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Canucks take another crack at Stanley Cup season

by Dave Lozo / Vancouver Canucks
It was a tremendously disappointing finish to the 2009-10 season for the Vancouver Canucks, who lost in the second round of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. But the Canucks were closer to a deep postseason run than it seems.

In the Western Conference Semifinals, they held a 1-0 series lead against the Chicago Blackhawks after a 5-1 blowout win in Game 1 at the United Center. In Game 2, the Canucks entered the third period with a one-goal lead, but they couldn't hold it and wound up losing the game and series to the eventual Stanley Cup champs.

If the Canucks survive that game and take a 2-0 series lead back to Vancouver, who knows how things would've played out? But in the end, the Canucks lacked the toughness and depth along the blue line in that series with the Blackhawks, and GM Mike Gillis made sure he rectified that problem this summer.

Say farewell to defensemen Brad Lukowich and Nathan McIver, goaltender Andrew Raycroft, and forwards Pavol Demitra, Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner.

The 33-year-old Lukowich played in just 13 games for the Canucks last season after coming over from San Jose in a trade that also brought Christian Ehrhoff to Vancouver. McIver spent the season with Manitoba of the AHL and never cracked the Canucks roster. He was signed by the Boston Bruins.


Kevin Bieksa, D -- The Canucks have seven legitimate NHL defenseman on their roster. That's mostly a result of Sami Salo's knee injury suffered during the offseason. If not for Salo's Achilles' tendon, there was a good chance the Canucks were going to deal Bieksa. Salo will likely be back in November or December, so a strong first-half showing by Bieksa could force the Canucks into a difficult decision if everyone on the blue line is healthy.

Roberto Luongo, G -- The 31-year-old goaltender is coming off a down season -- at least for him. Luongo won 40 games, but his .913 save percentage was his lowest since his rookie season with the New York Islanders and his 2.57 goals-against average was his highest since arriving in Vancouver in 2006. He now has an inexperienced backup in Cory Schneider, so it's of the utmost importance that Luongo rediscover his game. He'll be counted on more than ever this season.

Mason Raymond, F -- The speed demon's third NHL season was his best. He had a career-high 25 goals and 28 assists in 82 games and was rewarded with a two-year, $5.1 million contract. The Canucks will count on him for similar for production this season, but an improvement on his 53 points is a distinct possibility.

Raycroft had his best season as Roberto Luongo's backup since winning the Calder Trophy in 2003-04 with the Boston Bruins. Raycroft was 9-5-1 in 21 games with a 2.42 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. The 30-year-old signed with the Dallas Stars, where he figures to get more playing time while backing up Kari Lehtonen.

Demitra was a healthy scratch on multiple occasions during the playoffs and fell out of favor with coach Alain Vigneault.  Last season, injuries slowed Demitra, who played in just 28 regular-season games. He'll earn a paycheck next season in the KHL.

Bernier never lived up to expectations and was dealt to the Florida Panthers along with Grabner in exchange for defenseman Keith Ballard this summer. The 25-year-old Bernier had just 11 goals last season, while the 22-year-old Grabner had 5 goals and 6 assists in 20 games in his first NHL season.

Not only did the Canucks pick up Ballard to strengthen their defensive corps, they also signed free agent Dan Hamhuis to a six-year deal. The 27-year-old Hamhuis spent his entire six-year career with the Nashville Predators and will go a long way toward improving the Canucks' biggest weakness last season.

Ballard might be best known for accidentally smacking his own goaltender, Tomas Vokoun, across the skull with his stick with the Panthers last season, but he's a steady defender who has played 82 games in four of his five NHL seasons.

Up front, the Canucks brought Manny Malhotra, Jeff Tambellini and Joel Perrault into the fold. While Tambellini and Perrault are likely to see most of their playing time on the fourth line or in the AHL, Malhotra will be a key addition.

The 30-year-old Malhotra provided 14 goals and 19 assists for the San Jose Sharks last season while being used mostly a checking-line forward, a role he can expect to have with the Canucks. Malhotra will also be called upon to help a penalty-killing unit that finished 18th in the regular season and allowed a mind-blowing 11 power-play goals in 30 shorthanded opportunities in the playoffs.

Another forward who will provide depth for the already talented Canucks is Raffi Torres, who signed a one-year deal on Aug. 24. The 28-year-old left wing had 19 goals and 17 assists in 74 games between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres last season.

Cory Schneider isn't necessarily a new arrival, but Raycroft's departure has opened the door for the 24-year-old to get a chance to stick as Luongo's backup. The Canucks also picked up goaltender Tyler Weiman, but he'll take over Schneider's position as the starting goaltender at Manitoba.

Once again, all the pieces are in place to win a Stanley Cup. The Canucks have the marquee goaltender, the scoring depth, and now the improved defense that's needed to be playing in June. But will it all click this time around, or will it be another early exit? Anything less than a trip to the Western Conference Finals should be considered a disappointing season.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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