mattias Ohlund as a free agent, Gillis strengthened his blue-line by acquiring Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich from the San Jose Sharks and signing veteran Mathieu Schneider, another player who has won a Stanley Cup.
They join a defence that already has Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Willie Mitchell, Shane O’Brien and Sami Salo.
Gillis said the faster, stronger defence will help Vancouver offensively.
“We are seeing a lot more offence generated from our defence,” said Gillis. “They are skating with the puck a lot more.
“I believe we are really an aggressive team. We have guys that can fight. I think we have the ability to change the course of a game on our terms.”
Up front, the Canucks will rely heavily on the Sedins for offence. Vancouver also hopes players like Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Kyle Wellwood can match, or exceed, the career seasons they had in scoring last year.
Past Canuck teams often showed potential but sometimes lacked heart.
Coach Alain Vigneault believes that’s no longer an issue.
“I think we’ve got better depth and that depth is going to permit us to handle the challenge of this year’s schedule and also handle player injuries,” said Vigneault, who has been rewarded with a three-year contract extension.
“We’ve always thought that we are a good team and that we are progressing. If we continue to progress, and we continue to get better, we should be able to challenge for the Cup.”
Luongo said the Canucks have matured.
“We are all a year older,” said the all-star goaltender. “We have been together now a few years.
“We’re growing together as a team. I think that transition is going to be important this year to take another step forward.”
Samuelsson, who had 19 goals and 40 points with Detroit last year, likes the Canucks’ potential but warns about the task ahead.
“I see the potential, but at the same time 10 teams have the potential, even 20 teams,” he said.
The 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver presents special challenges to the Canucks.
Luongo is expected to play for Canada, the Sedins for Sweden and Kesler for the U.S.
The Canucks will also have an NHL-record, 14-game road trip sandwiched around the Games. Counting the break the league will take for the Olympics, fans will go six weeks without a Canuck home game.
O’Brien doesn’t think the extended road trip should impact the team.
“I think we have enough character and mental toughness in here, I don’t think that is going to be a problem,” said the rugged defenceman. “If we put ourselves in a good situation going into that, by getting off to a good start and having a good first half, we should be all right.”
Last year’s playoff loss left an empty feeling in the Canuck dressing, something the team is anxious to fill.
“I think we are hungrier,” said Mitchell. “We think we can beat anyone.
“This year there is the added element that we are a really motivated group from what we felt we left on the table. We’re not happy about losing in the second round. We feel we are a team that can win the Stanley Cup.”