VANCOUVER – Defeat can be a cruel teacher.
The Vancouver Canucks believe losing Game 7 of last year’s Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins taught them some valuable lessons that will help them this NHL season.
“The experience makes you stronger,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “It makes you better, it makes you mentally stronger.
“I think we have the major pieces all back. We are all better because of last year. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be better this year.”
Better means winning the Stanley Cup.
Veteran Mikael Samuelsson understands better than most of the Canucks how hard it is for a team to return to the final. He played for the Detroit Red Wing teams that won the Cup in 2008, then lost to Pittsburgh in 2009.
“It’s a bit of a grind and we know it’s going to be a long year,” said Samuelsson, who saw his playoffs cut short due to surgery to repair an abdominal injury last spring.
“We have to start off from Day 1 doing the right things.”
The Canucks were a dominant force in the league last year. Vancouver won the President’s Trophy for the best record in the NHL while setting franchise records with 54 wins, 117 points and 27 road victories.
The Canucks scored more goals than any team and allowed the least. They had the NHL’s best power play and third-best penalty kill.
Daniel Sedin knows it will be hard to repeat those totals.
“We did that last year because we had a good team,” said Sedin, who won the NHL scoring race with 104 points and was awarded the Ted Lindsay Award as the players’ MVP.
“Can we win the Stanley Cup without scoring that many goals? Of course we can. We were a good team last year. We are a good team this year.”
Canuck general manager Mike Gillis managed to keep the nucleus of his team intact, resigning free agents like Bieksa and veteran defenceman Sami Salo.
Vancouver’s top line remains the same—captain Henrik Sedin playing centre between twin brother Daniel and scrappy winger Alex Burrows.
Defensive specialist Manny Malhotra underwent two more procedures on his injured left eye during the summer but says he’s fit to play. Malhotra returned to the lineup for the final after suffering a career-threatening eye injury in mid-March.
The defence remains strong with Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler and Aaron Rome. Keith Ballard is looking for some consistency after an up-and-down season while young Chris Tanev has shown he has the ability to play at the NHL level.
The Canucks lost high-scoring defenceman Christian Ehrhoff to free agency. Also gone from the team that reached the final are forwards Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini, Tanner Glass and Alex Bolduc.
Fans looking for Gillis to make a splash over the summer either by trade or free agency were disappointed.
The only major new signing was 33-year-old forward Marco Sturm, who agreed to a one-year deal worth US$2.25 million. Gillis is gambling Sturm, who has been bothered by knee injuries, returns to the form that saw him score 20 or more goals seven times in his 14-year career.
Losing Ehrhoff will cost Vancouver some firepower along the blue-line. He had 50 points in 79 games last year. Six of his 14 goals came on the power play.
Players like Bieksa and Salo will have to pick up some of that slack.
“I think we have a pretty deep defensive corps,” said Bieksa.
“Christian had an offensive role for us and did a good job. With him gone, you plug someone else in that role and hopefully they can do the job as well.”
The Canucks will start the season without centre Ryan Kesler and forward Mason Raymond.
Kesler, last year’s Selke trophy winner, underwent hip surgery over the summer. Raymond is still recovering from a vertebral compression fracture suffered in Game 6 against Boston.
The jury is still out on whether the Canucks have enough size and toughness in their lineup.
Boston played a physical game in the final and Vancouver didn’t seem capable of pushing back. The Bruins pounded the Sedins, preventing Henrik from getting the puck to Daniel.
It remains to be seen if players like Aaron Volpatti or Mike Duco can add some grit to the Canucks’ finesse.
“I still think we have questions up in the air,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “We’ve got players that we are trying to replace.
“Like other teams in this league you need 20 or 30 games to evaluate exactly what you have. If you look at our team last year, we went into the playoffs and we weren’t even set on our fourth line yet.”
Roberto Luongo will be the Canucks starting goaltender. One of the best goalies in Vancouver history, he still hasn’t shaken the label of a player who doesn’t have the mental strength to win the big games.
Luongo had two shutouts in the final but looked awful in three games in Boston, where the Canucks were outscored 17-3. He was in net when the Bruins won Game 7 in Vancouver 4-0.
Backup Cory Schneider is expected to play more games this year and has the potential to be a starter on other teams.
Schneider’s name often comes up in trade rumours but Gillis maintains he wants to keep both goaltenders in his lineup.
One of the biggest challenges for the Canucks will be to keep focused on the long regular season.
It’s hard to imagine Vancouver not being the best team in the weak Northwest Division. At the very least, the Canucks should claim the third seed in the Western Conference.
Luongo said the Canucks have learned to take nothing for granted.
“That’s a long way ahead of us to be thinking that far,” he said. “We all saw what it took to get there (the final). It’s hard and it’s long.
“There is a lot of work to be done to get back to where we were last year. At this point, it’s pointless to be thinking that far ahead.”