VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are in an unfamiliar position.
Perennially a pre-season pick to go deep in the playoffs, this incarnation enters training camp with significantly lower-than-usual expectations from fans and media—and with good reason.
The Canucks fell flat last season, squandering a decent start with a swoon that saw them fail to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
And while many aren’t giving them much of a chance this time around, the players were upbeat Thursday as they reported for medicals and fitness testing at Rogers Arena.
“I think expectations within the group are high,” said forward Daniel Sedin. “We want to win and we don’t look at this as a rebuild or anything. I think we have deep team and we have a team that can make the playoffs, and anything can happen there.
“Maybe from the outside they’re lower, but within the team I think we have high expectations.”
The Canucks finished 12th in the Western Conference last season, eight points back of the final playoff spot. General manager Mike Gillis and first-year head coach John Tortorella were both fired as a result, with new team president Trevor Linden replacing the pair with Jim Benning up top and Willie Desjardins behind the bench.
It’s that clean slate that has the Canucks excited for 2014-15, even if many others don’t share that optimism.
“We try not to get too distracted or influenced by external factors and what the media may think, whether it’s good or bad, or what the fans might think, whether it’s good or bad,” said defenceman Dan Hamhuis. “I think we’re pretty confident and comfortable with the direction that we’re going.”
The heart of the roster that was a game away from winning the 2011 Stanley Cup remains pretty much unchanged heading into training camp in Whistler, B.C., with the exception of Ryan Kesler, who was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for fellow centre Nick Bonino, defenceman Luca Sbisa and two draft picks.
“I really believe in our core,” said Hamhuis. “I believe we’re all still in our prime. I think we’re hungrier than ever. I think being that close and not winning and having a couple tough years since then has got us all very motivated.”
Add to that the addition of goaltender Ryan Miller to hopefully silence the circus in the crease that dogged Vancouver the last few seasons, and wingers Radim Vrbata, Derek Dorsett and Linden Vey, and the Canucks feel they have a more complete roster top to bottom.
“I personally think that if you look at our lineup this year, we’re a deeper team,” said captain Henrik Sedin. “I think in this league, to win consistently, you need three or four lines scoring each and every night. You can’t rely on (only) some guys to do it. That’s when we were at our best a few years ago, when we had a lot of players chipping in each night.”
Much was made last season of the Canucks’ inability to mesh with Tortorella’s defence-first, puck-pressure system, which at times looked like a square peg being jammed in a round hole.
Coming off a Calder Cup victory with the AHL’s Texas Stars, Desjardins said he wants his team to play on the front foot in an ultra-competitive Pacific Division that includes the big three teams from California.
“We want to try to dictate the game. When we play we want it to be about us and how we play,” said the rookie head coach. “That’s our focus: to make sure that we’re ready and that we can play the way we want to play. That will be with tempo and attacking, and with discipline as well. We want to be a real disciplined team. We want to stay out of the penalty box and play hard.”
A number of Canucks had off years last season, and defenceman Kevin Bieksa said the resulting tumble down the standings left a bitter taste in the everyone’s mouth.
“It’s another new season with a new coaching staff,” Bieksa said. “It’s not something we’re proud of but here we are. It’s a fresh start—a chance to redeem ourselves so to speak. We look at ourselves in the mirror first, so we’re looking at having a good year and righting the ship.”
Benning, who like Desjardins is a rookie in his position at the NHL level but has paid his dues in the hockey world, said he expects the Canucks to surprise some people.
“Our division is very tough, the conference is tough, but some of the moves we made this summer were to support our core guys, our core players,” he said. “I feel good about those moves. I think we’re going to come out and compete hard. Our goal is to make the playoffs.”
Before being shown the door, the combative Tortorella said he thought Vancouver’s roster was stale from its run to the Cup final, but that’s not something that seems to concern either Benning or Desjardins.
“The one thing is it makes them more motivated. They know what they can do. They’ve done it,” said Desjardins. “The one thing you always worry is if a player has never reached a certain level, why do you think they can reach that level this year? That’s a bit of a long shot.
“These guys have reached that level and they’re hungry to get back.”
Hamhuis added that he’s confident the Canucks still have plenty to give.
“I don’t think anyone’s out of their prime, as some people have tried to suggest,” he said. “I don’t think anyone was too pleased with where we finished as a team last year, and also individually.”
In the end, however, this roster is starting to show a bit of its age—as seen by some of the injuries last season—and the players know the clock is ticking on their time together to get back on top.
“That’s why we’re here. We’re here to win,” said Henrik Sedin. “I think as a hockey player you get remembered by how much you’ve been winning, and we haven’t won the Stanley Cup yet. That’s our main goal and our only goal.”