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Ten questions for training camp...

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks’ quick trip to Whistler will barely be long enough to see the sights let alone provide answers to the many questions surrounding this hockey club heading into 2008-09. But the two day training camp will serve as the first opportunity for players – the returnees and the many new faces alike -- to set the tone for the season ahead.

With that in mind, here are 10 key questions about this year’s club. And the answers will begin to take shape between now and the time the Canucks open the regular season on October 9th against Calgary.

1. Can Daniel Sedin return to his form of two years ago?

With 74 points, Daniel was just two points off the team lead in scoring last season. However the 29 goals he scored represented a seven-goal drop from the 36 he notched in 2006-07. On a team in need of offence, Daniel has to find a way to get back to – and surpass – his career-best from two years back. He had 19 of his 29 goals in the first half of last season and looked like he would flirt with 40 by season’s end. That didn’t happen and, as turned out, he was unable to reach 30. With all of the turnover on the roster over the summer, Daniel has become the Canucks’ go-to-guy in the goal-scoring department. They’re going to need him to score goals.

Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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2. How quickly can Steve Bernier mesh with the Twins?

The big newcomer has had the summer to prepare for the plum assignment of playing with Daniel and Henrik. He appears to have all the tools needed to have success on that line – he’s big, he’s strong, he’s a right-handed shot and he has shown in the past that he knows where the net is. Although, even Bernier would have to admit he had trouble finding it after the trade-deadline deal that saw him score one goal in his final sixteen games after shuffling off to Buffalo from San Jose. The job on the top line with Daniel and Henrik appears to be Bernier’s to lose. He – and the Canucks – can’t afford to have that happen. Everyone with a vested interest in this trio needs to see some pre-season success.

3. Is less more when it comes to Roberto Luongo?

Sounds crazy, I know. And as much fun as he is to watch when he’s at the top of his game, Luongo probably shouldn’t play as much as he has in his first two years in Vancouver when he appeared in 76 games in 2006-07 and 73 games last year (remember he missed a week with a rib injury in December). Due to the tight playoff race, he started the final 31 games of the season but at times looked like a guy in need of a night off. Now, in order for the Canucks to have the luxury of providing Luongo with some rest this season they need Curtis Sanford to regain his confidence along with the trust of his teammates and the coaching staff. If that happens, then it’s probably in the Canucks’ best interest to lay off Luongo just a smidge so that he’s as sharp as possible later in the season.

4. Will Alain Vigneault select a captain or opt for leadership by committee?

With the departures of Markus Naslund, Trevor Linden and Brendan Morrison over the summer, there will certainly be a new look to the leadership of the Canucks this season. While much has been made about who will wear the ‘C’ – perhaps a handful of players will have the honour. The rotating captaincy has gained popularity around the NHL in recent years and there’s nothing to say that the Canucks couldn’t go that route this season. With a team in transition in many ways, maybe Alain Vigneault will allow players to earn the right with their play to have a letter stitched on their jersey.

5. What exactly do the Canucks have in Taylor Pyatt?

In both his seasons as a Canuck, the big winger has put up 37 points which, on paper at least, would seemingly make him the model of consistency. But anyone who has watched Pyatt play knows that just isn’t the case. The first year he was considered one of the team’s pleasant surprises, yet last year often seemed like a disappointment. The difference was that in 2006-07 Pyatt registered a career-high 23 goals while last year he managed just 16. It’s clear to see he possesses the necessary traits to be a force every time he steps on the ice – he just has to find a way to make it happen. With the team’s second line spots begging to be filled, Taylor Pyatt could very well be one of the swing players who has a key role in determining the success of this hockey club. If he can get back to his 23-goal ways, the Canucks will benefit greatly. If his goal total is in the mid-teens again, that’s a problem for both Pyatt and the hockey team.

6. Will Mason Raymond be able to pick up where he left off after he was injured while playing the best hockey of his young NHL career?

Another of the players with an opportunity to grab a spot on the team’s new-look second line, Raymond proved last year that he can skate at this level. With nine goals in 49 games he was on pace for a 15-goal season which would have put him in the top five in the NHL among freshman goal-scorers last year. But his rookie season was cut short by a knee injury suffered on a hard-hit by then Phoenix defenseman Keith Ballard. Raymond needs to demonstrate early in the preseason that he’s completely healthy, that his confidence is back and that he can play among the team’s top six forwards. He spent last year shuffling between lines which didn’t help his production. He can help his own cause in that regard this time around by bringing consistency to his game. If he’s put in offensive situations and plays regularly with offensive players, there’s no reason Mason Raymond couldn’t push for a 20-goal season.

7. Can Kevin Bieksa forget – and make everyone else forget – about last season?

He and the Canucks are certainly hoping so. While he gets high marks for battling back to get into the line-up following a gruesome calf injury suffered in early November, Bieksa’s season was a write-off. The Canucks need the Kevin Bieksa of two-years ago back from the start of this season – a guy with an edge to his game who can move the puck and isn’t afraid to jump into the rush. Two years ago, in his only full-season so far in the NHL, Bieksa scored 12 goals and had 42 points while picking up 134 penalty minutes. The 2008-09 Canucks would take that kind of production from Bieksa in a heartbeat. Although he’s only played three years in the NHL, Bieksa is now 27-years-old and entering the prime of his career. If he’s able to wipe last year’s slate clean, Kevin Bieksa has a chance to be a difference maker on this hockey club.

8. How does Ryan Kesler follow-up his breakout season?

With Markus Naslund gone, Kesler’s career-best 21-goals last year are the second-highest total returning to this team. But those 21 goals are more than the 18 he had scored in the first 158 NHL games he played in his first three years with the Canucks. So Kesler very clearly took his game to the next level last season. Can he do it again? Maybe. But maybe he doesn’t have to. If he could give the Canucks another 20-goal season while providing the same tenacious checking he did most nights last year that would probably be enough. There is talk that Kesler will be given an opportunity to play more of an offensive role this season and yet it seems dangerous to tinker with the chemistry Kesler and Alex Burrows had last year when they formed one of the most-hated tandems in the NHL. The Canucks know they’re going to get hustle and effort and all the little things from Ryan Kesler. But they’re counting on big things, too -- whether he slides into a second line role or remains the team’s third line centre.

9. Where does Jeff Cowan fit into the equation?

Perhaps the better question heading into camp is does Jeff Cowan fit into the equation? With Darcy Hordichuk signed to play the role of hired gun and Mike Brown looking to show he deserves a shot at doing the club’s dirty work this season, Cowan clearly has his work cut out for him. He turns 32 next week, he’s coming off a disappointing and injury-plagued season in which he failed to score, registered just a single assist and was -5 in limited ice time. This is the same guy who provided such a spark the season before, scoring six goals in a four game span, notching the overtime winner in the Canucks’ playoff victory against Anaheim and throwing hits and fists in equal doses. There was almost none of that from Cowan last year. The beauty of grinders is that nothing has ever come easy for them and they’ve had to battle throughout their careers. This preseason should be a perfect example and Jeff Cowan should be easy to spot in exhibition action. After all, he’s a guy who’s literally fighting for his job this time around.

10. Which of the newcomers will step up and standout through the preseason?

Pavol Demitra is a proven commodity, the rest of the bunch are not. Kyle Wellwood is a wild card while Jason Krog has to be considered a long-shot to stick with the big club. Then you’ve got youngsters like Michael Grabner, Jannik Hansen, Mike Brown and even Cody Hodgson pushing for spots on the team. In today’s NHL, youth and inexperience are no longer detriments to a hockey club. Good teams find a way to infuse their line-ups with young players and put them in meaningful roles. The Canucks gave Mason Raymond an opportunity last year and it certainly looks like they’ll dangle that carrot out there for at least one more newcomer this season. Nothing should inspire a player like the chance to stick with the big club. The Canucks have to be hoping that internal competition brings out the best in all of the players through camp and into the preseason. It isn’t every year that there are multiple jobs up for grabs, but it certainly appears to be the case this time around.

All of these pressing questions will begin to be answered Monday night when the Canucks kickoff their seven game exhibition schedule in Edmonton against the Oilers. Let the games begin.
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