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30 Teams In 30 Days: The Olympic factor for the Canucks

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TSN.ca Staff
9/25/2009 3:45:55 PM
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VANCOUVER CANUCKS          

2008-09: 45-27-10 (3rd in the West – Eliminated in Conference SF by Blackhawks)
TSN Pre-Season Power Ranking: 6th
General Manager: Mike Gillis (2nd Season)
Head Coach: Alain Vigneault (4th Season)

What They Did In The Off-season:

A disappointing second-round exit at the hands of the young Blackhawks meant a mass exodus in Van City this summer, as Mats Sundin, Mattias Ohlund, Ossi Vaananen, Curtis Sanford, Jason LaBarbera and Taylor Pyatt were all shown the door.

The Sedin twins were signed to dual five-year contracts, while winger Mikael Samuelsson was brought in from Detroit to ride shotgun. Shane O'Brien and Kyle Wellwood both agreed to one-year deals, while Andrew Raycroft was brought in to battle Cory Schneider for the backup role behind Roberto Luongo. Also, Mark Parrish received an invitation to training camp to add an extra scoring punch at a reasonable rate.

The Canucks then took advantage of the San Jose Sharks' need to shed salary, snatching away defencemen Christian Erhoff and Brad Lukowich for a pair of prospects. The deepest blueline in the league was solidified as Mathieu Schneider signed on for a year and Aaron Rome was brought in - making it an even 10 defencemen with NHL experience at training camp.

But the biggest news coming out of the West Coast was the re-signing of Luongo to a monster 12-year extension, locking up the face of the franchise for the rest of his career.

Biggest Issue facing the team:

To state the obvious, no team will be more greatly affected by the Olympics than the Canucks. While every NHL club will lose a superstar or two to the Games, no other team faces the prospect of a 14-game road trip as the world's top athletes take over GM Place for the XXI Winter Games. 

The month of February is generally considered the dog-days of the season, but the thought of not playing a home game for well over a month will unquestionably wear on the players. To compound matters, the Canucks' three key players (Luongo and the Sedins) will likely play pivotal roles in the fortunes of their respective hockey nations.

With that in mind, it will be essential for the Canucks to get off to a fast start this season as there will be nary a moment of rest down the stretch. Vancouver's focus on defensive depth should pay dividends, as there will certainly be nights during their lengthy road swing where the team will be exhausted. Management could also be wise to limit Luongo's starts in the early going so that he does not wear down as the season progresses. But are Raycroft or Schneider the answer in his place?

Up front, there are plenty of young legs to provide scoring punch. Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Steve Bernier and Mason Raymond all enjoyed career years in 2008-09 and will be asked to better these numbers this season. A shoulder injury to Pavol Demitra may prove to be a blessing in disguise as it will likely allow prospects like Cody Hodgson or Sergei Shirokov to crack the opening day roster (and a spot on the top two lines). They also won't have the off-ice distraction that was the Mats Sundin Saga that seemed to hang over the franchise last season.

This is certainly the deepest team that the Canucks have had in a while, and in any other season could be considered one of the top contenders for the Cup.  However, the previously-mentioned factors beyond their control could put them in the next tier of challengers. A deep playoff run should be the minimum expectation, but the Olympic factor could be the difference between playing in mid-April and playing in mid-June.

Player to watch:

The Canucks saved themselves a lot of headaches by signing Luongo prior to the start of the season. They only had to look back as far as last year to realize how a signing or non-signing (Sundin) can hang over a team. 

And it goes without saying that this will be an enormous campaign for Bobby Lou.  While he's been considered among the elite netminders in the world for some time, there have been questions whether he can win the big one. Luongo will be given every opportunity to prove his critics wrong this year with Canada at the Olympics, as well as the Canucks.

With the Winter Games in his own backyard, there is no question that Luongo wants to be, and believes that he should be, the No. 1 man for Canada come February. While incumbent Martin Brodeur may disagree, Luongo is likely the front-runner at the moment.  However, he will need to be stellar right out of the gate to cement his place. And not worrying about his contract is certainly a good start. 

Luongo will certainly benefit from a defensive corps that rivals virtually every unit in the league. The Canucks are blessed with a group that has defined roles and knows how to play them. While Ohlund's veteran experience will be missed, the team has more than made up for his loss by adding Erhoff, Lukowich and Schneider.

At the end of the day, the fortunes of the team largely rest on Luongo's broad shoulders.  Expectations are enormous this season in Vancouver and the time is now for Luongo to not only reach those expectations, but to exceed them.  If he does, then good things will follow.

Scott Cullen's Fantasy Take:

Even if last year's playoff run ended on a disappointing note, the Vancouver Canucks have emerged as contenders in the Western Conference, with a top-tier goaltender, deep defence and some quality forwards. The production by those forwards will determine if the Canucks are a good or great fantasy squad this season.

The Sedin Twins, Daniel and Henrik lead the way, as they have for the last four seasons. Henrik Sedin, the playmaker, has 314 points and is plus-58 in those four years and set career-highs last year with 22 goals and 82 points.

Read more of Scott Cullen's fantasy analysis of the Canucks, including a look at their projected depth chart for this season.

Roberto Luongo (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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