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)

Lightning don’t expect Kucherov to be ‘invisible’ in Game 7

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Fair or not, when you author a 100-point season, people expect you to carry those big numbers over to the biggest games.

Nikita Kucherov‘s idol and Game 7 opponent Alex Ovechkin‘s known those headaches all too well, yet after the Capitals slayed the Penguins dragon in round two, much of the pressure is instead on the Lightning’s top guys heading into tonight’s decisive contest.

That line is shining especially bright on Kucherov and Steven Stamkos in part thanks to contrast, as Ovechkin and the Capitals were a wrecking ball to ward off elimination in Game 6.

Earlier during the 2018 Eastern Conference Final, the complaint was that the Bolts’ best players were only really finding offense on the power play. They might settle for that at this point, as both Kucherov (one assist) and Stamkos (one goal) have been limited to a single point in their past three games.

Such struggles prompted some heavy criticisms from Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick, with them going as far as to describe Kucherov as “invisible.”

Well, there was one way Kucherov did show up: looking sad in various pictures, particularly after Devante Smith-Pelly scored a dagger of a goal. (This one takes the cake.)

via Getty

Whether you judge his play by production, deeper metrics, or sad faces, things haven’t been going so well for Kucherov lately. The Athletic’s Joe Smith reports that Lightning coach Jon Cooper expects a rebound (sub required).

“He’s a big part of our team — a 40-goal scorer, 100-point guy,” Cooper said. “We need him. Sometimes it’s going your way, sometimes it’s not. But I know that he’s a player with a special talent, I’ve seen him rise to the occasion time and time again. I expect nothing different (on Wednesday) from ‘Kuch’.”

Again, Kucherov hasn’t been the only high-end player who isn’t filling the net. Stamkos is struggling, too, just with fewer funny photos. The good news is that Stamkos is saying all of the right things about Game 7 on Wednesday.

“This is one of the best sporting events you can be a part of,” Stamkos said. “Not too many people thought we would be here going down 2-0 in the series … It’s something you embrace, something you dream of.”

That’s a valid point about the Lightning previously being down 2-0.

Tampa Bay’s experienced some peaks and valleys during this series, the likes of which they didn’t really endure through the first two rounds of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sometimes teams hit a bump in the road and don’t really get a chance to recover. The Lightning are one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final, and many will forget Stamkos’ and Kucherov’s struggles if they advance.

Bonus points if they score some points along the way.

You can watch Game 7 between the Lightning and Capitals on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET tonight. Here’s the livestream link.

MORE:
• Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
• Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers go college route, hire David Quinn as new head coach

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David Quinn will be leaving his post with the Boston University men’s hockey team to replace Alain Vigneault as the new head coach of the New York Rangers.

“We are excited to announce that David will become the next Head Coach of the New York Rangers,” said Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton in a statement. “In a coaching career that has spanned over two decades at the collegiate, pro, and international level, David has helped his teams achieve success while simultaneously teaching the game and helping his players develop on and off the ice. He is the ideal choice to bring our loyal and passionate fans the winning hockey they deserve.”

Gorton had pursued Jim Montgomery after firing Vigneault on April 7, but the former Denver University head coach decided to take the open job with the Dallas Stars. According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Gorton was looking for someone who could communicate well with young players and possessed strong team-building skills. None of the bigger names on the free agent coaching market like Dave Tippett, Dan Bylsma and Darryl Sutter, were on his radar. 

In five years behind the bench with the Terriers, Quinn, who replaced Jack Parker in 2013, had a 105-68-21 record, which included four trips to the NCAA tournament and a national title game appearance in 2015. He becomes the sixth head coach — following Ned Harkness, Herb Brooks, Bob Johnson, Dave Hakstol and Montgomery — to jump from the college ranks to the NHL.

(The hiring of Quinn also means that USA Hockey will have to look for a new head coach for its World Junior team after announcing in April he would take that job.)

Quinn’s deal is reportedly for five years and worth in the neighborhood of $12 million. Per College Hockey News’ Mike McMahon, the Rangers original offer of four years, $8 million was rejected before they added a year and bumped up the salary per season.

At BU, Quinn helped develop current NHLers like Jack Eichel, Charlie McAvoy, Clayton Keller and one of the top prospects in next month’s entry draft, Brady Tkachuk.

Quinn is no stranger to the NHL. Before arriving at BU, he spent the 2012-13 season as an assistant with the Colorado Avalanche, three years after taking over the head coaching duties with their AHL affiliate in Lake Erie.

The Rangers missed the playoffs this season for the first time since 2010. Gorton threw in the towel in February, signaling to the fan base he was ready to re-tool on the fly and look toward next season. The roster is littered with a number of restricted and unrestricted free agents to deal with this summer, per CapFriendly, and with nearly $25 million in cap space to play with this summer, it’s not hard to imagine them being back in the postseason next spring.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Barry Trotz takes his turn at the Capitals’ hot lap ahead of Game 7

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It’s the final gameday for either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals as Game 7 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) arrives in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning have been here before as this is their third straight conference final that will end with a Game 7. The Capitals, well, their history is well-documented, but they’re feeling good and loose, as evidence by head coach Barry Trotz taking the “hot lap” on Wednesday morning.

Via NBC Washington, here’s the hot lap backstory:

The weird tradition began in the first round at Nationwide Arena in Columbus when Jay Beagle grew tired of waiting for the ice to freeze over following a fresh Zamboni cut. Beagle’s teammates implored him to wait a little longer for the ice to cure, but he grew impatient and took it upon himself to kick off the skate by racing around the rink, a la the fastest skater competition at the All Star Skills competition.

A new skater is selected after each road loss and Alex Ovechkin, who uses it to “wake up” his legs, took over the duties in the second round against Pittsburgh. Since the Lightning won Game 5 at AMALIE Arena, it was time for a new skater and the 55-year-old Trotz got involved.

“That came out of nowhere. Obviously, we had to change it. We lost here last time,” said Trotz. “I look at it this way, real simply — they called my number. At this time of year, you’re all in. So I was ready. I was surprised. I was a little bit worried about the turns because the rudders haven’t been sharpened all year. You didn’t see a lot of crossovers there. I used body mass and weight to dig in. It was a little bit of a slow lap.

“You’re all in. This time of year it’s fun. They call your number. You step up to the plate, you’ve gotta do it.”

That answers any questions about whether the Capitals are feeling nerves ahead of what Ovechkin described as “probably biggest game in my life, this team, organization probably.”

MORE:
• Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Locking up Evander Kane is smart business for Sharks

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The San Jose Sharks arguably got the best bang for their buck at the trade deadline when they acquired Evander Kane from the Buffalo Sabres. No one was really sure how Kane would fit in with his new team, but he made enough of an impact that the Sharks are reportedly about to hand a new seven-year contract extension, according to Irfaan Gaffar of Sportsnet.

The report suggests that Kane’s new contract will come with a cap hit in the $7 million range. Locking up the enigmatic winger for that long could be seen as risky, but the fact that he’s going to be 27 years old when the season starts takes some of the risk out of the new deal.

When the trade between the Sharks and Sabres went down in February, many speculated that Kane would be nothing more than a rental. After all, if San Jose extends him, the second-round pick they’re sending to Buffalo becomes a first-rounder in 2019. Kane fit in so well on the top line with Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi that it appears as though they don’t mind giving up their top selection in next summer’s entry draft (can you blame them?).

Oh, and by the way, the 2019 pick is lottery protected, according to the Associated Press. So if the Sharks were to fall apart next season, they could push the selection to 2020.

Kane hit a bit of a rut during his time in Buffalo, but it’s hard to blame him? No one should be making excuses for a millionaire on skates, but these guys are human, too. The Sabres haven’t played meaningful hockey in so long that daily motivation is probably hard to come by.

In San Jose, it became clear pretty early on that Kane was going to be comfortable in his new surroundings. He had 20 goals and 20 assists in 61 games before the trade and nine goals and 14 points in 17 games with the Sharks. In the postseason, he added four goals and one assist in nine contests.

As you’d expect, all of his advanced metrics went up after he moved to the West Coast. According to Natural Stat Trick, his CF% went from 49.94 in Buffalo to 53.60 in San Jose. His FF% 50.80 to 55.03, his SF% went up by almost six percent. When Pavelski was on the ice with Kane, his CF% was 56.11. When Pavelski was on the ice without Kane, his CF% was 46.27 percent. Playing together clearly made both players better.

There’s a risk anytime a team hands out a long-term contract. In this case, Kane hasn’t been the most consistent player over the course of his career, so there’s a little cause for concern. But it’s also important to note that power forwards that can skate and that are under 30 rarely hit the open market. Even if they do hit free agency, you never know how well they’ll fit in with your current group of players. This situation is already different in that respect because the Sharks had a couple of months to evaluate him in their building, with their players. He fits.

Handing over roughly $50 million over to Kane likely means that they’ll be out of the running for John Tavares, but there’s no guarantee that the Islanders captain will go there if he hits the market anyway.

GM Doug Wilson is making the right decision here.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.