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Off-Season Game Plan: Vancouver Canucks

Scott Cullen
6/8/2012 10:53:40 PM
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The Vancouver Canucks won the Presidents' Trophy, but were quickly eliminated from the playoffs in the first round by the Los Angeles Kings.

Off-Season Game Plan examines a Canucks team that has registered 100 points or more in seven of the last nine seasons, but remains in the hunt for the franchise's first Stanley Cup.

When the Canucks made it to Game Seven of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, it was a heartbreaking defeat, to come so close to the ultimate goal, but the challenge for any Cup finalist is daunting: getting revved up for another season after coming so close the year before.

In the Canucks' case, it's not unreasonable to start wondering whether their championship window is starting to close, even a little bit. The Sedins will be 32 by the time next season starts, Ryan Kesler is enduring another summer of rehabilitation after surgery and Roberto Luongo appears to be on his way out of town.

These are all reasons to be concerned about the Canucks, but not unduly so. The Sedins have been among the game's best scorers in recent seasons and that should continue. Even if they lose some ground, it's hard to imagine a steep drop.

The anticipated Roberto Luongo trade poses challenges, but could also provide opportunities. If the Canucks make a deal for Luongo, it's likely going to improve their long-term salary cap situation and as long as Cory Schneider can handle the No. 1 job, there may not be a huge letdown in goal (to be fair, it's unlikely that the Canucks will have a backup goaltender next season that is as good as Schneider has been the past two seasons in that role).

When it comes Kesler, however, there is no easy fix. He's not going to be ready for the start of next season and he's been such an integral part of the Canucks' success in recent years that it will be hard for Vancouver to replace him while he's out or, worse, make up for lost production if he's not the same player post-surgery.

In the larger picture, the Canucks' concerns are the concerns of a Cup contender, though. Sure, they need their best players healthy and could use an upgrade on the blueline, maybe a quality forward or two to fill out the lineup but, presuming the Canucks are active this summer, they are going to be expected to contend for a championship again next season.

Being an annual Cup contender can't be taken for granted, especially after getting bounced in the first round, so a sense of urgency should be at hand because that window can't stay open forever.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
Mike Gillis/Alain Vigneault

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Daniel Sedin 77.85 72 30 37 67 +16 $6.1M
Henrik Sedin 73.63 82 14 67 81 +23 $6.1M
Alex Burrows 73.09 80 28 24 52 +24 $2.0M
Ryan Kesler 72.25 77 22 27 49 +11 $5.0M
Chris Higgins 70.23 71 18 25 43 +11 $1.9M
Jannik Hansen 66.55 82 16 23 39 +18 $1.35M
David Booth 65.41 62 16 14 30 -5 $4.25M
Maxim Lapierre 59.26 82 9 10 19 -3 $1.0M
Zack Kassian 57.66 44 4 6 10 -2 $870K
Manny Malhotra 56.53 78 7 11 18 -11 $2.5M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Mason Raymond 63.66 55 10 10 20 +4 RFA $2.55M
Andrew Ebbett 62.88 18 5 1 6 +2 UFA $525K
Byron Bitz 62.69 10 1 3 4 +2 UFA $700K
Samuel Pahlsson 58.30 80 4 13 17 -2 UFA $2.625M
Dale Weise 54.92 68 4 4 8 -1 RFA $605K
Aaron Volpatti 52.85 23 1 0 1 -2 UFA $612.5K

Although 67 points last season was his lowest total since 2003-2004, Daniel Sedin is still one of the game's elite scoring wingers and his absence from the lineup (thanks to a concussion suffered late in the season after an elbow to the head by Duncan Keith) was a factor early in the Canucks' first-round loss.

Henrik Sedin led the league in assists for the third straight season and he's the only player in the league to have scored at least 80 points in each of the last four seasons. The Sedin Twins get to start a disproportionate number of their shifts in the offensive zone (www.behindthenet.ca), but that's intelligent use of two of the game's best players.

Over the last four seasons, there is one other player (Anaheim's Corey Perry) that has scored at least 110 goals and registered 400 penalty minutes, like Alex Burrows has for the Canucks. Certainly, Burrows benefits from spending much of his time on the Sedins' wing but, as an agitator who does most of his damage without the benefit of first unit power play time, Burrows deserves credit for developing into such a productive player.

Ryan Kesler was ready to go remarkably early in the season after off-season hip surgery but, not surprisingly, his production was down. After slumping late (no goals, two assists in his last 12 games), Kesler finished with 49 points, his lowest total since 2007-2008. This offseason, Kesler had shoulder surgery and doesn't figure to be ready for the start of the 2012-2013 season as a result.

27-year-old Kesler has played some hard minutes over the last few years and it's taking a toll on him physically. He's such a vital part of the Canucks team that his health, and ability to maintain his high level of play, will be a considerable factor in determining how successful they will be in the future.

Following three years of relatively uneven play, Chris Higgins provided a solid season for the Canucks, his 18 goals and 43 points ranking as his best since 2007-2008 and his plus-11 rating was a career-best. Higgins has the speed to be an effective checker, but improved production increases his overall value since he can fill a role in the top six, if needed.

Speedy winger Jannik Hansen has been making steady progress and the 26-year-old set career-highs with 16 goals, 39 points and a plus-18 rating last season. He's a reliable top nine forward and, in short spurts, can complement more offensively-inclined players.

Acquired from the Florida Panthers to provide secondary scoring, David Booth was modestly effective in that role, scoring 16 goals in 56 games after the trade (a 23-goal pace over 82 games), but he couldn't earn substantial ice time from the coaching staff, playing 14:56 per game, his lowest since his rookie year in 2006-2007. If Booth can provide 20-plus goals consistently, he'll be doing his part.

One of the game's most annoying players, Maxim Lapierre recorded a career-high 130 penalty minutes last season and his nine goals and 19 points were the second-best totals of his career, inflated by some late-season action on Henrik Sedin's wing as he scored six points in the last seven games. Every once in a while, Lapierre shows some skill that suggests he might be able to play a bigger role, but hasn't been able to sustain production with any kind of consistency, so he stays in the agitating checker role.

Power forward Zack Kassian, scored a goal and an assist in his third game with the Canucks (against his former team, Buffalo), but managed just one point in 16 other games for the Canucks after coming over in a trade for Cody Hodgson. Kassian was productive in his AHL rookie season (15 goals, 26 points in 30 games), so it's entirely reasonable to expect him to develop into an offensive contributor, but it could take some time for the 21-year-old to round out his game enough to earn prime ice time.

While Manny Malhotra managed just 18 points (his fewest since 2002-2003) and a career-low minus-11 rating, that doesn't tell the real story of his season. Malhotra was practically a sacrificial lamb, starting an unbelievably-low 13.2% of his shifts in the offensive zone (www.behindthenet.ca), which helped free up the Sedins, for example, to start a league-high percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone.

Recovering from a back injury suffered in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, Mason Raymond didn't play until December last season and couldn't sustain a decent start (seven points in his first nine games). Raymond is a fast player with the ability to provide seocndary scoring, but right now it appears that his 25-goal, 53-point season of a couple years ago is beyond his current expectations.

Dale Weise managed a modest eight points in 68 games, but it wasn't reasonable to expect much offensively, since he also started the vast majority of his shifts in the defensive zone and only played eight minutes a night.

Considering Kesler's status, the Canucks really could use another quality centre, one that can play both ends of the rink, so free agents like Chris Kelly, Jarret Stoll, Paul Gaustad or perhaps, with a more offensive slant, Kyle Wellwood, might deserve some consideration.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Alexander Edler 76.93 82 11 38 49 0 $3.25M
Kevin Bieksa 75.35 78 8 36 44 +12 $4.6M
Dan Hamhuis 73.08 82 4 33 37 +29 $4.5M
Keith Ballard 62.32 47 1 6 7 0 $4.2M
Andrew Alberts 60.54 44 2 1 3 +4 $1.225M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Sami Salo 69.76 69 9 16 25 +7 UFA $2.0M
Aaron Rome 65.30 43 4 6 10 -4 UFA $750K
Marc-Andre Gragnani 63.75 58 2 13 15 +6 RFA $550K

With Christian Ehrhoff gone, Alexander Edler emerged as the power play quarterback, scoring a career-high 22 of his 49 points on the power play. Edler has a rare combination of size and skill and can be very effective when he uses that size to his advantage, but his game would also improve with a better partner going forward.

Staying healthy, Kevin Bieksa had one of his most productive seasons, the third time he's scored at least 40 points and he was one of two defencemen in the league to record at least 40 points, 80 penalty minutes and a double-digit plus rating.

Bieksa spent much of the season partnered with Dan Hamhuis and Hamhuis continued to provide his reliable two-way game. Hamhuis is plus-58 in two seasons with the Canucks, second only to Chara's plus-66 among all NHL defencemen in that time frame, so it's understandable that the Canucks charge him with the toughest defensive matchups.

Keith Ballard has pretty much been a disaster in Vancouver. He played a career-low 15:33 per game in 47 games last season before his season was ended prematurely with a concussion. He used to play 22 minutes a game for Florida, handling tough minutes, but he's been unable to fit with the Canucks and how he's on the lineup bubble with a contract that is a burden, running three more seasons with a $4.2-million cap hit.

Playing in a part-time role, Andrew Alberts has skated in 86 of 164 games over the last two seasons with Vancouver and, while he can get exposed by quicker forwards, he's an adequate depth defenceman with good size.

Picked up from Buffalo at the deadline, Marc-Andre Gragnani is a defenceman who can move the puck and has offensive upside, but isn't reliable enough without the puck to establish a regular spot in the lineup.

With Sami Salo and Aaron Rome potentially departing as free agents, the Canucks could promote a prospect like Chris Tanev, but also might want to look for a viable top-four defenceman to play with Edler. Jason Garrison, Barret Jackman, Sheldon Souray or Carlo Colaiacovo might be decent targets on the free agent market.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Roberto Luongo 75.08 55 31 14 8 2.41 .919 $5.333M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Cory Schneider 91.02 33 20 8 1 1.96 .937 RFA $900K

Even though it looks like Roberto Luongo may have played his last game for the Canucks, with the expectation that he will be traded this summer, the 33-year-old turned in another strong season, his .919 save percentage ranking ninth among goaltenders with at least 50 starts. Because Luongo has a contract that runs through 2021-2022, he isn't necessarily going to yield a quality return, in terms of talent, because of the benefit the Canucks get by unloading that contract.

The reason the Canucks are prepared to move on without Luongo is the emergence of Cory Schneider, a 26-year-old who has a .933 save percentage over the last two seasons, the best among goaltenders with at least 50 games played. When the Canucks' season was on the line in the playoffs, the Canucks went with Schneider, who stopped 97 of 101 shots in three games against Los Angeles (somehow losing two of those games).

If Schneider moves into the starter's role, as expected, the Canucks will need a solid backup. Eddie Lack has been terrific in the AHL the last couple seasons, so he's an option, but free agents like Martin Biron, Scott Clemmensen or Jonas Gustavsson could handle 20 starts in a backup role.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Nicklas Jensen RW Oshawa (OHL) 25-33-58, +2, 57 GP
Chris Tanev D Chicago (AHL) 0-14-14, +12, 34 GP
Kevin Connauton D Chicago (AHL) 13-20-33, -3, 73 GP
Eddie Lack G Chicago (AHL) 21-20-3, 2.31 GAA, .925 SV%, 46 GP
Jordan Schroeder C Chicago (AHL) 21-23-44, +8, 76 GP
Anton Rodin RW Chicago (AHL) 10-17-27, -5, 62 GP
Joseph LaBate C Wisconsin (WCHA) 5-15-20, +3, 37 GP
Patrick McNally D Harvard (ECAC) 6-22-28, -7, 34 GP
Alexandre Grenier RW Halifax (QMJHL) 25-39-64, -2, 64 GP
Adam Polasek D Chicago (AHL) 1-8-9, +8, 46 GP

Big Danish winger Nicklas Jensen has been about a point-per-game scorer in two OHL seasons, but he's also fared well in brief call-ups to the AHL over the last couple years, scoring six goals in eight games. He's only 19-years-old, so last year's 29th overall pick can take some time to develop, but has a chance to be a solid contributor.

Undrafted defenceman Chris Tanev tends to go under the radar, which happens when you score one goal in two seasons (127 games) of professional hockey, but Tanev moves the puck well and was a tidy plus-10 in 25 games with the Canucks last season, which could be enough to land the 22-year-old a regular turn on the blueline next year.

22-year-old defenceman Kevin Connauton, has scored 24 goals in two AHL seasons (after 24 goals in his final junior season), so he's got the offensive skills. If he continues to improve defensively, he'll deserve a look with the Canucks.

Lanky Swedish puck stopper Eddie Lack has a .926 save percentage in two AHL seasons, a decent enough indication that the 24-year-old is ready for his chance in hte NHL and it turns out there just could be an opportunity next season.

2009 first-round pick Jordan Schroeder has a couple of AHL seasons under his belt and has become a more complete player, even if he's not likely to be the kind of scorer that might have been expected when he was drafted.

2009 second-rounder Anton Rodin came over from Sweden to play his first year in North America and endured some growing pains, but he's 21, so he has time to improve now that he's adjusted to the game.

A fourth-round pick last summer, Joseph LaBate had a decent freshman season in the competitive WCHA and, with time to fill out his frame and develop at Wisconsin, he could have some long-term upside.

Patrick McNally, a fourth-round pick in 2010, had a strong freshman year at Harvard. It's not the same as WCHA competition, but if McNally can continue to improve his production, then he'll be worth keeping an eye on.

Late-blooming 6-foot-5 winger Alexandre Grenier has shown some offensive promise. If he fills out and gets stronger, last summer's third-round pick might be able to translate his skills to the pro game.

A Czech defenceman who played a couple of seasons in the QMJHL, Adam Polasek got his feet wet in the AHL this season, but could use a couple more seasons of development.

DRAFT
26th - Scott Laughton, Colton Sissons, Slater Koekkoek

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canucks have approximately $54.2M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 16 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Canucks roster on Cap Geek here.

Needs: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, depth defencemen.

What I said the Canucks needed last year: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, two top four defencemen.

They added: Cody Hodgson, Dale Weise, Aaron Volpatti.

TRADE MARKET Roberto Luongo, Mason Raymond, David Booth.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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