Being among the final eight teams last spring may have heightened fans’ expectations in a crazed hockey market like Vancouver but GM Dave Nonis laid out a more modest target as training camp opened Thursday.
“Our first goal is to compete in our conference and make the playoffs,” Nonis said. “I don’t think you can look past that. It’s going to be very difficult to do. I think we have a very competitive, not just division, but conference. And as (coach) Alain (Vigneault) puts it, you have to respect the process of getting there and understand it’s going to be difficult.
“There’s a lot of hard work ahead to make the post-season but that’ll be our first objective.”
Getting back in the post-season in the tough Western Conference will probably require a little more offence. That’s been the hot topic all summer long in Vancouver after the Canucks ranked 21st in the NHL in offence.
With no notable free-agent addition to help cure the problem, the Canucks will need to look within.
“First of all, from Chistmas on we were scoring at a three-plus goal-a-game clip, which puts us pretty much in the middle of the pack,” Nonis pointed out. “So I think we have more goals in our lineup even based on what we had last year coming back.
“With that said, there are players that didn’t have as good offensive years as they’re capable of. We need some goals that were so-called missing to come from the guys that were here before and have shown they can score before.”
And that starts with captain Markus Naslund, who needs to rebound from a subpar, 60-point season. He’s in the last year of a contract that pays him US$6 million so there’s no shortage of incentive. A bounceback year is also needed from Brendan Morrison, who slumped to 51 points last season, his worst output since the 1999-2000 season.
If the Canucks can also get more offence from Matt Cooke and Ryan Kesler, then suddenly there’s a little more support for the Sedin twins, who carried the load last season with career years.
“You want to make sure you’re not a one-line team and that you’re getting goals from all over your lineup,” said Nonis.
Still, expect Nonis to work the phones all season long in search of a top-six forward ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
One forward to keep an eye on in training camp and pre-season is Mason Raymond, Vancouver’s second-round choice from the 2005 NHL entry draft. He tore it up at rookie camp last weekend and has caught the eye of several observers.
The blue-line is top notch and won’t be a concern, Mattias Ohlund and Willie Mitchell anchoring a group also featuring Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Lukas Krajicek and free-agent addition Aaron Miller.
In goal, what else needs to be said after what Roberto Luongo accomplished in his first Canucks season, his franchise-record 47 wins carrying the NHL club into the playoffs.
“He’s been probably more than I expected,” said Nonis, who made the trade of the decade in June 2006. “And when I say that, I think we all knew and felt that he would be a great goaltender on the ice. But his effect on our team off the ice, I can’t overstate it. His work ethic, his leadership, his desire to win, those have been great influences on our whole team.
“Can he play better? I find it hard to believe that he could. But I know he thinks he can. And that just shows you what kind of player he is.”