NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
VANCOUVER -- A lot has changed since the Vancouver Canucks were last together as a team.
Since packing up the locker room in April after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six seasons, the Canucks have a new general manager, coach and system, and half a dozen new players. As the team gathered to start training camp this week there was also a new sense of optimism, at least within the organization.
Management has talked openly about again competing for a playoff spot despite outside projections and predictions of a continued decline for their aging core.
"We know internally what our expectations are, and we are going to keep that in the room, but from the outside we know expectations are not as high as they have been and that's understandable," forward Daniel Sedin, who turns 34 later this month, said after a recent skate with teammates. "We are going to be a deeper team, and I think that's why we should be optimistic."
The Canucks hope that improved depth will offset the offseason trade of second-line center Ryan Kesler to the Anaheim Ducks and help avoid the late swoon of last season, when a heavier workload for top players under coach John Tortorella, combined with several key injuries and not enough call-up options, left the lineup too thin and tired to compete down the stretch.
Willie Desjardins, who takes over as coach after Tortorella was fired one season into a five-year contract, has talked about using that depth by rolling four lines rather than leaning so heavily on the top two, putting the Sedins back into more of the offensive situations that led to consecutive NHL scoring titles in 2011 and 2012, and employing a fast-paced style focused more on puck possession.
Desjardins has not, however, gotten into the specifics of the new system -- not even with his players -- and has talked more about the quality of the people he has inherited than their qualities as players. Just as their coach talks more about character and leadership than X's and O's, players have focused on a renewed sense of excitement after a summer of change.
"It's not science, it's not facts, but when you are positive around the locker room and guys are having a good time being with each other and having fun coming to the rink and competing, only positive results can come out of it," forward Alexandre Burrows said. "New players, new faces, new management, new coaches: Everybody is looking forward to a bounce-back year. It's going to be a lot different than last year."
Based on the turnover, it already is. The question now is how all those changes will shake out on the ice. Here's a breakdown of how things look heading into training camp:
The Canucks go into the season expecting a new-look first line for the first time in five years. Free-agent wing Radim Vrbata chose a two-year, $10-million contract over longer offers elsewhere in large part because it came with a promise he'd get to play with Daniel and Henrik Sedin on the top line.
CANUCKS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275
The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.
Below are Vancouver Canucks players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.
43. Daniel Sedin, LW (Bounce-back
54. Henrik Sedin, C (Bounce-back
98. Ryan Miller, G (Trending down
125. Radim Vrbata, RW (Sitkoff's sleeper
195. Nick Bonino, C
205. Alexander Edler, D (Injury rebound
255. Kevin Bieksa, D
That could leave Burrows, who has ridden shotgun with the Sedins almost exclusively since midway through the 2008-09 season, looking for a role elsewhere in the lineup. It also leaves Desjardins with more top-end options than his predecessor, Tortorella, who struggled to find a good fit for the Sedins while Burrows endured an injury-filled season.
"(Vrbata) is a give-and-go type player and the Sedins play a give-and-go style game, so we think there's a good fit," general manager Jim Benning said.
Desjardins can also go back to Burrows at 5-on-5 and use Vrbata as the right-shot one-time option opposite the twins on the power play. That creates other options throughout the forward lines, something Benning set out to create more of while remaking the roster over the summer. The question is whether those options are good -- or big -- enough to compete in the Pacific Division.
Those questions start with Nick Bonino, who was acquired in the Kesler trade to center the second line. Whether Bonino is ready to carry a second line at even strength after putting up 20 of his 49 points on the power play last season, he at least represents a pass-first, play-making upgrade on Kesler, who last season didn't have a single assist in 21 games after Jan. 31.
"From what I've seen so far, he's a heck of a player," Daniel Sedin said of Bonino after they skated together in August.
The added depth spills down into the bottom-six forwards, with Benning forecasting a bright future for Linden Vey, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings and is slotted to play on the third line. Stuck on the right wing behind the Kings' deep group of centers, Vey will get a good look at center with the Canucks. That could force natural center Shawn Matthias to play left wing, but he had success there with Brad Richardson and Zack Kassian late last season and Vancouver may need his size (6-foot-4, 223 pounds) to help out Vey (6-0, 189) defensively, especially on the road.
"I just wanted to make sure from a team-building standpoint we gave (Desjardins) some options to try different things," Benning said.
The offseason trade of Jason Garrison to the Tampa Bay Lightning left the Canucks with one less hammer at the point, but the reality is Garrison struggled to get that 100-mile-an-hour blast away and never became the power-play fixture most expected when he signed as a free agent in the summer of 2012.
The Canucks still have Alexander Edler as a hard-shooting option and are counting on him to bounce back from a minus-39 rating that was dead last in the entire NHL, but they are a long way from the dynamic offensive blue line that also featured Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo during their run to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. The intent under Desjardins is still to get the defense active in the offensive end, but not as recklessly as last season, when they were often caught making bad pinches that resulted in odd-man rushes the other way.
ADDITIONS: G Ryan Miller (free agent, Blues), D Luca Sbisa (trade, Ducks), D Bobby Sanguinetti (free agent, KHL), C Nick Bonino (trade, Ducks), C Linden Vey (trade, Kings), C Cal O'Reilly (free agent, KHL), C Dustin Jeffrey (free agent, Stars), RW Derek Dorsett (free agent, Rangers), RW Radim Vrbata (free agent, Coyotes)
SUBTRACTIONS: D Jason Garrison (trade, Lightning), C Ryan Kesler (trade, Ducks), C Jordan Schroeder (free agent, Wild), C Mike Santorelli (free agent, Maple Leafs), C Zac Dalpe (free agent, Sabres), LW David Booth (buyout)
PROMOTION CANDIDATES: D Frank Corrado, RW Nicklas Jensen, C Brendan Gaunce, LW Hunter Shinkaruk, C Bo Horvat
According to Kevin Bieksa, that starts with working as five-man units at both ends of the rink to control the puck rather than chasing it.
"It's hard to get the puck, and that's why when you do have it you don't want to just give it away, and maybe at times last year we were quick-upping it when we could have held onto it and had some guys come back and carry it up with speed," Bieksa said. "A lot of times if you are ahead of the puck and dumping it in, you are not going to get it back, and the next thing you know it's right back down your throat."
Finding the right partnerships will be important. Much of Edler's struggles last season came alongside Garrison, who was often asked to play the right side as a left shot. The left-shooting Edler could play with either Bieksa or Christopher Tanev, who are both right shots, in a top four that includes Dan Hamhuis as somewhat interchangeable left-right partners.
Luca Sbisa was labeled a "top-four" defenseman after being acquired from Anaheim in the Kesler trade, but seems more likely to compete for third-pairing minutes with Ryan Stanton, who also played well on a third pairing with Bieksa last season, and Yannick Weber, whose hard, accurate shot on the power play may be enough to overcome some less flattering defensive play 5-on-5.
Ryan Miller comes in as the Canucks' No.1, but after spending all but two months of his 12-year career in the Eastern Conference it may be important to keep his starts in check while he adjusts to a tougher travel schedule in Vancouver. Fortunately the Canucks also have Eddie Lack, who will be pushing for 30 starts after finishing last season as the No.1 and, providing he clears waivers, a nice insurance policy in Jacob Markstrom, who made significant technical strides after modifying his style under goalie coach Roland Melanson after being acquired in the Roberto Luongo deadline trade.
The Canucks are counting on Miller to play like he did for the Buffalo Sabres at the start of last season, posting a .923 save percentage before being traded to the St. Louis Blues, where he got off to a hot start before struggling down the stretch and into the playoffs. After committing $18 million to Miller over three years, Vancouver can't afford for him to play like he did with the Blues, finishing with a .903 save percentage that slipped to .897 during a first-round playoff exit against the Chicago Blackhawks. But unlike that late season stretch with St. Louis, the Canucks should at least be able to ease their new No.1 goaltender into a new system, new conference, and likely style changes under Melanson knowing they have Lack rested and ready to spell Miller.