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Waiting for October

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
Against the backdrop of July 1st in a city that had been frothing about that day for the better part of a year, certainly the Vancouver Canucks’ activity since free agency opened has hardly overwhelmed.

But judging what the hockey team has right now against the line-up the Canucks iced in their opening game last season, an argument can certainly be made that this team is further ahead right now than it was last October.

When the Canucks kicked off last season at home against the San Jose Sharks, they started the year with Mason Raymond, then a raw rookie, thrust onto the top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. They had Ryan Kesler misplaced as a second-line centre asked to play an offensive role between Markus Naslund and Ryan Shannon. Brendan Morrison was on the third line with Matt Cooke on one side and Taylor Pyatt on the other. And the fourth line that night consisted of Byron Ritchie with Trevor Linden and Alex Burrows.

While the line combinations changed as the season evolved, the personnel for the most part did not and the Canucks had a hockey club that despite its shortcomings managed to stay in the thick of the race for the Northwest Division title until the final 10 games of the year. Did the Canucks spiral out of the playoff picture over those final two weeks? Yes. Was that acceptable? No.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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And so changes have been made. Obviously, there have been lots of changes and in many areas of the organization.

Fast forward to today where if the season started, the Canucks would likely have newcomer Steve Bernier on the right side with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Bernier’s a big body and a right-handed shot and with three years in the National Hockey League under his belt seems like a better fit in that spot than Raymond did a year ago.

Drop the fleet-footed sophomore into a second-line spot where he should be better suited and put him on a unit with Kyle Wellwood in the middle and Taylor Pyatt on the other side. That gives you a line with a solid mix of speed, skill and size that has the potential to contribute offensively. Remember that the Naslund-Kesler-Shannon combination didn’t click as a second line last season (before Shannon was demoted), so it won’t take much for the Canucks to see more from their second line than they did last year.

Anyone who watched the Canucks last season knows that Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows emerged as two of the top checkers in the NHL. Despite being asked to shutdown the other team’s top players each night, Kesler and Burrows also each found a way to post career-high in goals. Throw trade-deadline acquisition Matt Pettinger on that line and you’ve got a third line that understands its role, plays it perfectly and, as an added bonus, can chip in with some offence.

On opening night a year ago, the Canucks started with a third line of Brendan Morrison in the middle between Matt Cooke and Taylor Pyatt. I think most Canuck fans would take the new-look third line over what was offered up a year ago as a unit that can match-up against the top players on the other side.

And with the free agent additions of hard-nosed checker Ryan Johnson from St. Louis and tough guy Darcy Hordichuk from Nashville, the Canucks have two-thirds of a much grittier fourth line than they were ever able to employ at any point last season. Throw in the likes of a Mike Brown on that line and other teams will have no choice but to notice when those three are on the prowl. To begin last season, the Canucks had Byron Ritchie, Trevor Linden and Alex Burrows on the fourth line with Brad Isbister as the extra forward.

As they stand right now, the Vancouver Canucks appear to have better balance to their forward lines than they did to start last season. They look like they’ll be able to put players in roles that are more suited to their skill sets. The additions of Bernier, Johnson and Hordichuk give them size and an edge that they were lacking throughout all of last season. While the jury is still out to see if the Canucks have upgraded offensively, there is no question they are already a tougher team to play against.

Are the Vancouver Canucks, as they currently stand, Stanley Cup contenders? No. There’s still plenty of work to do to be mentioned in the same sentence as the top teams in hockey. But the season doesn’t start tomorrow and Mike Gillis has both oodles of time and plenty of cap space with which to continue over-hauling his hockey club. The Canucks don’t need to be the best team in the league to start the season, but they do have to stay with the pack in the Western Conference so that when the time is right – either during the season or at next year’s trade deadline – they’re in position to make a move or two to bolster their roster.

With Roberto Luongo in goal and virtually the same defence corps in front of him, the Canucks seem positioned to play the same style of hockey that led them to a franchise record for wins and took them to a Northwest Division title just two years ago. And while others in the division have made changes, and in some cases upgrades, overall it’s hard to suggest that anyone in the Northwest has made such significant moves that they’ve separated themselves from the pack.

So while July 1st – and the days shortly thereafter – may not have provided the big splash Canucks fans had been hoping for, from this vantage point there’s an argument to be made that this team has already improved over the line-up it iced on opening night 10 months ago. Of course, there’s only one way to find out. And for that, we’ll all have to wait until October.
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