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Canucks facing familiar script of low expectations

by Kevin Woodley continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks made significant and at-times surprising changes in the summer but face familiar questions about their chances of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs again this season.

Much like they were heading into last season, the Canucks are considered a playoff longshot by many in part because of questions about some of those moves they made and in part because other Pacific Division opponents appeared to load up around them during the offseason.

The Calgary Flames, who knocked Vancouver out of the Western Conference First Round in six games last season, Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers all seem improved after finishing behind the Canucks in the Pacific Division. The same can be said for the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference.

That has led to a lot of questions that bring back memories from the start of last season, when the Canucks were coming off missing the playoffs and hearing talk about being an aging team in decline. Goaltender Ryan Miller thinks hearing those same questions again might be a good thing.

"Last year, the guys had something to prove early on and I think we have to maintain that because every year that's what kind of gets you through," Miller said. "You have to have a calling. We should have some youthful energy along with some guys who definitely want to prove something and it's funny, we kind of slide into the same script as last year where people aren't really talking about us doing too much."

After riding top-line twins Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin hard under coach John Tortorella and finishing 25th in the League standings in 2013-14, the Canucks relied on a more balanced approach under new coach Willie Desjardins last season, regularly rolling four lines at even strength.

With young forwards including Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann pushing for jobs, the Canucks should be deep enough up front to keep pushing the pace in Desjardins' system even after letting veteran contributors such as Shawn Matthias, who scored 17 of his 18 goals at even strength last season, and Brad Richardson leave as free agents. The question is whether the Canucks can find the right mix among the current group, something they were still trying to find while mixing and matching the top three lines midway through the preseason.

Vancouver has been careful not to place too many scoring expectations on center Bo Horvat despite Horvat breaking out offensively after the All-Star Game last season as a rookie (17 points in 37 games) and being one of the Canucks' best forwards in the playoff loss to Calgary. Instead, the Canucks seem determined to make Brandon Sutter, acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the de facto second-line center ahead of Horvat and in place of Nick Bonino, who went to Pittsburgh in the trade. With little expected from a fourth line of Linden Vey between Derek Dorsett and newcomer Brandon Prust, the Canucks will need contributions from the lines centered by Horvat and Sutter to take pressure off the Sedins to score at 5-on-5 this season.

Whether Vey's line can keep from being pinned in its own end, Desjardins believes the Canucks are better down the middle this season.

"Sutter is a good skater, he can play against anybody. Horvat is a good skater, he can play against anybody, and so can [Henrik Sedin]," Desjardins said. "Those three down the middle give you a lot of different ways to play teams."

The Canucks will undoubtedly feel the loss of veteran defensemen Kevin Bieksa, who was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft after 10 seasons in Vancouver.


2014-15 record:
48-29-5 (101 points))

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Eliminated by Calgary Flames in six games in Western Conference First Round

Key additions: C Brandon Sutter, LW Brandon Prust, G Richard Bachman, D Matt Bartkowski

Key subtractions: D Kevin Bieksa, RW Zack Kassian, C Nick Bonino, G Eddie Lack, C Shawn Matthias, D Adam Clendening, RW Brad Richardson, D Ryan Stanton

Though Bieksa's leadership and strong presence leaves a gap that will need to be filled in the locker room, Canucks general manager Jim Benning believes he replaced Bieksa's toughness on the ice by adding Prust in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens. As for Bieksa's contributions on the back end, the 34-year-old was dropped to the third defense pairing last season behind Christopher Tanev and Yannick Weber on the right side.

"Kevin was a huge personality," defenseman Dan Hamhuis said. "He'll be missed, but it's a great opportunity for more guys to step up and fill his role."

The Canucks went 12-9-1 while Bieksa was out almost two months with a broken hand last season despite also missing Tanev and defenseman Alexander Edler for stretches, but they might struggle if their depth is similarly challenged this season. Weber was a healthy scratch several games early last season but returns to the top four alongside Hamhuis after playing well while Bieksa was out late in the season.

The bottom pairing likely will feature a rotation of free agent addition Matt Bartkowski, steady-but-unspectacular Frank Corrado, who has two points in 28 NHL games over three seasons, and Luca Sbisa, who is entering the first season of a three-year contract extension he received in April.

Beyond that, Vancouver has Alex Biega, who stepped in admirably his first seven NHL games while Bieksa was out, Taylor Fedun, who has played 11 NHL games, and skilled-but-raw rookies Ben Hutton and Jordan Subban.

Goaltending is never far from the spotlight in Vancouver, and the trade of fan favorite Eddie Lack at the NHL Draft on June  27 ensures that will be the case again this season.

Miller, 35, has fully recovered from the knee injury that gave Lack the opportunity to carry the Canucks into the playoffs last season. But with Jacob Markstrom taking over for Lack in the backup role, there are questions about whether the Canucks can survive another prolonged absence from their No.1 goaltender.

Markstrom is coming off an exceptional season in the American Hockey League, but he could use some early success to make Canucks fans forget his .896 save percentage in 50 NHL games. After making subtle changes in his technique and tactics since coming from the Florida Panthers two seasons ago as part of the Roberto Luongo trade, this season will be Markstrom's best chance to finally establish himself as an NHL regular.

As for Miller, he is coming off a season of changes that added up to the worst full-season save percentage (.911) of his career. Miller spent the start of last season adjusting to a new conference, new coach, new system and style tweaks under new goalie coach Roland Melanson. Just when he finally seemed comfortable with the adjustments, Miller injured his right knee in a late February crease collision with teammate Jannik Hansen.

"I was starting to get a feel for, 'OK, this is how I want to play,'" Miller said. "Now I am just trying to pick up again on that same course."

Vancouver relied heavily on special teams last season and will likely need a repeat performance to get back to the playoffs.

Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin lead a power-play unit that was tied for eighth in the League (19.3 percent) last season. Vancouver was a lot further back at even strength, finishing tied for 12th with 155 goals while playing 5-on-5.

Vancouver's penalty kill finished second at 85.7 percent but has lost its top shorthanded forwards in Richardson and Bonino (each 1:57 PK time per game last season), and will be without Chris Higgins, who averaged 1:44 of penalty-kill time per game, third among Canucks forwards, to start the season because of a broken foot. The addition of Sutter will help offset those losses, but with Matthias also gone, the Canucks may need to use the Sedins and Horvat more shorthanded this season.

Desjardins returns for a second season with the same staff and shouldn't have to worry as much about implementing system changes. Don't expect him to waver from the balanced-lines approach that got the Canucks back to the playoffs last season, but don't be surprised if he focuses more on matchups after rolling four lines left Vancouver exposed in the first-round loss to Calgary.

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