VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks headed into training camp Friday with high expectations but also plenty of unanswered questions.
After being eliminated in the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons, the Canucks attempted to get bigger, stronger and faster through off-season trades and free-agent signings.
The new lineup will feature a number of new faces and possibly a couple of veterans back on tryouts. Some observers have tagged the Canucks as early favourite to win the Stanley Cup as they enter their 40th NHL season without having captured one.
“We have high expectations and we’re going to hit those expectations head-on,”said coach Alain Vigneault as the team conducted physicals and medical testing at Rogers Arena before departing for camp in Penticton, B.C. “If our intentions are to play for a championship in June, we need to start doing the right things now.”
But questions linger about Vancouver’s top line, revamped defence corps and third and fourth units that generated little offence last season.
The Canucks are also seeking a new captain after Roberto Luongo, the first goaltender to wear the C for an NHL club since 1948, stepped down in order to focus more on his craft.
The first question about the top line revolves around centre Henrik Sedin and whether he can duplicate a career-year in which he won the league scoring title—after predicting that he wouldn’t—with 29 goals and 83 assists. He also captured the Hart Trophy as league MVP. In addition to the challenge of repeating those feats, he is considered a top candidate to replace Luongo and could face an additional leadership burden.
Contending it doesn’t matter who wears the C on his sweater, Henrik Sedin said he is not aiming to duplicate his 2009-10 output.
“First of all, we don’t really set personal goals,” said Sedin. “Second of all . . . this year, it’s going to be about my wins—that’s the bottom line. That’s what’s the main thing for this city and this team.”
He said it will be interesting to see how the Canucks respond to external pressure. The club can feel honoured by the Stanley Cup predictions, he added, but should not dwell on them.
“We know that our conference and our division (are) real tough,” said Henrik Sedin. “It’s a very small margin from missing the playoffs to winning your division.”
The Canucks must also fill a void on their first line early in the regular season as winger Alex Burrows recuperates from off-season shoulder surgery. Henrik Sedin said he and twin brother Daniel will definitely miss Burrows, who scored a career-high 35 goals last season, but his absence is a loss for the team as a whole.
However, Vigneault is confident that he can come up with an adequate replacement.
“I look around in the dressing room and I look around on my (roster) sheets right now and I see a lot of good internal competition for spots on the team, for ice time (and) for the different roles that are available,” said Vigneault.
At the back end, newcomers Dan Hamhuis, signed as a free agent from the Nashville Predators, and Keith Ballard, acquired in a trade from the Florida Panthers, will be asked to provide a physical presence and occasional offence. They will also have to make up for the loss of shut-down specialist Willie Mitchell, who signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings, and the long-term absence of veteran rearguard Sami Salo. He’s recuperating from a torn Achilles tendon suffered while playing floor hockey in July in his native Finland.
“We’re happy with the way the team looks right now on paper,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “Obviously, it’s a matter of coming together and building chemistry.”
Bieksa, the subject of off-season trade speculation due to salary-cap concerns and inconsistent play last season, said Hamhuis and Ballard will add toughness and versatility to the defence corps.
“We’re going to be an aggressive back end, we’re going to be a versatile back end and we’re going to be a group that can attack,” said Bieksa. “All six of us can all jump in the play.”
The Canucks are also looking for third and fourth-line forwards who can do different things. Free agents Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres have been brought in to provide a more physical presence that Vigneault sought, along with more offensive production after the first two units accounted for most of the goals on a club that led the Western Conference with 272.
“It’s exciting for me to kind of prove myself again,” said Torres, who bounced between Buffalo and Columbus last season.
A member of Edmonton’s 2006 Stanley Cup finalist team, Torres said he sees similarities between these Canucks and those Oilers. But, he added, it’s important for the new and old Canucks to bond quickly.
“The sooner we can come together as a team, I think it’ll help us out in the long run,” said Torres.
Former Canuck Brendan Morrison, who is back on a tryout after being let go by Washington at the end of last season, said competition for spots is much tougher than it was a few years ago in Vancouver.
“Guys are fighting for different jobs and different roles more so than any other year,” said the 35-year-old veteran. “But I think that’s all part of (winning), and that’s what expected of a champion team.”
NOTES:Prospect Cody Hodgson, who missed most of his 2009-10 junior season with Brampton of the OHL due to back troubles, hasbeen cleared for light-contact drills. The same goes for Burrows . . . Former Canuck Peter Schaefer is also in camp on a tryout.