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Lack of scoring means Canucks must rely on Luongo, hard work to win games

NHL.com @NHL

VANCOUVER - The uncertainty that surrounded the Vancouver Canucks at the start of the last NHL season is gone.

This year the Canucks know who they are and what they need to do to be successful.

"We know what we have here now," said captain Markus Naslund. "Hopefully we'll get it going sooner."

There won't be anything too fancy about the Canucks. They will rely on the goaltending of Roberto Luongo to keep games close and hope to get enough goals from a few players to win games.

Vancouver will need hard work and dedication to coach Alain Vigneault's defensive system to duplicate last year's record of 49-26-7 which was good enough to win the Northwest Division title and leave the Canucks third in the Western Conference.

"We're probably not the most dynamic offensive team in the league," said veteran Trevor Linden, who is returning for his 19th season and 16th with the Canucks. "You can look at other teams and say they have more talent up front but I don't know if that wins you games all the time.

"I do know that playing a very aggressive, hard style of hockey can win you games and that's how we're going to have to do it. We're not going to win a lot of games by large margins. We're going to have to grind and claw our way for every game."

Not much was expected from the Canucks last year. They missed the playoffs the previous season and many predicted they would struggle again in 2006-07.

Vigneault, in his first year behind the Canucks bench, retooled the team. He preached defence and adherence to his system. After a slow start, the Canucks went 32-8-6 after Dec. 6, and broke team records for wins and points.

Vancouver defeated Dallas in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Anaheim in five games.

Huge expectations are being heaped on the Canucks this year but Vigneault knows the team has a slim margin for error.

"There's a belief within this group that we have some good elements, that we are a good hockey team," said Vigneault, who was named the NHL's top coach last year. "We have to have a belief in that hard work ethic that we were known for last year and the preparation we were known for last year.

"If there is any slide in those two areas, there is too much parity in the league. You won't make it."

Vigneault laughed when asked about his Jack Adams Trophy.

"It's not doing much for me right now," he said. "It's time to think about this year."

Luongo will be the lynchpin to any success. After coming to Vancouver in the Todd Bertuzzi trade, the workhorse goalie posted a 47-22-6 record, had a 2.29 goals against average, five shutouts and a .921 save percentage.

His spectacular play earned him nominations for the Hart and Vezina Trophies plus the Lester B. Pearson Award.

"I think we are a lot more confident than we were a year ago at this time," said Luongo. "We know the coaches and the system they use.

"I feel much more comfortable in my surroundings. That is really going to help out the way I start the year out."

Luongo knows the team's fortunes have been hoisted on his shoulders.

"Every team depends on their goaltender," he shrugged. "The goalie has to do a good job if they want to give their team a chance to win every night.

"It's been like that my whole life. Obviously it's a bit more magnified here. That's stuff I can deal with and I enjoy the pressure."

As good as Luongo is, the Canucks can't win without scoring goals, something the team struggled with last year.

Vancouver managed 222 goals last season, the least of any of the teams advancing to the Western Conference playoffs.

Daniel Sedin led the team with 36 goals while his twin brother Henrik set a franchise record with 71 assists.

Taylor Pyatt was a pleasant surprise, collecting a career high 23 goals but Naslund slumped to 24, his least in eight seasons.

Pyatt believes the Canucks can score enough to win.

"I think it can come from within," he said."I think everyone is putting a little extra pressure on themselves to score more.

"We're a good defensive team. We'll need those extra goals, especially going into the playoffs."

This will be an important season for Naslund, 34, and centre Brendan Morrison, 32. The two earn a combined US$9.2 million but aren't Vancouver's first-line players anymore. Both are also entering the final year of their contracts.

Naslund's leadership abilities have been questioned and many believe defenceman Willie Mitchell has the character to take over as captain.

The Canuck defence remains strong with Mitchell, Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa.

Ohlund said the Canucks enter this season confident in their abilities.

"We want to continue to get better," he said. "We got a taste of it last year, after coming off a bad year, how much fun it is to play.

"Going into last year there was a lot of uncertainty. We had a great second half, now we have to continue to get better."

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A closer look at the Vancouver Canucks heading into the 2007-08 season:

Last Year: 49-26-7, 3rd in Western Conference.

Who's In: Brad Isbister, Ryan Shannon, Byron Ritchie, Aaron Miller, Curtis Sanford.

Who's Out: Jan Bulis, Rory Fitzpatrick, Marc Chouinard, Bryan Smolinski, Josh Green, Tommi Santala, Brent Sopel, Dany Sabourin.

The Storylines: Will the goaltending of Roberto Luongo be enough to make up for the Canucks' lack of scoring? Can captain Markus Naslund regain his old form? Will twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin be able to improve on their career years from last season?

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