After failing to make the playoffs last spring, the Canucks organization has made some significant changes. The most notable moves have come in the front office and among the forwards. General Manager Dave Nonis was fired and replaced with former player agent Mike Gillis. The team changed the responsibilities of Stan Smyl and brought former players Ryan Walter and Dave Gagner into coaching and player development positions respectively.
The on-ice changes are equally as dramatic. Captain Markus Naslund was not re-signed and Brendan Morrison moved on to the Anaheim Ducks. This completed the dismantlement of the West Coast Express line (which also featured Todd Bertuzzi), one of the most productive lines in the NHL while it was together.
The Canucks Prospects Camp runs Sept. 12-16, including a brief prospect tournament in Camrose, Alberta. The veterans report for testing on Sept. 19 with the official training camp starting Sept. 20.
Nothing has changed between the pipes for the Canucks. Blessed with one of the elite goaltenders in the world in Roberto Luongo, who is a renowned work horse, the team has few concerns about depth.
Curtis Sanford has, however, proven himself a capable backup goaltender at the NHL level over the past couple of years. He saw very limited action last year, appearing in 16 games, but factoring into the decisions of only about half of those. He did not seem out of place during his brief stints between the pipes, but that still doesn’t make him Luongo.
The most interesting component of the Canucks goaltending situation as we move towards training camps has to be the status of prospect Cory Schneider. This season will be a proving ground for the young netminder to show which of his half-seasons last year were more reflective of his NHL potential. Schneider has been heavily rumored to be seen as a trade asset by the Canucks dating back to before he signed with the organization. If the Canucks fail to bring in Mats Sundin, Schneider is one asset they may be willing to part with in order to land some scoring.
There are no spectacular changes to the Canucks defense unit. The only incomers of note are the returning Nolan Baumgartner and Rob Davison who promises to provide some toughness from the blue line.
Otherwise it will be the stellar group from last season that once again will be expected to carry the load for the Canucks. The biggest question along the blueline for the team is how long can they stay healthy? Every member of the Canucks defense corps missed significant time due to injury last season. If injuries plague the squad once again, players like Nathan McIver, potentially Shaun McIver and Zack Fitzgerald get their shots.
The big changes have resulted in Pavol Demitra signing with the Canucks and former Moncton Wildcat Steve Bernier coming to Vancouver via trade. Going into training camp, the Canucks have 13 forwards who are widely expected to share the duties, and Mason Raymond is the only youngster confidently slated on that list.
However, there is great uncertainty surrounding several of the potential players and an obvious lack of offensive punch in the ground. Perhaps the one player most under scrutiny will be Kyle Wellwood, who will be expected to perform early in the season if he hopes to spend more time on the ice rather than the press box.
Players such as Darcy Hordichuk and Jeff Cowan will likely battle one another for ice time and should expect to find themselves pressed by the young, better skating Mike Brown for minutes if they don’t get the job done in the first half of the season.
Cody Hodgson is somewhat of a wild card in the mix. The Canucks’ first-round pick in the 2008 draft is a talented two-way player who showed last season he has the ability to dominate in junior. However, the reality of the matter is he’ll be better served in the long term being able to develop his skills and his physical attributes in the OHL this year, rather than try to cope with the rigors and pressures of an NHL schedule.
If the team struggles offensively as many anticipate, look for Jannik Hansen and Michael Grabner to potentially get call-ups to spark some offense. Other AHL veterans like Jason Krog or Alexandre Bolduc may also find themselves the beneficiary of an anemic offense.
At this point it’s almost impossible to forecast what the Canucks lines will look like on opening night. Gillis has publicly said there is a Plan B if Sundin doesn’t come to Vancouver, which presumably would involve the acquisition of at least one more forward to help bolster the offense.
Overall, the Canucks will need either significant talent to be brought in, or breakout seasons offensively from Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond if they hope to make the playoffs.