After another landmark regular season in 2011-12, the Canucks looked to be headed for a postseason run that would hopefully extend into June.
The Los Angeles Kings had other ideas however, and dispatched them in five games on route to the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
On His Shoulders
Cory Schneider takes the reigns as the starter in net for a team that has come up short in the playoffs for the last few years.
Vancouver's quick playoff exit did more than send the team packing at its earliest date in four years - it effectively ended the six-year Roberto Luongo era.
Luongo's struggles in the first two games against the Kings led Alain Vigneault to turn to backup Cory Schneider, who played well in the ensuing three games, despite only winning one of them.
Schneider's postseason performance, combined with his 36-12-3 record in his last two seasons as the No. 2, convinced the Canucks he was ready to assume the starting position.
The move was made easier after Luongo's public comments spoke to the fact the two sides were ready to move on. So despite leading Vancouver to the playoffs five times and coming one win away from a Stanley Cup just two years ago, the Canucks will head into 2012-13 with a new man between the pipes when the season gets started.
The team is also in a state of limbo with regards to 2011 Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler. There is still no timeline for his return to the line-up, meaning the team will have to find a way, either internally or by acquisition, to account for the production and valuable minutes he provides as the team's number-two centre.
Other than in net, the team remains largely the same, with the only major change being on defence where the club signed sharp-shooting Jason Garrison to a six-year, $27.6 million contract, in large part to replace the departed Sami Salo.
With a similar roster and Schneider showing he is ready to assume the starting role, Vancouver should again enjoy regular season success, but the team and its passionate fan base are looking for more than that.
The pressure to win a Stanley Cup will again be immense, and it's yet to be seen if Schneider can step into the pressure cooker that is the Vancouver hockey market as the undisputed No. 1 goalie and not only survive - but thrive.
His ability to respond when put to the test, especially come playoff time - something that Luongo constantly encountered and handled with mixed results-– may ultimately decide the Canucks fate.
There are several prospects in the system who have the potential to make an impact in 2012-13.
Goaltender Eddie Lack has proven he can dominate at the AHL level, averaging a .926 save percentage and 2.28 goals against average between 2010 and 2012. At 6-foot-5, Lack has been tabbed as a goalie in the Pekka Rinne-mold and has shown he is ready to be tested at the NHL level.
On defence, 22-year-old Kevin Connauton will continue to develop in Chicago of the AHL. The Edmonton native is regarded as the top offensive prospect among blueliners in the organization.
Up front, coming off a 21-goal, 44-point season in the AHL, 2009 first round pick Schroeder could find himself in a position to step in should injuries hit. What Schroeder lacks in his 5-foot-8 frame, he more than makes up for with his speed and dependable play at both ends of the ice.
Nicklas Jensen is another prospect could also make an impact with the big club in 2012-13. Vancouver's first round pick in 2011, Jensen was impressive – with six goals in eight games -- after his call up to the AHL from the OHL's Oshawa Generals at the end of last season.
Other prospects on the radar include 2011 second round pick Anton Rodin, who posted 27 points in 62 games with the Wolves and 2012 first round pick Brendan Gaunce, who at 18 years old is already a solid 210 pounds.
In all aspects of the roster, the Canucks measure up favourably to almost every other team in the NHL. Their depth gives them the flexibility to play either an offensive, up-tempo style or a lock-down, grind-it-out defensive game.
Up front, the Sedins provide reliable, top-end scoring year in and year out. Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler are above-average complementary players who contribute at both ends of the ice (though Kesler's return could be a ways away). David Booth provides another scoring threat that has the potential to reach the 30-goal level as he did in 2008-09. A productive year from Booth, combined with a bounce back season from Mason Raymond will likely have Vancouver challenging for the league lead in goals for.
They feature a strong top-four defence that includes offensive punch in the form of Jason Garrison and Alexander Edler and defensive reliability with Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis. With the exception of Edler – who the team will likely do everything it can to sign before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2013 – the Canucks defensive core is all locked up to long-term deals. And at an average age of 28, they should continue to provide solid play for years to come.
In goal, Cory Schneider has done everything that's been asked of him, short of rescuing the team from a 0-2 playoff deficit. Vancouver has been patient with the 2004 first round pick and believe his calm, cool demeanor will benefit him come playoff time when the pressure mounts.
Although both sides have said they could foresee a situation where "Bobby Lu" is back in a Canucks uniform at the start of 2012, the circus atmosphere it would create is a distraction that would be tough to ignore.
There is every indication Gillis will pull the trigger at some point, but a trade of his former No. 1 seems to be something that is easier said than done, as Luongo's no-trade clause, combined with the fact he is owed $40 million over the next six years of the deal have proven to be difficult obstacles to overcome.
Having let it be known that their goaltender was readily available, Gillis may now be hard-pressed to get anything near equal value for a goaltender who has a lifetime save percentage of .919 and has averaged 37 wins and six shutouts in six seasons in Vancouver.
It makes you wonder: If the Canucks had played their cards right and not let their intentions to deal Luongo go public, could they have eventually gotten equal value for him? And if that was the case, would that have meant acquiring the type of player that would have made the difference in delivering the city its first Stanley Cup?
Gillis' decision to bite the bullet in the short term and put up with the circus atmosphere that would come with it may be the solution. That would especially be the case if the holding onto him would produce a player that would put the team over the top.
A look at where Canucks players went during the lockout:
Andrew Ebbett (Chicago, AHL), Jannik Hansen (Tappara, Finnish Elite), Zack Kassian (Chicago, AHL), Mason Raymond (Orebro, Swedish Second Tier), Jordan Schroeder (Chicago, AHL), Chris Tanev (Chicago, AHL), Dale Weise (Tilburg Trappers, Netherlands)
Bob McKenzie's Breakdown
The Vancouver Canucks, on paper, are by far Canada's top team and the best hope to contend for the Stanley Cup, but even coach Alain Vigneault's talented club has a long list of questions heading into training camp.
Some of those queries don't even involve Roberto Luongo.
For instance, who'll play on the right side with Daniel and Henrik Sedin? Alex Burrows is never a bad answer but Zack Kassian may get a chance there.
But maybe the most important question is when will Ryan Kesler be healthy and game ready? Coming off shoulder and wrist surgery, Kesler and his agent are suggesting there are no guarantees it's any time soon, although the Canucks seem to think there's no cause for long-term concern.
So the givens are Henrik Sedin at first line centre and Maxim Lapierre in the middle on the fourth line, but everything in between is punctuated with a question mark.
As long as Kesler can't go, there's a chance the Canucks could move a winger to play second-line pivot. Burrows is a candidate as is Chris Higgins.
Can Manny Malhotra still contribute to the centre-ice cause? If not, third-line centre is very much up in the air too.
Little Jordan Schroeder of the AHL Chicago Wolves will get an audition and if the Canucks deal Luongo, chances are there will be a centre coming back, so if the goalie trade with Toronto materializes, for example, perhaps we can pencil in Tyler Bozak as a second- or third-line centre.
Men in the middle concerns aside, it's also fair to ask if David Booth and Mason Raymond can stay healthy and bounce back with better numbers than they posted last season after coming off injuries. That's critical to any Canuck success.
The Canuck defence looks as solid as ever with Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, newcomer Jason Garrison, Keith Ballard, Chris Tanev and Andrew Alberts as the top seven, but they will likely try to add a veteran presence to make it a solid eight though Kevin Connauton and Derek Joslin might do. They'll also be trying to sign impending free agent Edler to a long-term deal in the same $4.5 million-a-year range as their other blueliners. But defence appears to be virtually question free.
Some might well wonder if Cory Schneider is really ready to shoulder true No. 1 status without Luongo there as a safety net, but Schneider's time is now, and we're going to find out. Though if Luongo is traded, getting a veteran backup is still a likely possibility.
That seems an awful lot of questions for what's supposed to be Canada's best hope for a Cup contender, but the Canucks know their time is now, that their biological clock is ticking and while their window to win isn't necessarily closing after this season, it's not opening any wider either.
So expect a Stanley or Bust mentality in Vancouver this season.