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)

WATCH LIVE: Game 1 for Penguins – Capitals, Rangers – Senators

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It’s really happening.

For all the griping about having the Penguins and Capitals meet in the second round (again), it’s easy to forget the bright side: upsets didn’t dislodge this juicy matchup from taking place.

The West’s duo of Game 1 matchups kicked into gear last night, and now the East provides that battle between Sidney Crosby‘s squad and Alex Ovechkin‘s loaded team. Don’t sleep on Rangers – Senators, either, though; there should be plenty of intrigue in seeing superhuman Swedes Henrik Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson try to one-up each other.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the action:

New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET

Network: CNBC (Stream online here)

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream online here)

Sutter won’t retire from coaching, willing to join a rebuild

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Given he turns 59 this summer, has won a pair of Stanley Cups and coached over 1,000 NHL games, Darryl Sutter probably could’ve called it a career after getting fired by the Kings earlier this month, and done so comfortably.

But that’s not happening.

In speaking with TSN’s Gary Lawless, Sutter said he has no plans to retire from coaching. What’s more — and, perhaps more interesting — is that Sutter said he wouldn’t limit his next job solely to a contending team.

Currently, there are just two vacant coaching gigs in Buffalo and Florida. We wrote about the Panthers’ search earlier today (more on that here). The situation in Buffalo is more complex, as the Sabres need to hire a new general manager and coach. Logic suggests the GM will be hired first, then spearhead the new bench boss hire.

In that regard, Buffalo is pretty intriguing.

Though the Kings have yet to be contacted for an interview request, ex-GM Dean Lombardi has been tied to the Sabres gig. And Lombardi, of course, is forever tied to Sutter — he was the one that hired Sutter after a five-year coaching exodus to join the Kings, and the pair went on to achieve great success together.

That five-year coaching exodus does need to be mentioned, though.

History suggests that Sutter isn’t joking when he says he’ll be picky about the situation and won’t rush to find the right fit. After being dismissed in Calgary in 2006, he returned to work on the family farm in Viking, Alberta and seemed fairly content doing so.

That said, hockey always seems to draw him back.

“The game has given us everything,” Sutter told Lawless. “We still have lots to give.”

Coyotes fire assistant coach Newell Brown

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The Arizona Coyotes have parted ways with some personnel.

Assistant coach Newell Brown has been fired, along with Doug Soetaert, who was the general manager of their AHL affiliate in Tuscon.

Pro scouts David MacLean and Jim Roque won’t be back either. Their contracts will not be renewed.

“I’d like to thank Newell, Doug, David and Jim for their contributions to the club,” said GM John Chayka. “They are all good people but we believe these changes are necessary in order to improve our organization. We wish them the best in the future.”

A longtime NHL assistant coach, Brown is perhaps the most prominent of the four men. He joined the Coyotes in the summer of 2013 and received high praise for his work with their power play.

But Arizona’s power play slipped to 26th this past season, converting at a rate of just 16.2 percent.

As for Soetaert, he was only named GM of the Roadrunners last summer. The former NHL goalie had previously been a scout.

Plenty of seats available for tonight’s game in Ottawa

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The Ottawa Senators say they’re still expecting a full house, but Ticketmaster’s website shows plenty of available seats for tonight’s second-round opener with the New York Rangers.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

Many of the available tickets for Thursday’s game were in the corners of the upper bowl, seats that carry a $96 price tag.

The Senators sold out all three games in the opening round of the playoffs against Boston. Game 1 drew a crowd of 18,702, while 18,629 showed up for Game 2 and 19,209 were in the seats for Game 5.

Attendance has been an issue in Ottawa — or, more specifically, suburban Kanata — all season, to the point owner Eugene Melnyk expressed great frustration with the lack of sellouts at Canadian Tire Centre.

Poor attendance also led to friction behind the scenes. At least, it sure sounded that way in the lawsuit that was filed against the team by its former chief marketing officer.

Poor attendance is why the Sens are trying to get a new downtown arena built. They believe that a more central location is the key to bigger crowds.

But regardless of the arena’s location, it won’t be a good look if there are empty seats tonight. This is the playoffs, and the Senators are one of eight remaining teams in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. The building should be full.

Related: Melnyk thinks Sens can make deep playoff run