2010-2011 NHL season preview: Vancouver Canucks

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GYI0060387074-sedins-lam-getty.jpgLast season: (49-28-5, 103 points, 1st in Northwest Division, 3rd in Western Conference) It was another great season for the Canucks, winning their division and showing great promise heading into the playoffs. For the second year in a row, however, they were unceremoniously disposed of by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round. Once again, Roberto Luongo was nowhere to be seen against the Blackhawks in the playoffs.

Head coach: Alain Vigneault enters his fifth season as coach and for three of his previous four, he’s taken the Canucks to the top of the Northwest Division. Things shouldn’t be any different this time around as the division appears to be a walk in the park for his team. The trick this time is making sure that the Canucks will be ready for the playoffs, something they’ve got to improve on or else Vigneault will start to hear whispers.

Key departures: F Michael Grabner, F Steve Bernier, G Andrew Raycroft, F Pavol Demitra, D Willie Mitchell, F Kyle Wellwood, F Ryan Johnson. This is certainly a lot of talent to be losing from a team that had over 100 points and won their division. Fear not, the Canucks did their part to replace everyone.

Key arrivals: F Manny Malhotra, F Jeff Tambellini, D Keith Ballard, D Dan Hamhuis, G Cory Schneider. Malhotra and Tambellini make for solid depth presence and Malhotra will bring the Canucks a third-line center that can win faceoffs and play solid in his own end. Ballard and Hamhuis more than make up for the loss of Willie Mitchell and the Canucks ensure that Roberto Luongo won’t have any defensemen to hang a loss on after a tough game. Everyone the Canucks have on defense now is more than formidable.

Under pressure: Who else but Luongo? He’s been the focus of all the attention in their last two playoff exits and after winning Team Canada the gold medal last year, Canucks faithful are even more anxious to have Bobby Lu do the same thing for the hometown team. Luongo showed signs of irritability the last few seasons when questioned after hard losses, especially in the playoffs, and the pressure will only mount this year as this Canucks team appears to be stacked.

robertoluongo6.jpgProtecting the house: All right so Luongo is the man and he’s been overworked like crazy the last few seasons. Getting him some rest so he’s at his peak in the playoffs will be key and providing that break for him this time around is prospect Cory Schneider. The former Boston College goalie gets his first chance to be Luongo’s caddy this year after spending the last few seasons in Manitoba of the AHL making sure he can handle the pressure and the workload of being a top tier goalie. Working Schneider into about 25-30 games should be the goal, but I’d still expect Vigneault to ride Luongo hard, just not as hard as in the past.

On defense, the Canucks are loaded. Even with an Achilles injury to Sami Salo, the Canucks really don’t have a lot to get fussy about. Hamhuis, Ballard, Alexander Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Shane O’Brien, and Andrew Alberts make up this very deep unit that provides everything from thumping physical abuse to offensive ability on the power play. Ideally with this much talent on defense and in goal, the Canucks should not have issues keeping opponents off the board. As they like to say in cliché land: There’s a reason why they play the games.

Top line we’d like to see: Why mess with what works? Henrik Sedin-Daniel Sedin-Alex Burrows was an incredible line last season and it helped give Henrik Sedin the MVP award. Burrows gets out there to create havoc and disrupt play in a talented fashion while the Wonder Twins do their thing. Whether Burrows helped the Sedins evolve into top of the NHL talent or if they brought him up with him doesn’t much matter because it all works out great. Only issue here is that Burrows will miss a little bit of time to start the season coming back from offseason shoulder surgery.

Oh captain, my captain: Funny thing happened with the captaincy. Luongo gave up his ‘C’ and, for the moment, no one has been named the new captain. That will change, and possibly soon. If you’re looking for leading candidates for the job, look no further than Henrik Sedin or Ryan Kesler. We don’t know what goes on in the room, but to our eyes picking Kesler seems like the logical move. He’s feisty, he’s fiery, he plays the game with an edge and he’s got the whole media savvy thing working for him. Plus, he’s an American and that makes us feel good here. USA! USA! USA!

GYI0060069252-hordichuk-gross-getty.jpgStreet fighting man: There’s a few characters here you can pick from. The obvious one is Darcy Hordichuk. He’s been in the league for what feels like forever, he’s got the name of a tough guy (really, who messes with a guy named Hordichuk?), and he’s not afraid to fight. Then again, you could run with upstarts like Rick Rypien or Tanner Glass if you want your fighters to be a bit younger and a bit more tenacious. With the kind of depth the Canucks have at forward throughout the organization though, they could easily roll four lines without a designated brawler.

Best-case scenario: This one is easy. They get the same kind of season from the Sedins (or better) while Burrows continues to be the dirty kind of 30-goal scorer he was last year. The defense does what they’re built for and makes Luongo’s season easier to play in nets while Cory Schneider makes sure he’s well rested. The Canucks steamroll through their division and through the playoffs to the Stanley Cup finals and lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time in franchise history.

Worst-case scenario: Burrows struggles coming back from surgery and doesn’t play as effectively as he did. Secondary scoring lines don’t produce as well as they’d like, putting more stress on Luongo to not just be good but great. The Canucks still win the division but are strong upset candidates in the first round of the playoffs. With their luck, they’d draw Chicago one more time and suffer a similar fate. This team is no threat to miss the playoffs, but an early playoff exit is a bugaboo they’d need to avoid in their worst of situations.

Keeping it real: This team is loaded. They’re an instant favorite for the Stanley Cup and will be a wrecking ball kind of team all season long provided the injury bug doesn’t interfere too much. That’s about the only thing that can really hamper the Canucks chances this season. They’re on par with only a handful of other teams in the NHL that on paper you believe can win the Stanley Cup right away. They’re going to be very good, they’re going to make their mates in the Northwest Division look really bad by comparison, and they’ll be playing the regular season as an extended training camp for the playoffs.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Canucks are an absolute 5. This team is deep, they are very talented and they’ve got superstars all around the lineup. They’ve got all the parts in place to win the organization’s first Stanley Cup and considering it’s their 40th anniversary season, it’d be all too poetic of a finish to get it done this year.

(Sedin photo: Rich Lam – Getty Images)

(Hordichuk photo: Jeff Gross – Getty Images)

Flames’ Jokipakka (hip) might not play for Finns at World Cup

CALGARY, AB - APRIL 5: Jyrki Jokipakka #3 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Los Angeles Kings during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on April 5, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Jyrki Jokipakka was one of the three Finnish d-men added to the World Cup roster last week but, according to Calgary president Brian Burke, Jokipakka isn’t a lock to play this fall.

“He had hip surgery after the season, and it’s not 100 percent that he’s going to be able to compete in this tournament,” Burke told Sportsnet’s Fan 960. “But the fact he was named recognizes his accomplishments to date, and we’re very proud of [him].”

Jokipakka, acquired in the Kris Russell-to-Dallas deadline trade, appeared in 58 games last year — 18 for the Flames, 40 for the Stars. He finished with two goals and 12 points.

Still only 24 years old, Jokipakka could be a nice piece for the Flames moving forward. He’s 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and was rated highly enough to crack the Finnish roster (granted, the country isn’t overwhelmingly deep on the blueline).

So it’s understandable why the club might be wary of letting him play in the World Cup. In addition to coming off major surgery, Jokipakka is headed into the last of a two-year, $1.8 million deal with a $900,000 average annual cap hit.

Once that expires, he’ll become a restricted free agent.

‘Yep,’ Letang will play tonight

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with his teammates Sidney Crosby #87 after scoring a goal against Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Jason Behnken/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang will play tonight. He confirmed it this morning, albeit in rather unusual circumstances.

Letang did not participate in yesterday’s Media Day at the Stanley Cup Final. He didn’t practice either. The Penguins said it was simply a “maintenance day” for their best defensemen, but when it was learned he would hold a press conference this morning, all of a sudden people started to wonder about his status for Game 1 against the Sharks.

He was asked if he was playing.

“Yep.”

So, no problems?

“Nope.”

And that was that.

No explanation was provided about yesterday, but Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said a few minutes later that he was confident that Letang would be able to log his usual amount of minutes.

“Very confident,” said Sullivan.

Penguins center Nick Bonino also confirmed that he’ll be able to go tonight. He didn’t skate Saturday or Sunday, but was on the ice this morning.

Former NHLer Bulis calls it a career

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 23:  Center Jan Bulis #38 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on against the Washington Capitals on December 23, 2005 at the MCI Center in Washington D.C. The Capitals won 4-2.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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Jan Bulis, who appeared in 552 games with the Capitals, Canadiens and Canucks, announced his retirement from professional hockey today, per Czech news outlet Ceske Noviny.

Bulis, 38, last played in North America with Vancouver during the 2006-07 campaign, and has since carved out a pretty lengthy career in the KHL, playing for both Mytishchi Atlant and Chelyabinsk Traktor.

Picked 43rd overall by Washington at the 1996 draft, Bulis’ best years came with the Habs. He posted a career-high 20 goals and 40 points in 2005-06 — that year, he also represented the Czechs at the Winter Olympics in Turin (capturing bronze) and at the World Hockey Championships (capturing silver).

Report: Semin will stay in KHL for 2016-17

OTTAWA, ON - OCTOBER 11:  Alexander Semin #13 of the Montreal Canadiens skates during the NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on October 11, 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-1.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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It seems there will be no NHL comeback attempt by Alex Semin. At least not in 2016-17.

Instead, Semin has inked a one-year extension with Magnitogorsk Metallurg, according to Sport-Express writer Igor Eronko.

At 32 years old, Semin still could have a lot of years left in him as a professional hockey player, but at this point it wouldn’t be surprising if he has played in his last NHL game. Early in his career his talent was clear and demonstrated by some great showings offensively, but he was plagued by inconsistency. In recent years though, he wasn’t so much inconsistent as he was underwhelming.

After being limited to six goals and 19 points in 57 games with Carolina in 2014-15, the one-time 40-goal scorer was bought out of his five-year, $35 million contract just two seasons into it. Montreal took a chance on him for 2015-16, but he only appeared in 15 games with the Canadiens before they put him on unconditional waivers on Dec. 9.

He’s fared better in the KHL though, with five goals and 14 points in 20 regular season games followed by another seven markers and 15 points in 23 playoff contests.