Week 1 of the NFL season is in the books, and for those who don't know, I am a San Diego Chargers fan. If you are unfamiliar with football, cheering for the Chargers probably feels like cheering for the Sharks: you'll enjoy regular season success, then watch your immensely talented team get knocked off in the playoffs because they are missing....something. It's horribly frustrating, and in my 18 years as a Chargers fan, I've seen them get to the Super Bowl and get destroyed, and seen them go 1-15 only to have the guy they wanted to draft the next year say he will never play for them (hey, Eli - I'm still bitter). Anyway, it was a very disappointing game last night, and I'm very tired this morning.
Ironic that today we check out a team that, if they don't do sometihng in the playoffs soon, could end up in the same category as the Sharks and pre-1997 Red Wings: teams that can't get far in the playoffs despite boatloads of talent.
Arrivals: Keith Ballard; Dan Hamhuis; Manny Malhotra; Jeff Tambellini; Raffi Torres; Cory Schneider
Departures: Willie Mitchell; Brad Lukowich; Andrew Raycroft; Pavol Demitra; Steve Bernier; Michael Grabner
The Canucks were one of the big contenders for the Stanley Cup last season, as they have been for the past few years. However, for the second straight year, the Canucks ran into the Blackhawks in the second round and were unable to advance to the Western Conference Finals. The Canucks have a ton of talent in place, but made some moves that they believe will put them over the top and finally get them to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1994.
Offense: The Canucks are led by the red-headed twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Daniel has always been known as the better goal scorer, while Henrik was known as the play-maker. Neither player, however, had done anything really special until last season, when Henrik picked up 112 points to win the Art Ross and Hart Trophy. Unfortunately, neither one of them was unable to lead their team past the Blackhawks. Beyond the Sedins, the Canucks received 35 goals from referee-target Alexandre Burrows, who has shown steady improvement throughout his first four years in the NHL. The Canucks also got 30 goals out of former Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson, who showed that he was worth the money the Red Wings were unable to give him due to the salary cap. The Canucks are expecting good things from Ryan Kesler, their possible future captain (more on that in a moment), who potted 25 goals last year while being nominated for a Selke Trophy as one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. The Canucks also have 2 good offensive defensemen in Alex Edler and Christian Ehrhoff, who both exceeded the 40 point mark last season. The Canucks finished 2nd in the NHL in total offense, and can score with anyone in the league. Their PP finished a respectable 6th in the NHL, and one thing that you do not want to do is get in to a shootout with them, because they can go toe to toe with anyone offensively.
Defense: Last season, the Canucks defense was good, but not great. Like the Red Wings of the mid-'90s, there was a little too much finesse back there, although the absence of Willie Mitchell for half of the season certainly did not help. The Canucks looked to remedy that problem by bringing in Dan Hamhuis from Nashville/Pittsburgh/Philadelphia, a physical defenseman with an offensive upside. In a sign that the Canucks are not concerned about Roberto Luongo's health, they brought in goalie-wacker Keith Ballard, who hopes to lay some lumber on the opponents instead of his teammates. They still have Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa, and the Canucks have 7 bonafide NHL defensemen on their roster. The Nucks are going to have to figure out who is going to sit, but it's not a bad problem to have. Up front, the Canucks have Selke-candidate (and possible future winner) Ryan Kesler, and they added Manny Malhotra to bolster their third line and upgrade their face-off skills. The Canucks finished 13th in the NHL in team defense, and the additions of Hamhuis and Ballard should improve that. Their penalty killing finished 18th, an area where the Canucks can vastly improve.
Goaltending: The Canucks thought they were getting their stud goalie in Roberto Luongo when they traded for him a few years ago, but his play since then has been inconsistent at best. The team believed in him so much they named him the captain, a move that was as curious as it was stupid. However, Luongo recently relinquished the "C", and hopefully it will go to a leader on the team. It was thought that Luongo was going to give the Canucks the presence in net they had lacked throughout their entire history, but so far he has not lived up to the hype. Personally, I think that Luongo is the most over-rated player in the entire NHL, and I say that knowing full well that he "won" a gold medal for the Canada in the Olympics. However, I just do not believe that he has made the Canucks that much better in the grand scheme of things. Don't get me wrong; he's a pretty good goalie. But nothing he has done in his career has defined him as "elite". Until he can show that he can carry the team and advance them in the playoffs against a good team, I just don't buy the hype surrounding him.
Coaching: Alain Vigneault has been the coach of the Canucks since the 2006-07 season, and has compiled a very good regular season record, winning 3 Northwest Division championships in 4 years. He won the Jack Adams award with the Canucks in 2006-07, the first time he had won and his second nomination (the other was with Montreal in 1999-2000). However, for all of the regular season success he has enjoyed with the Canucks, he has failed to get them to the Western Conference Finals in any of his 4 seasons, and this season he has been handed all of the tools he presumably will need to get the Canucks to the next level. He will be under an enormous amount of pressure this year, and if Vancouver struggles for any extended length of time, I believe a change could be made. I also believe that if the Canucks do not get out of the second round, this will be Vigneault's last year in Vancouver.
Player to Watch: Ryan Kesler is one of the leading candidates to be named captain of the Canucks (ironic since he's American - Captain Canuck, anyone?), and if his play from last season improves, he could have his first 30-goal season while taking home his first Selke Trophy at the end of the year. Kesler is one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, and there were many (myself included) who thought he would win the Selke last year. He's a brash guy, unafraid to voice an opinion or mix things up on the ice. He was one of the best players for Team USA at the Olympics, and he has really stepped up to become a true leader on the Canucks. I think this could be a breakout year for him, but it will be interesting to see how he handles becoming captain if that comes to fruition.
Player With Something to Prove: Look, the Canucks aren't going anywhere until Roberto Luongo finally delivers in the playoffs. His GAA has risen each of his past 3 years in the playoffs, while at the same time his SV% has gone down. Last year, he posted a 3.22 GAA and an .895 SV%, both stats that would get him cut or traded had they been regular season stats. If Luongo can't get it together and play the way he is capable in the playoffs, the Canucks will be known as the new Sharks; tons of talent that gets them regular season success, but nothing to show for it in the playoffs. As the Red Wings can attest, all the talent in the world won't win a Cup if the goalie is not up to the task. Luongo is the highest-visible player on an extremely good team, and consequently he needs to be their best player night in and night out.
Why They Can Win the Division: They are the most talented and best team top to bottom in the Northwest, and this division is theirs to lose. Like Detroit throughout most of the last decade, the Canucks appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in the division, and should have little competition for the division crown over the course of the season.
Why They Won't Win the Division: It's going to take a collapse of pretty big proportions coupled with one of the other teams coming out of nowhwere for the Canucks not to earn one of the top-3 seeds in the West heading into the playoffs. A long-term injury to one of their key players could certainly hurt their chances, but overall this is a very deep team that should navigate the regular season with few issues.
My Prediction: The Canucks are entering the 2010-11 season as the favourite to win the West and get to the Stanley Cup Finals. I'll believe that when I see it. I have no doubts the Canucks are a talented team, and on paper they have to be considered one of the top contenders in the NHL. However, as long as they have Luongo on the team, I will always question whether they have the ability to get beyond the second round, let alone win the Stanley Cup. I'm not sold on Vigneault as a coach, and I'm curious to see whether Henrik Sedin's great season last year was indicative of what he is capable of or was just a fluke. I see the Canucks winning the Northwest, but only because I don't see a major threat to them within the division. Like the Red Wings for most of the past 10 years, the regular season isn't going to mean anything to the Canucks; they could win the President's Trophy and still have this season considered a failure. For the Canucks, it's Stanley Cup or bust, and what they do in the playoffs will determine whether this year is a success or not. I only hope that if the Wings play the Canucks in the playoffs, it's in the third round so I don't have to deal with 9 pm start times. I'm an old man and that's way past my bedtime.