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Sedin scoring, Miller among Canucks' five questions

by Kevin Woodley /

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks are pledging to prove last season's plummet to 25th place in the NHL standings was a one-year, rock-bottom blip and not the continuation of a downward trend that started in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With a new management structure, a new coach and a handful of changes on the ice, the Canucks refused to contemplate a full rebuild and instead insisted their aging core can get them back to the postseason in a tough Pacific Division of the Western Conference.

The answers to these five questions will determine their chances of doing so:

1. Can Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin be elite scorers again? -- The Sedins were so determined to prove they could be good defensively last season, and so irked by the belief their best offensive seasons were simply a product of starting so many shifts in the offensive zone, they sacrificed much of the scoring the Canucks long relied on them to provide.

"That was a little bit interesting, but it comes from just how proud they are to play defense," coach Willie Desjardins said of offseason meetings with the Sedins. "They have no problems blocking shots or playing against the other team's top line. It's not like, 'Oh, I don't do that.' They want to prove they can play in big situations defensively. They cherish those roles."

Last season, the twins embraced coach John Tortorella's request to kill penalties and play more minutes in the defensive zone, and for a while they managed to stay near a point-per-game pace offensively. But as injuries and those harder minutes appeared to catch up with them, their offense disappeared.

Henrik had 10 points in his final 24 games, Daniel had eight in his last 27, and they finished with their lowest point totals in a decade: 50 for Henrik and 47 for Daniel. That's less than half of their totals winning the Art Ross Trophy in 2009-10 (Henrik, 112 points) and 2010-11 (Daniel, 109).

Getting back to League-leading levels may be unlikely for players who turn 34 on Sept. 26, but a bounce-back starts with managing their minutes.

The Sedins played more than 20 minutes a game for the first time in their NHL career, and they were harder minutes, including fewer starts in the offensive zone. They started 60 percent of shifts on offense, down from 70-80 percent in 2010-11 and 2011-12, when the Canucks won consecutive Presidents' Trophies as the League's top regular-season team.

"It's not their fault they start in that zone," Desjardins said. "They are not sitting on the bench saying, 'I only want to get out when we are in the offensive zone.'"

2. Can the Canucks fix a broken power play? -- Asked about a unit that slumped to 26th in the NHL at 15.2 percent last season, new general manager Jim Benning and Desjardins each pointed to the free-agent addition of forward Radim Vrbata as a key to improvement. He will replace Ryan Kesler, who led the Canucks with nine power-play goals as the right-shot forward opposite Daniel and Henrik.

Vancouver also is counting on center Nick Bonino, who came in the Kesler trade after scoring 20 of his 59 points on the Anaheim Ducks' loaded first-unit power play. Bonino, who often was used as part of a four-forward setup in Anaheim, seems less likely to play with the Sedins as a left shot and may instead be used to anchor the second unit.

"Willie wants two power-play units that can that can move the puck around and get chances to the net and score," Benning said.

Ryan Miller
Goalie - VAN
RECORD: 25-30-4
GAA: 2.64 | SVP: 0.918
3. Which Ryan Miller did the Canucks get? -- Vancouver is counting on Miller playing like he did for the Buffalo Sabres to start last season, when he had a .923 save percentage, earned a spot on the U.S. team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and became the hottest trade commodity in goal.

After signing him to a three-year, $18 million contract, the Canucks can't afford to have Miller perform like he did after a trade to the St. Louis Blues, where he finished with a .903 save percentage in 19 regular-season games and .897 after being knocked out of the playoffs in six games by the Chicago Blackhawks.

There are questions how Miller's aggressive style will fit with goaltending coach Roland Melanson's more passive preferences. But bringing in Miller to play a majority of games should in turn get the Canucks better performances from Eddie Lack, who had a .925 save percentage as the backup through March before struggling to manage 20 straight starts after Roberto Luongo was traded to the Florida Panthers.

"I'm really excited about our goaltending," Desjardins said. "I think we have as good a tandem as there is, and they both have stuff they want to prove."

4. Are any of the young players ready to help? -- The Canucks had two first-round picks in the NHL Draft for a second straight summer, and even though three of four are too young to play in the American Hockey League this season and more likely to end up back in junior, there is finally a sense of optimism about the future.

Outside of a brief three-goal streak after a late-season call up for Nicklas Jensen, who was picked 29th in the 2011 NHL Draft, Vancouver did not have skilled forwards pushing for jobs from the AHL last year. That could change this season.

Center Brendan Gaunce, picked 26th in the 2012 draft, and speedy wing Hunter Shinkaruk, who impressed in the preseason last year after being selected 24th in 2013, are eligible for the AHL. The bigger focus will likely be on center Bo Horvat, who was picked ninth in 2013 but after turning 19 in April isn't old enough for the AHL.

Horvat, who projects as more of a shutdown presence despite being a scorer in junior, will be given every chance to earn an NHL job before being sent back for a fourth season with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League.

Alexander Edler
Defense - VAN
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 22
SOG: 178 | +/-: -39
5. Which Alexander Edler will show up? -- The flashes of potential to be a true No. 1 defenseman, at least offensively, were forgotten by the time Edler's season ended with an NHL-worst minus-39 ranking. Edler's accompanying minus-1.0 Corsi Relative, which measures possession compared to the rest of his team, was also pretty bad for a defenseman playing sheltered minutes, but it's hard to imagine he won't bounce back.

In addition to exceptionally low team shooting and save percentages while he was on the ice that are likely to balance out, Edler should benefit from the trade of frequent partner Jason Garrison. The two struggled together last season, and Edler had positive possession numbers, including a 53.9 percent Corsi-for, without Garrison.

"It's up to us to create the right situation for him to succeed," Desjardins said.

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