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Three to watch

Columnist Dave Tomlinson outlines three key Canucks

by Dave Tomlinson @DTSN1040 / Canucks Freelance Writer

Each year at the beginning of the season, it's easy to look at a team's roster, assess their personnel, and make an informed guess as to how you think that team will perform through the 82 games of an NHL schedule.

I'd rather look closer at a few key players and what a season would look like when they meet or exceed expectations. In doing so, it becomes pretty clear, that if those same players underperform, the effect on the rest of the team and its performance will also suffer.

Three key players that I've identified for the Canucks to surpass the prognostications of the media around the NHL are: Bo Horvat, Markus Granlund, and Erik Gudbranson. I will qualify though that it goes without saying the Sedins are the offensive engine and team leaders for the Canucks and an off year by them could put the organization in trouble in the standings, but they've shown throughout their careers that doubting them is a fool's errand, so I haven't put them under the microscope here.

Starting with the Canucks newest player of the three, it's easy to notice Erik Gudbranson out on the ice. At 6-foot-5 and almost 220-pounds, the latest defenceman to wear 44 casts an imposing figure. The analytics don't show his nasty side on the ice, or his willingness to rough up the opposition in front of the net, but his biggest contribution would be to steady the pairing of him and Ben Hutton to allow Hutton to thrive offensively. If Gudbranson can take parts of Ed Jovanovski's physical play, together with Willie Mitchell's defensive prowess, he can be the commanding presence that Canucks have sorely lacked over the last few years on the back end. With just the right amount of brute force, Gudbranson can singlehandedly instill the thought that playing against the Canucks can be a physically challenging affair.

For Markus Ganlund, whether he ends up playing higher up in the line-up down the middle, or somewhere in between on the wing, his playmaking ability has to shine through. His ability to take the puck to the net from below the goal line, or end up there in an open position, is his strong suit. His NHL pre-season showed an upside in winning puck battles in the offensive zone, and carrying the puck through the middle of the ice with designs on setting up his line-mates. Plain and simple, he has to produce, or at least drive offence with his skills. A slow start to the season for him will put undue pressure on the other centermen if he indeed stays in that position.

That brings us to Bo Horvat, the most known entity of the three Canucks. His season last year inversely mirrored the team's entire season. When the Canucks started out well enough in the first few months, Horvat was still trying to recapture the offensive magic he produced in last year's pre-season. When Horvat hit his stride in the New Year, the team crumbled around him with injuries and shaky defence. This year Bo will be counted on to take the pressure off other guys. If the Sedin line is getting matched and shut down, Horavt will be expected to make up the difference. If Granlund does struggle to get chemistry with his linemates, Horvat will have to take that line over. In fact, last year during the final few months of a season going sideway or worse, any player that was in a funk was put on Bo's line to get them out of it.

In closing, steady play coupled with a punishing attitude from Gudbranson, together with tangible scoring and a positive plus/minus stat for Granlund, and a continuation of Horvat's second half last year, will all add up to a season in which the Canucks, barring insurmountable injuries, will challenge for and secure a playoff spot come April.

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