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Canucks feel aging core can still compete

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com

VANCOUVERVancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin was the first to admit he isn’t getting any younger, but after an early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs he expects Vancouver is going to.

Facing questions about an aging core that is 3-12 in the playoffs since reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011, Henrik and Daniel Sedin stressed the importance of a continued influx of youth next season. But neither was ready to entertain a rebuild, not after bouncing back from missing the playoffs last year to finish second in the Pacific Division this season.

"We have no plans of getting any worse," Henrik said. "We’re not young anymore but we showed this year we can still be a big part, we can be productive and I don’t see that changing in the next couple of years. With the young guys coming up I think they are going to give us a chance to win in the next couple of years."

Daniel and Henrik turn 35 shortly before next season starts, the elder statesmen of nine players left over from a 2011 playoff run that ended with a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the Finals.

"We’re not getting younger but we can still play and we showed that this year, all the guys that have been here a long time," Daniel said.

That list includes linemate Alexandre Burrows, who turned 34 earlier this month, and veteran defensemen Kevin Bieksa, who turns 34 this summer, and Dan Hamhuis, 32. Forward Chris Higgins will be 32 this summer, and the youngest holdovers from the 2011 run, forward Jannik Hansen and defenseman Alexander Edler, will both be 30 before the end of next season.

Like the Sedin’s, most of the veteran forwards bounced back after struggling under coach John Tortorella last season. After finishing with their lowest point totals in a decade, the Sedin’s were rejuvenated under new coach Willie Desjardins, with Daniel finishing ninth in NHL scoring with 76 points and Henrik 13th with 73.

"We took a step in the right direction this year from last year." Henrik said. "It’s a small step but it’s a good step."

The Canucks took a step back in the playoffs, however.

The offense dried up again, and losing in six games to the Calgary Flames has some wondering if Tortorella was right when he called the core “old" and "stale” before being fired last summer.

Vancouver only scored four goals in its first three losses to Calgary, and then blew an early 3-0 lead and a 4-3 advantage in the third period of a season-ending 7-4 loss in Game 6 on Saturday.

Instead of preparing to host Game 7 on Monday, Canucks players cleaned out their lockers, met with management and answered questions about whether the incumbents are still good enough.

"This core is still capable of big things," Bieksa said. "If you don’t win the Stanley Cup you are going to get those questions every year. What is the winning formula? Until you win the Cup who knows what it is. All I know is this core gives us a good chance to win it every single year. … We got younger this year, we had guys like Bo [Horvat] step in with big roles and I’m sure next year there will be a couple other guys stepping up too. I still believe in this core."

Bieksa wasn’t the only one to point to Bo Horvat, a rookie center who turned 20 late in the season, as an example of getting younger and better at the same time. After proving himself defensively in the first half, Horvat scored 10 of his 13 goals and 16 of 24 points after the All-Star Break, and tied for the playoff lead with four points.

"It’s the first time since we came in that I felt excitement with young guys and the prospects," Henrik said. "You could tell this year what the younger guys meant to this team and the excitement they bring. You can bring up those guys and still have expectations of 101 points. I don’t see that drop off if they are good enough to play."

Not that every prospect will be ready as fast as Horvat, who was selected ninth in the 2013 NHL Draft with a pick the Canucks got in a trade that sent goaltender Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils.

Vancouver also has forward Jake Virtanen, who was picked sixth in the 2014 draft after they finished 25th in the NHL last season, but the rest of their prospects are from deeper in the draft. And as long as they keep making the playoffs, there won’t be any more top-10 picks like Horvat in the system anytime soon.

"I don’t think you have to rebuild anymore," Bieksa said.

Vancouver also has to find room on the roster for younger players.

All nine holdovers from 2011 all have no-trade clauses in their contracts. New general manager Jim Benning convinced defenseman Jason Garrison to waive his no-trade clause last summer, but neither Bieksa or Hamhuis, who each have one more season remaining on their current contracts, expressed interest in doing the same, making it hard to change a defense that looked slow against Calgary.

Among the forwards, left wing Shawn Matthias appears poised to test the market as an unrestricted free agent after a career-high 18 goals this season. Center Brad Richardson, who needs surgery to repair ligament and tendon damage around a fractured ankle that kept him out of 37 of the final 39 regular-season games and Game 4 of the playoffs, could also depart as a free agent.

Burrows, who missed the final three games against the Flames with "fractured and dislocated rib cartilage", said the remaining veterans are going to be just as important off the ice if the team keeps getting younger.

"We have to mentor the young guys, show them how to approach the game," he said. “That goes a long way too."

The Canucks hope it will be further into the playoffs than the current group has been able to take them for the past four seasons.

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