There are a few jobs up for grabs in the line-up as the Vancouver Canucks prepare to open their full training camp on Sept. 15 in Vernon, British Columbia. Before the veterans get together to start their preparation for the year, 38 prospects, signed and unsigned young players, participated in a rookie camp Sept. 9-12.
There has been nothing but change between the pipes for the Canucks, as none of the five goaltenders who dressed for games last season remain with the team. Roberto Luongo will obviously carry the bulk of the load, but there is no sure fire back-up heading into training camp, with the front-runner being 38-year old AHL veteran Wade Flaherty. Despite having decent depth at the goaltending position in the system, none of the young goaltenders are ready to step into an NHL role, no matter how small it is expected to be with a healthy Luongo. The ramification this may have on the Canucks goaltending prospects is that it may open up the starting job in Manitoba for Julien Ellis and encourage the team to offer a pro contract to prospect camp invitee Dustin Slade.
On the blue line, the consensus is that there are five players guaranteed to be on the opening night roster if healthy, including No. 4 ranked prospect Kevin Bieksa. He will almost certainly be joining Canucks veterans Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund as well as newcomers Willie Mitchell and Lukas Krajicek. Free agent signees Rory Fitzpatrick and Yannick Tremblay are also expected to compete for the No. 6 and 7 jobs with the team.
Bieksa will spend the 2005-06 season as the Canucks fourth or fifth defenseman thanks to his strong play in the middle of last season. The Grimsby, Ontario native will be expected to provide toughness and defensive consistency throughout the season. He’s not likely to get any power-play time unless he can demonstrate the offensive abilities that emerged late in his college career can translate to the NHL but will likely see time on the team’s second penalty-killing unit. Bieksa will need to step up his play this season to cement his status as a career NHLer and to help the Canucks reach the playoffs.
Former first round selection Luc Bourdon appears to have the inside track for a top-six role with the Canucks this season, whether he is completely ready or not. Early reports out of the prospect camp indicate that Bourdon is head and shoulders above most of the competition he is facing but he will need to improve his play at the full training camp if he hopes to stick with the team this season. Canucks GM Dave Nonis indicated to Hockey’s Future late last year that Bourdon was extremely close to making the team last season, and they only elected to send him back to the minors because he was going to play a fringe role with the Canucks last season. However, with far less defensive depth available to fill out his roster this season, the organization may be less concerned about his playing time and more concerned about the immediate impact he could have on the organization. He is considered almost a lock to make the team, barring a horrendous performance at camp or the surprise emergence of one of the veteran free agent signees.
It will be particularly interesting to see what sort of role Canucks Head Coach Alain Vigneault has in store for the young New Brunswick native. Going into, and immediately following, the 2005 Draft, Bourdon was identified as a two-way defender with good offensive skills and upside who drew comparisons to former Canuck Ed Jovanovski. However, over the past season it was clear that Bourdon performs best when relied upon as a more defensively-oriented defender as demonstrated at the World Juniors and through the Moncton Wildcats run through the QMJHL playoffs and Memorial Cup.
The Canucks lost a number of forwards due to trade and free agency this offseason (including Todd Bertuzzi, Anson Carter, Jarkko Ruutu and Richard Park) but have also acquired a number of new faces up front such as 20-goal scorer Jan Bulis, Taylor Pyatt and Marc Chouinard who will be in the everyday roster barring an extended slump. The team also has Brandon Reid returning from Europe to make a run at the NHL, Tommi Santala looking to capture the role of faceoff specialist and Tyler Bouck, who got in a dozen games last season. On top of this, the team has former first rounder Ryan Kesler expected to be at camp, although he is still without a confirmed contract and other depth forwards such as Canucks stalwart Trevor Linden and mucker Alex Burrows who the Canucks recently awarded a one-way contract in addition to their scoring-line players returning from last season. Lee Goren and Josh Green who both played more than a third of the season with the squad are also back in the fold.
Despite the fierce competition, Rick Rypien has been turning heads and Coach Vigneault publicly voiced his appreciation of the fierce competitor. Rypien has limited upside and will never develop into a 20-goal scorer at the NHL level, but his sheer will and determination appear to once again have him on the radar of the Canucks. The undersized grinder was impressive in his five-game stint in the show last season before being sidelined by an injury. Rypien will need to bring an elevated level of intensity to every practice, intrasquad and exhibition game in order to earn a spot on the roster, but he certainly has the drive to make it happen. Rypien’s lack of hand skill and hockey sense is something that he can overcome with his impressive desire and the team doesn’t need him to contribute much offensively if he’s playing eight minutes a game on the fourth line.
Another player who has impressed Vigneault in the past is former college player Mike Brown, who plays a similar, straight-ahead, balls-to-the-wall style as Rypien. Brown has the advantage of being much bigger and a better skater, but he lacks the taste of the NHL that Rypien has experienced. Even if Brown doesn’t make it immediately out of the gate, he certainly will be amid the forward pool that will be looked at whenever injuries occur on the bottom two lines.
The prospect with the most pressure on him heading into camp to make the team is minor-league success story Jesse Schultz. The undrafted winger lit the lamp 37 times last season with the Manitoba Moose and has been pencilled into many mock line-ups as Anson Carter’s replacement alongside Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The sniper has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and has a good release to his shot, attributes that do make him right alongside the twins. However, he has struggled early in the prospect camp under the weight of lofty expectations. He will be brought to the main camp with the veterans and given every opportunity to seize a role on one of the top two lines. If he fails to make the team out of camp, a strong showing early in the AHL season should earn him another chance.
September 19 – @ Calgary Flames – 6:00pm
September 21 – @ San Jose Sharks – 7:30pm
September 22 – @ Anaheim Ducks – 7:05pm
September 24 – vs Anaheim Ducks – 5:00pm
September 26 – vs San Jose Sharks – 7:00pm
September 27 – @ Edmonton Oilers – 6:00pm
September 29 – vs Calgary Flames – 7:00pm
September 30 – vs Edmonton Oilers – 7:00pm
The Canucks are a team with a number of available spots waiting to be seized by journeymen veterans or eager prospects. The next few weeks will be determining factors in the careers of several players in the organization. The team’s success will be heavily impacted by how players like Bieksa, Bourdon and Schultz play at training camp and throughout the year. If all of these players fail to live up to expectations, the Canucks will likely find themselves looking in at the playoffs from the outside.
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