Coming off a successful regular season that included the Northwest Division title and a brief Stanley Cup run into the second round before being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Canucks are returning with most of the pieces from last year’s team still in place. In fact, every single one of the team’s Top 10 scorers from last season is returning with the only notable player not coming back being the much-maligned Jan Bulis.
Despite the fact that most of the team is available to remain intact, GM Dave Nonis and Head Coach Alain Vigneault made it perfectly clear to reporters attending the Canucks Rookie Camp last week in Victoria that if a young player proves that he can improve their on-ice team, they will make the necessary moves to get that player on the roster. Vigneault went as far to say that, as a result of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement and salary cap structure, he believes every successful NHL team will need to have two or three contributing young players on the roster.
The Canucks open their main training camp on Sept. 13 at Bear Mountain Arena in Victoria, BC.
The Canucks have not only one of the best goalies in the world, but also one of the most durable. Roberto Luongo has appeared in a remarkable 224 games over the past three seasons (an average of 75 games per year) while consistently turning out some of the best performances in the league. With that said, there is zero chance that someone is going to upset the Hart and Vezina Trophy contender from his starting job. In fact, they may not be able to pry more than a handful of starts away from the workaholic.
With last year’s backup Dany Sabourin headed back to the Pittsburgh Penguins (the same team the Canucks pilfered him off waivers just before the start of the 2006-07 season), the team had an opening in net. They filled that quickly by picking up free agent, and perennial Canuck killer, Curtis Sanford. Despite his performances against Vancouver the past few years, the Owen Sound native was not offered a contract by the Blues. The Canucks may have signed Sanford solely to prevent another Western Conference team from signing him.
This doesn’t leave much hope for former college standout, and the Canucks top-rated prospect at HF, Cory Schneider. Despite being one of the best goaltender prospects around, Schneider has little to no hope of landing a spot on this year’s team. In fact, the mature and well-spoken Marblehead, Massachusetts native will have to battle it out with Drew MacIntyre for starter’s minutes with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
The Canucks believe that you can never have too many NHL-level defensemen, which is probably why the team is so excited to have both Alexander Edler and Luc Bourdon both on the verge of being able to play in the big show. Although the team has likely one of the best groups of top-six defensemen in the NHL, Vigneault has acknowledged that you can’t get through a full NHL season with just six defensemen.
So while the top-six is most likely set barring an extremely strong performance in camp and the exhibition games from one of the two young blue liners, there is a good chance that the regular wear-and-tear of the year will result in one or both prospects seeing significant time with the club. Aaron Miller is already scheduled for a procedure on his knee, although it’s not expected to result in him missing any games, one can never tell when there will be complications. Sami Salo is notoriously prone to injuries (67 games played last year) and Willie Mitchell has recently had problems with his groin (62 games played last year).
The team also has Daniel Rahimi, Patrick Coulombe, Shaun Heshka and Jimmy Sharrow available if they’re needed, but none of those players can be expected, at this point, to fill anything than an emergency call-up role at the NHL level with Rahimi possibly the most likely to get called up to play limited minutes simply because of his size, strength and aggression.
The departure of Bulis and the likely inability of Ryan Kesler, Brad Isbister, Matt Cooke or any other player currently on the roster to legitimately fill a top-six role leaves a fairly large hole for the Canucks to fill. It also means that, barring a trade, Canuck fans could see one of their forward prospects given a shot to spark some offense.
It’s still early, but Mason Raymond was dynamic offensively at the Canucks Rookie Camp and Jannik Hansen was impressive en route to being the best-rounded forward at the brief camp. If either one of those players are able to translate their success to the main camp and perform in the exhibition games, there is a very real shot they could avoid getting cut from the team.
While Raymond needs to land a spot in the top-six in order to stick with the club, Hansen could fit himself in to any spot on the team. With a year of professional experience under his belt, Hansen is by far the most NHL-ready, two-way forward the Canucks have in the system. He will be battling for a prominent role with Raymond and several other veterans (assuming Nonis doesn’t make a trade), and will have to fight it out with fringe players like Alex Burrows, Jeff Cowan, Rick Rypien, Byron Ritchie and Ryan Shannon for a spot in on the third or fourth line.
The Canucks have no other forward prospects who appear to have a legitimate shot at playing in the NHL this season. Highly rated wingers Michal Grabner and Juraj Simek both have shown glimpses of brilliance, but have also shown significant deficiencies in their game that need to be improved.
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