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)

Three questions facing New Jersey Devils

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

1. Can youth lead the way?

We mentioned earlier that this team is going the young route as general manager Ray Shero continues to craft it around youthful exuberance.

The Devils will be led by Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier next season, and it’s important the latter takes the next step in his game while the former continues the play that won him the Hart Trophy. But the supporting cast needs to progess as well. Jesper Bratt had a solid rookie outing and will be counted on to forge ahead.

Ditto for Will Butcher, who had a productive year on the back end and likewise for Pavel Zacha, who enters his third season in the NHL this year and could have a more prominent role if the Devils decide to split Hischier and Hall up.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

2. Can Schneider bounce back from two poor seasons and offseason hip surgery?

It bears repeating that Schneider is the most important component to the success of the Devils.

With the strides the Devils have made outside of the crease, Schneider getting back to the numbers that garnered him his $42 million contract seems like a surefire way for the Devils to stick out in a talent Metropolitan Division.

His .908 and .907 in the past two years, respectively, won’t cut it if the team wants to ride him for 60 games.

It may not come early for New Jersey. Schneider’s arrival next season largely depends on how he’s healing from offseason hip surgery. Keith Kinkaid can handle the load until Schneider makes his return, so there’s no reason to rush Schneider back in just to have him end up back on injured reserve.

The Devils showed they could compete despite adversity this season. Void of that this season, and the Devils could be competing for more than just the final playoff spot in the East.

3. Will secondary scoring come? 

The line with Hall and Hischier combined for a good chunk of the Devils offensive production last season.

Even between those two, there was a 41-point gap. Between Hall and the next best producer, it was 49 points.

Hall can lead the way, as he showed this year, but others need to step up and reciprocate to close that gap. It’s possible Hischier hits 70 points this season. It’s possible that healthy Marcus Johansson can hit the 50-point mark once again.

There’s a lot of scenarios, including New Jersey’s young contingent improving on last season’s numbers.

The lack of scoring was exploiting in the playoffs at just 2.4 goals per game. That was never going to be enough to see off the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there’s no reason to suggest that will change this season.

Bonus round: What should Ray Shero do with the $18 million he has left floating around in cap space? The team needs to re-sign Miles Wood still, but what should be added and where? 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Under Pressure: Cory Schneider

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Statistically speaking, last season was Cory Schneider‘s worst as a professional hockey goaltender, usurping the previous year of his then-worst numbers as a netminder in the NHL.

That’s an unfortunate trend for a goalie with four years left on a seven-year, $42 million contract and someone who the Devils have placed a lot of faith in to be a rock behind a team that’s gone the youth direction in front of him..930

Schneider caught the injury bug in a bad way last season. After starting off the year posting good numbers, he plummeted after Christmas, forced to miss weeks with a lower-body injury.

In that time, Keith Kinkaid emerged as a capable replacement to Schneider. Kinkaid played so well, in fact, that he took the starter’s job from the $6 million man until relinquishing it in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Kinkaid’s play was pivotal down the stretch and helped the Devils win a fierce battle for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Schneider didn’t win a regular season game in 2018, losing all 10 games he started with a 0-9-1 record. It was only after he took over from Kinkaid following the latter’s struggles in the playoffs that Schneider bounced back, posting a .950 save percentage in the games he played against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

To be fair to both goalies, the Devils offered no run support in the postseason, but Schneider showed well and perhaps looked as if he finally out his regular season in the rearview.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

Offseason surgery could play a factor as well.

Schneider revealed that he had been playing with a bothersome hip injury for more than a year, one that got fixed after he went under the knife in May.

“It was something that had kind of cropped maybe a year and a half ago, a season and a half ago,” Schneider said on the Devils All-Access Podcast. “It’s just something that nags and it there, but you don’t ever feel like it’s bad enough that you need to sit out for six months, because there’s no real good time to do it, unfortunately.”

Schneider is questionable for training camp as well as the opening of the regular season with a five-month recovery timeframe.

A fully healthy Schneider is an elite goaltender in the NHL and worth every penny of his large contract. If Schneider can bounce back from a couple of bad years with injuries, the Devils could be in very good shape given what they were able to do last season despite not having him.

They need him to. The team is moving in the right direction, providing Schneider doesn’t continue to move backward.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Building off a breakthrough: Nico Hischier

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

There’s an unwritten wishlist that every team has when they select first overall in the NHL Entry Draft.

In no particular order, team’s hope their scouting work over the course of the year paid off in the case of a close decision, that something can be salvaged from the year that got them there (some of that was luck with the Devils, who went from 5th to 1st in the lottery) and then you hope that the player you just gave a new home doesn’t turn into the next Patrik Stefan.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Three questions]

The good news for the New Jersey Devils is that all worked out, it would seem.

Nico Hischier was dropped right into the laps of the Devils last season and made an immediate impact throughout the season, playing all 82 games while being second on the team in scoring with 20 goals and 52 points as an 18-year-old in the National Hockey League.

Impressive stuff.

The wish now going forward is continued improvement. The bridge between Taylor Hall and the next leading scorer, Hischier, was 41 points last season. That’s a testament to Hall’s Hart Trophy season, but also the fact that the Devils are starving for another elite point producer.

The other good news is that an apparent wrist injury that nagged Hischier for much of last season seems to be squared away.

Hischier is the centerpiece of New Jersey’s youth resurgence, which also includes the likes of Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Will Butcher and Steven Santini, to name a few. It’s a philosophy change that seems to have worked last season after the Devils erased six-year playoff drought.

“We set standards upon our management and coaching staff and we raised the expectations and projected an idea of what we wanted to be,” general manager Ray Shero told the Ottawa Sun last week. “We started competing on the first day of training camp. Maybe there were some younger players who were at their first camp and nervous, but we told them the worst thing they could do was look at the depth chart. We also told the veterans that the worst thing they could do was look at the depth chart.”

An interesting question heading into the new season is whether the Devils will break up the line of Hall and Hischier in an effort to diversify their scoring portfolio. Together, the duo had a 59 percent GF% and performed very well last season.

That move would require other pieces to come up and prove that they can handle top line duties next to Hall. Perhaps Zacha, who showed well with Hall when paired with him. In any scenario, more good than harm has to be the case on a team that can’t afford a dip in scoring.

There’s a lot of pressure on Hischier to take another step this coming season, whoever he plays with. So far, he’s lived up to expectation. That wrist injury likely only held him back from reaching his true potential last season, so seeing what a 100 percent healthy Hischier can do should have Devils fans salivating.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

[Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

2017-18:

44-29-9, 97 pts. (5th Metropolitan Division; 8th Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-1 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, second round

IN:

Eric Gryba

OUT:

Michael Grabner
Patrick Maroon
Jimmy Hayes
Brian Gibbons
Christoph Bertschy
John Moore
Ken Appleby
Drew Stafford

RE-SIGNED:

Blake Coleman
Stefan Noesen
Steven Santini
Nick Lappin

The New Jersey Devils took a nice step in the right direction last season.

Gifted with some luck even before the season started, the Devils jumped from fifth to first in the draft lottery and selected Nico Hischier with the pick.

From there, the team battled through adversity in the form of a mid-season trade of a fan favorite, an oft-injured starting goalie and the heat of the playoff chase down the stretch.

And at the end of it, New Jersey made it to the playoffs, returning to the promised land for the first time since they lost in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final to the Los Angeles Kings and they did so on the back of a Hart Trophy-winning season by Taylor Hall, who put the Devils on his back with a 26-game point streak that began on Jan. 2 and carried right on their the beginning of March.

Hischier also rose to the occasion, playing in all 82 games last season and finished second in team scoring with 20 goals and 52 points.

That’s a good year in most books, especially given New Jersey’s recent drought come spring.

The Devils weren’t without fault, however.

There was a large disparity in scoring. Hall finished with 93 points, and the next closest, Hischier, finished a distant 41 points adrift. Third-best ended with 44 points, a 49-gap, and only three players on the team had 20 or more goals, leaving the Devils in the middle of the pack in terms of goals-for as a team.

The Devils shuffled the deck in November, sending Adam Henrique to Anaheim in exchange for Sami Vatanen. The deal filled the needs of both teams at the time. Vatanen, in just 57 games, finished sixth on the team in scoring, but the Devils missed Henrique’s production, especially in the playoffs where they managed just 2.4 goals per game.

A slow offseason means the Devils will continue to drink from their fountain of youth (they have 11 players 25 years of age or younger), and Jesper Bratt shouldn’t be forgotten amongst the Hischiers and the Halls of the team.

Bratt had 13 goals and 35 points during his rookie season last year and the Devils will hope he can take the next step this coming year.

A healthy Marcus Johansson, who was limited to just 29 games due to a bevy of injuries, will also give the roster a shot in the arm, offensively.

New Jersey can tie a lot of it together with a bounce-back year from Cory Schneider in goal. Schneider battled injury and inconsistent play, not winning a game in 2018 until he surfaced in the playoffs.

Schneider is the starter, no doubt. He’s making $6 million a season and has four years left on his deal. His save percentage has gone from .908 in 2016-17 to .907 last year.

It goes without saying, but the Devils need him back to his best, such as the numbers he displayed in 2015-16 with a .924.

Prospect Pool:

• Ty Smith, D, 18, Spokane Chiefs (WHL) – 2018 first-round pick

Smith took a big step in the Western Hockey League last season with 14 goals and 59 assists in 69 games, more than doubling his numbers from his rookie season. His play helped him to the 17th spot in the draft where the Devils took him. He prides himself on his skating ability and is a future stalwart in New Jersey’s rearguard if he continues to progress.

Michael McLeod, C, 20, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) – 2016 first-round pick

Big — he’s 6-foot-2 — and has the ability to move his feet very quickly. McLeod was only slowed last season by an injury at the beginning of the year. He was still able to put up 16 goals and 44 points with the Steelheads in 38 games and had four points in seven games at the world juniors, helping Canada to gold. The Devils haven’t added much on forward this offseason, so a good showing in camp could help McLeod onto the opening night roster.

• John Quenneville, C, 22, Binghamton Devils (AHL) – 2014 first-round pick

Quenneville, like McLeod, will have a shot at making the big club out of camp. The 22-year-old produced another solid year in the AHL with 34 points in 43 games and has the ability to play on either wing as well as his natural center positon, which will only help his chances come the fall.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck