VANCOUVER – There’s improved mobility on defence and what coach Alain Vigneault calls more bite up front.
So can the Vancouver Canucks chomp deeper into the playoffs and celebrate their 40th NHL season with a first Stanley Cup?
“We feel we’re good enough to go all the way but I think there’s 20-25 teams that feel the same way,”said Henrik Sedin, the club’s first league MVP and scoring champion.
Expectations are soaring in the city where Lord Stanley’s statue, pleading arms uplifted to the heavens, graces the landmark park named for him.
The Canucks followed a second straight Northwest Division title by bolstering their blue-line with 27-year-old Dan Hamhuis through free agency and trading for Keith Ballard.
General manager Mike Gillis also added a helping of grit in forwards Manny Malhotra, 30, and Raffi Torres, 28.
“It changes our look,”Vigneault said.“We’ve got a big body in Manny Malhotra who’s very good on draws and real good defensively.
“Raffi Torres brings us a lot of energy and a physical presence and (he’s) harder on the forecheck so I think that’s going to change our identity a little bit up front.
“We’ll have a little bit more bite with the addition of those two guys.”
Scoring wasn’t an issue as Vancouver led the Western Conference with 272 goals.
Six forwards topped 25 goals as Henrik Sedin (29), Mason Raymond (25), Mikael Samuelsson (30) and Alex Burrows (35) had career years as snipers.
But defensive toughness was exposed in the playoffs when Vancouver lost a six-game second-round series to Stanley Cup champion Chicago for the second consecutive year.
Hamhuis and Ballard replace defenceman Willie Mitchell, not re-signed after a Jan. 16 concussion, and Sami Salo, out with a torn Achilles tendon.
Mitchell will open the season here Saturday as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.
“There are few guys in the league like him,”said Kevin Bieksa, in his sixth campaign on the Canuck defence.“However we did bring in two guys that are very mobile, very good all-around defencemen and we like to think they’re definitely going to help our club.
“We should be better in that (mobility) area so we should be better suited for the Chicagos and things like that.”
The Hawks used their fluid-skating defenceman to good effect while burly forward Dustin Byfuglien, now with Atlanta, crashed goalie Roberto Luongo’s crease.
“I think with bringing in myself and Manny, guys are just going to buy in,”Torres said when asked if the Canucks will be tougher.
“That’s been the rumour lately, that we were kind of pushed out of the playoffs. Everybody’s got to get a little bit physical. It’s not easy just to bring in a couple of guys and expect them to be physical.”
Torres joined the second line with Raymond and Ryan Kesler (25 goals, 12 on the power play) because the abrasive Burrows is rehabbing after shoulder surgery.
He had two 20-goal seasons for Edmonton and scored 19 last year for Columbus.
The six-foot-two, 215-pound Malhotra will be the third-line centre and is a hit with Vancouver’s Indo-Canadian community which listens to games broadcast in Punjabi on an ethnic station.
The Canucks will also be looking to the Toronto native, who had 14 goals and 33 points last season with the San Jose Sharks, to improve a pedestrian penalty kill.
Henrik Sedin, who won his Hart and Art Ross trophies without the telepathic passing of injured brother Daniel for 19 games, said the new forwards will ease the pressure on the twins.
“We’ve got three, almost four lines that, on a day-to-day basis can score so that’s a big difference for us and for the team.”
The additions are also good defensive news for Luongo.
He backstopped Canada to Olympic gold but begins his 12-year US$64-million contract after posting a .913 save percentage, worst since his rookie year with the New York Islanders.
Luongo shed eight pounds with an off-season cycling regimen along with his two-year captaincy, a role said to be a distraction.
The Canucks have not named a new leader and Gillis has said the 31-year-old workaholic netminder might see rookie backup Cory Schneider get about 20 starts.
“I’ve heard this for a number of years … so I’m just going to get ready to play,”Luongo said.
Will the Canucks discover life in the NHL really does begin at 40?
“We have high expectations in this group this year.”Vigneault said.“We need to be better every day, it’s as simple as that.”
NOTES—The Canucks made the Cup final twice, losing in four games in 1982 and seven in 1994 … they led the NHL in goals by defencemen last season with 42 … Christian Ehrhoff topped the blue-liners with 14 … Vancouver also led in wins when trailing after two periods with 11 … They didn’t see home ice from Jan. 28 until March 12 because of the Winter Olympics but have nothing longer than three five-game road trips this season.