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Off-Season Game Plan: Vancouver Canucks

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Scott Cullen
6/22/2011 12:07:35 AM
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The Vancouver Canucks came so close to winning their first Stanley Cup, but came up short in Game Seven, leaving a long summer to think about what could have been.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at an obviously talented Canucks team that GM Mike Gillis will presumably want to keep intact as much as possible heading into next season.

Part of the reason that the Canucks shouldn't be looking to make drastic moves is that their lineup was rather depleted by the time the Final was finished. With defencemen Dan Hamhuis and Aaron Rome out due to injury and suspension, respectively, and second-line wingers Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson both hurt, the Canucks' depth was put to the test.

Given those circumstances, the Canucks' best plan going forward may be to try and maintain as much of the status quo as possible, with minor tweaks to improve the depth in the organization.

After all, the Canucks finished with a franchise-record 117 points and led the league in both points and goal differential, so making wholesale changes based on losing Game Seven against Boston, would be taking a rather narrow view of this team's abilities and shortcomings.

That's not to say the Canucks can't improve or don't face challenges heading into next season.

Improved secondary scoring never hurts and if the Canucks can keep their defensive core mostly intact that continuity would be welcome to a team that is attempting to return to the Final.

Moreover, Gillis has eight unrestricted free agents to deal with this summer along with some players that are going to be recovering from injuries over the summer, not least of all Mason Raymond, Manny Malhotra and Dan Hamhuis.

If the Canucks return relatively healthy next season and make a few smart additions, the Canucks will give themselves a chance to return to the Final.

Trouble is, in the Western Conference, just having a chance to return still means battling through Chicago, Detroit, San Jose and others just to get to the Cup Final.

And now that the Canucks have been there, just getting to the Final isn't enough.

GM/COACH
Mike Gillis/Alain Vigneault

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Daniel Sedin 84.03 $6.1M
Ryan Kesler 82.09 $5.0M
Henrik Sedin 78.58 $6.1M
Alex Burrows 74.49 $2.0M
Mikael Samuelsson 71.05 $2.5M
Mason Raymond 69.70 $2.55M
Manny Malhotra 67.75 $2.5M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Chris Higgins 69.04 UFA $1.6M
Jannik Hansen 66.39 RFA $825K
Raffi Torres 65.16 UFA $1.0M
Jeff Tambellini 63.97 UFA $500K
Maxim Lapierre 62.03 RFA $900K
Victor Oreskovich 58.58 RFA $575K
Tanner Glass 58.51 UFA $625K

Following up brother Henrik Sedin's MVP campaign in 2009-2010, Daniel Sedin turned in the best year of his career last season, scoring a career-high 41 goals and leading the league with 104 points. In the last three seasons,combined, Daniel Sedin is also a plus-90, the best rating among all NHLers over that span.

Sure, the Cup Final didn't play out the way either one of the Sedin Twins would have wanted it, but Daniel Sedin's game raised another level this season.

Henrik Sedin led the league in assists for the second year in a row and, with his brother back for the full season, Henrik wasn't the marksman that he was in his MVP season, but 94 points and a plus-26 rating is nothing to scoff at.

His struggles in the Final notwithstanding, Henrik has played every game for six consecutive seasons and ranks fourth among NHLers in that time with 520 points, falling between Sidney Crosby and Martin St. Louis, so he's keeping rather impressive company.

If anything was revealed about the Sedins in the postseason it is that they could be taken out by a shutdown defensive pairing.

Ryan Kesler has been similarly durable, playing every game over the past three seasons, all the while increasing his production. His point total dropped from 75 to 73 last season, but with a career-high 41 goals and career-best plus-24, it was the best season of his career.

Kesler is one of the very best shutdown centres in the game, yet is obviously a goal-scoring threat in his own right; he showed in the Nashville series just how dominant he could be, putting up 11 points in six games, on just 14 total Canucks goals.

When defences get locked onto the Sedin line, Kesler is dangerous enough offensively to make them pay.

One of the game's great agitators, Alex Burrows is in rare company. Among players that have at least 300 penalty minutes in the last three seasons, only Corey Perry has more goals than Burrows' 89 and more points than Burrows' 166. None of the agitators come close Burrows' plus-83 mark over that time.

To be fair, it's not like Burrows has the creative skills to generate this offence on his own, but he's been a superb complement to the Sedins.

Mikael Samuelsson only was held without a goal for his last 14 regular season games then managed one in 11 playoff games before he was shut down for sports hernia surgery, but he still put up 50 points for just the second time in his career and he hasn't been a minus player since 2002-2003.

He's really an ideal complementary winger, who doesn't require a lot of ice time and can move from line to line and still be productive.

What was already a relatively disappointing season for Mason Raymond ended disastrously when he suffered a broken vertebrae in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final and the injury is expected to keep him out perhaps into November.

When he's on his game, Raymond can create offensive chances with his tremendous speed, but can go through spurts during which he disappears for games at a time. Nevertheless, the absence of his second-line scoring to start next season is significant.

Manny Malhotra made a courageous comeback from a serious eye injury to play in the Stanley Cup Final, but he was not the same high-quality third line centre that he was prior to his injury.

If Malhotra can regain full sight in his eye and resume his career, he's a major asset because he can take some of the checking pressure off Kesler and Malhotra is excellent on face-offs.

Danish winger Jannik Hansen took a step forward in his development, playing all 82 games and scoring a career-high 29 points. A good skater who isn't afraid to get his nose diry, Hansen is capable of more if he brings it on a more consistent basis.

Maxim Lapierre only contributed one point in 19 games after arriving in a trade from Anaheim, but he was effective (and highly annoying to opponents) in the postseason. With Malhotra limited, Lapierre's emergence was crucial to the Canucks' run to the Final.

A fourth-line banger, Victor Oreskovich had a total of three points in 35 games (regular season plus playoffs) for the Canucks last season, so he's not going to make a major difference on the team's fortunes, but if the goal of the fourth line is to get out and hit, he has the big body to handle that job.

Among the four unrestricted free agents, Chris Higgins and Raffi Torres may have some appeal to be re-signed, but the Canucks could be on the lookout for new faces for some of the checking roles.

If the Canucks make a serious bid to improve their secondary scoring, they could look to free agents like Brooks Laich, Ville Leino or Simon Gagne, among other scorers that could play alongside Kesler on the second line.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Alexander Edler 76.86 $3.25M
Dan Hamhuis 70.54 $4.5M
Keith Ballard 60.81 $4.2M
Aaron Rome 60.06 $750K
Chris Tanev 57.56 $900K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Christian Ehrhoff 74.97 UFA $3.1M
Kevin Bieksa 70.67 UFA $3.75M
Sami Salo 62.80 UFA $3.5M
Andrew Alberts 59.04 UFA $1.05M

Back surgery caused Alexander Edler to miss 31 games last season and it helped obscure the fact that he's establishing himself as a legitimate number one defenceman.

Playing more than 24 minutes per game, Edler moves the puck well enough to put up points (his .65 points per game ranked 11th among defencemen last season) and, when he's really on his game, Edler can be a physical presence too.

A variety of injuries limited Dan Hamhuis to 64 regular season games and caused him to miss the last six games of the Cup Final, which was certainly crucial to the result, as Hamhuis was, for the entire season, Vancouver's best shutdown defenceman.

Last summer's other big acquisition on defence, Keith Ballard, did not have the kind of impact that was expected. After playing more than 21 minutes a game through the first five years of his career, Ballard played under 16 minutes per game for the Canucks and found himself to be a healthy scratch.

Ballard recognizes how disappointing his season was and knows he needs to be better and, with four years and $16.8-million left on his contract, the Canucks need him to be bounce back next season.

If not for his suspension for a late hit on Nathan Horton in the Final, Aaron Rome could have continued to toil in relative anonymity, but that's meant as a positive -- he's been an increasingly reliable depth defenceman who might be able to earn a regular turn on the third pairing.

Injuries on the Vancouver defence opened the door for Chris Tanev to play 29 regular season games and five playoff games for the Canucks in his first year as a pro. Tanev earned high marks for his composure, but could get stronger if he's going to become an NHL regular.

Four unrestricted free agent defencemen could leave at least a couple of holes on the Vancouver defence, depending on who will fit under the cap. Kevin Bieksa, who paired so well with Hamhuis, and Sami Salo, who might be retained at a reasonable price because of his perennial injury problems, may be the best bets to return.

If the Canucks can't bring at least two of Bieksa, Salo or Christian Ehrhoff back, then they'll have to hit the free agent market, looking at Ed Jovanovski, James Wisniewski, Joni Pitkanen, Eric Brewer or Ian White -- basically anyone who can fill a role in the top four.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Cap Hit
Cory Schneider 81.39 $900K
Roberto Luongo 81.07 $5.333M

For a season in which he was nominated for the Vezina Trophy, Roberto Luongo sure faced a lot of criticism as the Canucks stumbled in the Final. His goals against average (2.11) was the best of his career and his .928 save percentage was the second-best of his career and yet, there is still talk that he could get moved this summer.

Part of the reason that Luongo could be considered expendable is that 25-year-old Cory Schneider excelled in his first NHL season as Luongo's backup, posting a 2.23 goals against average and .929 save percentage.

With the two of them together, the Canucks have one of the league's top tandems, so breaking up that pair would have to bring in significant talent in other areas.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Cody Hodgson C Manitoba (AHL) 17-13-30,-12, 52 GP
Anton Rodin RW Brynas Gavle (SEL) 7-19-26,-9, 53 GP
Eddie Lack G Manitoba (AHL) 2.26 GAA,.926 SV%, 53 GP
Jordan Schroeder C Manitoba (AHL) 10-18-28,-7, 61 GP
Billy Sweatt LW Manitoba (AHL) 19-27-46,-9, 80 GP
Kevin Connauton D Manitoba (AHL) 11-12-23,-11, 73 GP
Sergei Shirokov LW Manitoba (AHL) 22-36-58,+7, 76 GP
Yann Sauve D Manitoba (WHL) 3-11-14,+5, 39 GP
Steven Anthony LW Saint John (QMJHL) 23-37-60,+35, 61 GP
Adam Polasek D PEI (QMJHL) 7-32-39,even, 61 GP

At one time considered an elite prospect, Cody Hodgson has had some bumps in the road along the way and now is trying to get back to that level. He could use more time in the AHL, where he should be more effective offensively before he's asked to join the Canucks.

Speedy winger Anton Rodin developed nicely in Sweden last season and the 20-year-old is one of the few young Canucks wing prospects with offensive upside.

Goaltender Eddie Lack was impressive in his first North American pro season, as he's learned to effectively use his 6-foot-4 frame. As long as Luongo and Schneider remain in Vancouver, Lack is blocked, but the 23-year-old may not be far from being NHL-ready.

Jordan Schroeder struggled through his first pro season, so he's going to need a bounceback year in 2011-2012 to re-establish his potential as a scoring forward.

22-year-old winger Billy Sweatt had a relatively productive first year as a pro and his speed gives him a shot at challenging for a job in Vancouver.

An offensive defenceman who is still trying to find his way in the defensive zone, Kevin Connauton will need more time on the farm before he's ready to be considered for promotion.

The leading scorer on the Canucks' farm team last season, Sergei Shirokov has improved his all-around game enough that he could warrant a chance in the NHL; the 25-year-old just might not be able to get it in Vancouver.

21-year-old Yann Sauve had a promising start to his career, though it wasn't without incident as he missed a good chunk of the season after getting hit by a car.

Steven Anthony is an industrious winger coming off a fine season for the Memorial Cup champs. He's not likely to be a big scorer, so he'll have to have the rest of his game sharp if he's going to climb the ladder.

A lanky defenceman who can move the puck, Czech blueliner Adam Polasek has played a couple of seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and may be ready for a challenge in the AHL.

Check out a possible lineup for next season, on www.capgeek.com, with few drastic changes here: http://bit.ly/lKoUqJ

DRAFT
28th - Oscar Klefbom, Connor Murphy, Vladislav Namestnikov.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canucks have approximately $46.6M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 14 players.

Needs: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, two top four defencemen.

What I said the Canucks needed last year: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top-four defenceman.

They added: Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Cory Schneider.

TRADE MARKET Keith Ballard, Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider.

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.

Off-Season Game Plan Archive

Canucks celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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