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There's Much More To Come

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
There is no shortcut to winning the Stanley Cup.

But there appears to be at least one common thread among recent National Hockey League champions. Tampa Bay, Carolina and most-recently Anaheim all had young players that they had drafted and developed step into their line-ups and play significant roles on their lengthy playoff runs.

In Tampa’s case it was Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, for Carolina it was Eric Staal and Cam Ward. And last season, Anaheim received terrific contributions from the likes of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Now, each of those teams rounded out their rosters through trades and free agent signings, but in today’s NHL where every dollar matters, there is no substitute for teams grooming their own talent and getting young players onto the roster and producing.

The Vancouver Canucks know it and it’s one of the reasons Dave Nonis is optimistic he can get his team back to where it was when it won the Northwest Division in 2004 and again last season.

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

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“We talked a couple of years ago about what we needed to do. We needed to improve our reserve list, we needed to get some young players on our team and in our system to help us win. And I think that is something that has improved dramatically. What we have are players here who have helped us and we have players in Manitoba who are having excellent seasons as first year players, so that part is coming. We have a deeper reserve list to either bring players up or make moves with some assets which we now have that we didn’t have before,” Nonis said at his season-ending post-mortem at GM Place two days after the Canucks season finished.

“So a lot of the things we talked about putting ourselves in a position that we wanted to be in, we’re further along now than we were 12 months ago. It doesn’t make missing the playoffs any easier to swallow. The fact that we’re a stronger organization now than we were 12 months ago, it doesn’t excuse missing the playoffs, nor should it. We have to continue to run on a dual track.”

When Nonis assumed the role of general manager in the spring of 2004, he inherited a team that had virtually no prospects. Of the 24 players chosen by the Canucks in the 2000, 2001 and 2002 entry drafts, only Kevin Bieksa is on the current roster and only six ever played for the Canucks (including goaltender Rob McVicar who logged all of three minutes of mop-up duty in his lone NHL appearance).

Those are players who are now between the ages of 24 and 26 and should be key contributors, if not cornerstones, of an organization. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t happen for the Canucks so the cupboard was bare in terms of players to call up or assets to move which severely limited the general manager’s ability to improve his hockey club.

Compare the dark draft years with the 2003, 2004 and 2005 crops and it’s clear to see that the Canucks are reaping the benefits of much stronger selections. Already, seven players – Ryan Kesler, Alex Edler, Mike Brown, Jannik Hansen, Nathan McIver, Luc Bourdon and Mason Raymond -- taken in those years have suited up for the Canucks and many appear to be part the next core of the hockey club.

And that group doesn’t include 2004 first rounder Cory Schneider, who’s had a stellar second half of the season in Manitoba or 2006 first rounder Michael Grabner who’s leading the Moose with 22 goals.

It’s still too soon to judge the pro potential of 2007 first round pick Patrick White who just completed his first year at the University of Minnesota, but he’s another asset the hockey club has as is the 10th overall pick the Canucks hold in the upcoming entry draft.

That gives Dave Nonis options that he just hasn’t had in the past as he tries to build a winner not only for next season, but for years to come.

“I think we have some depth in our organization now that can be used for filling holes, giving guys an opportunity here or in some cases used to make some moves to bring other players in,” Nonis said, acknowledging publicly that he expects to busy in both free agency and on the trade front this summer.

“I’ve never said that we wouldn’t trade any of our players, even our younger players. What I said was I had no interest in trading a 21 or 22-year-old player who looks like he’s going to be a high-end guy for an unrestricted free agent or for a player with one year left on his contract. I think as an organization if you’re trying to build a team with a chance to compete long term you have to have bring players in who are going to be here long term. I wouldn’t have any problem moving players or groups of players if it was bringing the right kind of player back. And I think any team that misses (the playoffs) is going to look at that.”

With Roberto Luongo as the foundation and a strong blueline already in place, Dave Nonis can focus his attention on shoring up the offence to support the likes of returning forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Taylor Pyatt, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Matt Pettinger.

Through free agent signings or trades, the Canucks should be able to bring in a few more pieces of the puzzle to help Nonis carry out the plan he put in place when he took control of the hockey club four years ago. And after the disappointment of missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons, Nonis is no different than the legion of fans in Canuck nation -- he, too, wants change. The one big difference between the GM and the loyal fan base, though, is that Nonis gets the chance to make things happen.

“I would expect you would see a much different looking group when we get to training camp,” he said.

And with the addition of new faces joining the ones already in place, the Canucks are certainly hoping for a different ending to their season not only next year, but for years to come.
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