The last couple of years for the Vancouver Canucks have been tumultuous, to say the least. In 2011 they were riding high, they had just won the team’s first President’s Trophy, they had the NHL’s most dynamic duo in Henrik and Daniel Sedin, a Selke trophy winner in the form of Ryan Kesler, and a Stanley Cup Final appearance that solidified them as one of the best teams in the world.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. After two straight uninspiring first round exits, the Canucks organization has had to preform a “reset” in the words of General Manager Mike Gillis. Heading into the 2013-14 season with a bit of a new look has led to a few burning questions.
1. How will Luongo react to being the number one again? We don’t need to spend much time going into the Roberto Luongo situation again, everyone should be familiar with it by this point. The important matter is how Luongo will perform this season for the Canucks after all that he’s been through. Will he be an all-star, or a disgruntled former star? One can assume that Luongo is now, and has always been, the consummate professional. It’s hard not to get distracted though, and Luongo saw his numbers slip last year while rumors swirled around him. With Cory Schneider off to New Jersey, and the crease finally his to own again, can he return to own personal lofty standards? Or will the sour taste left in his mouth translate into struggles on the ice? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for either of these questions yet, but my feeling is that a heavier workload will allow Luongo to regain his rhythm and focus, something this goalie desperately needs to be effective.
2. How will John Tortorella change the team? Or perhaps the better question is, how will the team and the new head coach adapt to each other? A hallmark of Tort’s teams has been shot blocking and dogged puck pursuit. Basically his philosophy is “when we don’t have the puck, do everything we can to get the puck”. That’s all well and good, but it’s a change from the puck possession style of this Vancouver team, and the way they take advantage of their opportunities. Tortorella said in his introductory press conference that he’ll be asking more of his players, even going so far as to say the Sedins should be blocking shots and killing penalties. Will the team buy in to this new approach, or will there be a conflict of minds between the Canucks veterans and Tortorella? In the end, I think the will to win will supercede any doubts that the players have, and that they’ll all buy what Tortorella is selling.
3. Can Tortorella really play nice with the media? Totorella’s relationship with the media is legendary, it doesn’t take more than a quick search of youtube to ensure someone of that. Vancouver is a hockey hotbed, where the slightest comment can get dissected to the nth degree, so Tortorella must watch his mouth to avoid disaster. So far he’s said all the right things, but can we expect the same after a tough loss during the playoff drive? My gut tells me no, but I also think that Tortorella is sincere when he says he wants to mature and is embarrassed by his previous outbursts. He’s going to have to walk a fine line to be successful.
4. Will the prospects step up? For years, the Canucks have had one of the shallowest prospect pools in the league. However that’s changed a bit in recent years, and the next core of the team appears to be close to stepping in. Zack Kassian looks like he’ll get some time on the top line with the Sedins where he could very well flourish. Undrafted defenseman Chris Tanev has emerged as one of their steadiest defenders on the back end. 2009 first round pick Jordan Schroeder will get a good opportunity to finally secure a regular spot at center while other prospects such as Brendan Gaunce, Niklas Jensen, Bo Horvat and Hunter Shinkaruk will all get long looks at training camp. Goaltender Eddie Lack looks like he’ll also finally get a shot at being the regular back-up in Vancouver after a few seasons of being behind Luongo and Schneider on the depth chart. A big part of the success of the team next year may come down to how many of these young players are truly able to step up and become solid NHLers.
5. Can Ryan Kesler regain his form? Any person who follows the Canucks closely knows that Kesler is the engine that drives the team forward. At his best Kesler is a monster who can excel at both ends of the ice, but injuries have slowed him in recent years. After a brilliant 41 goal performance in 2011 that helped earn him the Selke trophy as the best defensive forward in the league, Kesler slipped to 22 goals in 2012, and four last season in which he made only 17 appearances. For the Canucks to have real success they need Kesler’s goalscoring and defensive acumen to take pressure off the Sedins and balance the lineup. Without him, they’re basically a one line team with good depth players. Without him the Canucks are merely good. But Kesler playing at his best makes them elite.
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