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Canucks enter season solid in all phases of the game

by Brian Compton
Is this the year?

It's a question Vancouver Canucks fans have asked themselves on an annual basis since the franchise entered the National Hockey League in 1970. So far, the answer has been no. But in 2011, Vancouver may get the answer it wants to hear.

Sure, it was disappointing when the Canucks lost in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Chicago Blackhawks last May. Vancouver had high hopes after it racked up 103 points and won the Northwest Division.

But Chicago's roster was hit hard by salary-cap issues this summer, while Canucks GM Mike Gillis shored up his blue line with the additions of Dan Hamhuis via free agency and Keith Ballard in a trade with the Florida Panthers. Those acquisitions came just a few months after Gillis locked up budding star forward Ryan Kesler to a six-year, $30 million contract. Kesler will be the club's No. 2 center behind Henrik Sedin, who won the Hart and Art Ross trophies last season after scoring a career-best 112 points.

Now, with the pieces in place, the challenge for the Canucks entering the 2010-11 season isn't about making the playoffs. It's about winning that elusive first championship.

"We've always had a lot of pressure on us to succeed, especially being in a Canadian city and having fans as passionate as our fans," Kesler told "Is there added pressure? Probably a little bit. But we know that we have a really good chance. There're not many years where you feel you have a really good chance, and this year I feel we have a really good chance. We can go a long way."

Obviously, Henrik Sedin is the Canucks' No. 1 center. He'll be joined on a line by his brother, Daniel, who had 29 goals and 56 assists last season. It's likely the twins will be joined by Alexandre Burrows, one of the game's better power forwards, who led the Canucks with 35 goals and was third with 121 penalty minutes. Once again, expect Vancouver's top line to be one of the most dangerous in the League.

But the ability to create offense won't stop there for the Canucks, as Kesler tallied 25 goals and a career-high 75 points last season. Kesler, 26, is expected to center 25-year-old Mason Raymond (25 goals last season) and Mikael Samuelsson, who enjoyed his first 30-goal season in 2009-10 at the age of 33.

Free-agent Manny Malhotra could be the third-line center the Canucks lacked last season. The 30-year-old is coming off a 14-goal campaign for the San Jose Sharks and is excellent in the faceoff circle. Malhotra likely will find himself between Tanner Glass and Jannik Hansen, who had 15 points in 47 games for the Canucks last season.

The fourth line is primed to entertain the home crowd, as Rick Rypien is expected to center Darcy Hordichuk (142 penalty minutes last season) and Victor Oreskovich, who had 6 points in 50 games for Florida. Also in the mix is Alexandre Bolduc, who was held without a point in 15 NHL games in 2009-10.

The Canucks' blue line should be a strong point this season, thanks to the additions of Hamhuis and Ballard. Hamhuis, a Smithers, B.C., native, had 5 goals and 19 assists for the Nashville Predators last season and is steady in his own end of the ice.

Ballard, 27, is entering his sixth NHL season. He has 149 points (33 goals, 116 assists) in 397 games. It's possible he could be paired with Hamhuis, or Canucks coach Alain Vigneault may elect to split them up and share the duties with Alexander Edler and Christian Ehrhoff.

Not lost in the shuffle is Kevin Bieksa, who may be the club's most skilled defenseman. The 29-year-old had just 3 goals last season, but he's also enjoyed a pair of 40-point seasons. He could join Shane O'Brien, at least while Sami Salo recovers from a torn ACL suffered July 22.

He may not be the captain anymore, but Roberto Luongo remains one of the best goaltenders on the planet.

Aiming to concentrate strictly on stopping the puck, Luongo relinquished the captaincy Sept. 13. It will be interesting to see if he can improve his statistics from last season, when he won 40 games and posted a 2.57 goals-against average. Now 31 years old, Luongo is just 30 victories shy of 300 in his career.

Cory Schneider finally may get a well-deserved, full-time NHL job. Schneider, the team's 2004 first-round draft choice, has just 10 NHL games on his resume. He went 35-23-2 with a 2.51 GAA for AHL Manitoba last season.

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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