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30 in 30

Reasons for optimism, questions facing Canucks

Addition of Loui Eriksson expected to help offense, power play

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Vancouver Canucks.

The Vancouver Canucks took a step back last season in their ongoing attempt to keep getting younger without sacrificing a chance to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Canucks finished 28th in the NHL standings last season, and despite calls from some for a more complete tear-down and rebuild, general manager Jim Benning continued an admittedly tough juggling act with offseason moves designed to get them back to the playoffs this season.

Top-four defenseman Erik Gudbranson was acquired in a trade with the Florida Panthers, and 31-year-old free agent Loui Eriksson was signed to improve the versatility of the top six forwards.  

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Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. A full season of Brandon Sutter

Acquired as a foundation piece and second-line center in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins last summer, Sutter played 20 games in his first season with the Canucks, limited by sports hernia surgery and a broken jaw.

It's a tiny sample size, but in those 20 games, Sutter scored five goals and nine points and was on pace to match his NHL career high 21 goals. More important to the Canucks' playoff hopes, they were 7-4-5 with him in the lineup to start the season and 8-6-6 overall, a 90-point pace, compared to 23-32-7 and a 70-point pace without him.

"He can match up against top lines and he can score," Benning said. "We missed him."

2. Another reliable goaltending tandem

Ryan Miller's .916 save percentage last season was just below the NHL average and 28th among regular goaltenders, but when you examine shot quality as measured by location, things are a little more flattering. Accounting for that in the adjusted goals saved above average metric compiled by analyst Nick Mercadante, Miller was 10th in the NHL, one spot ahead of Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The adjusted numbers weren't as flattering for Canucks backup Jacob Markstrom, who had a similar .915 save percentage but was 29th on the adjusted list, though he clearly made strides after missing the first month with a hamstring injury.

Having Miller (36) and Markstrom (26) from the start should allow the Canucks to rest Miller, increasing the likelihood he can longer maintain last season's often spectacular start.

3. Erik Gudbranson clearing the crease

Though there are questions about Gudbranson's ability to generate offense, the 6-foot-5, 216-pound defenseman should help in front of the Canucks net.

"We were giving up too many grade-A chances," Benning said. "In front of our net guys would get a shot and we weren't clearing players out and they got second and third chances too."

With Gudbranson added to the second defense pair, Alexander Edler back on the top unit after missing the last two months of last season with a broken leg, and either Luca Sbisa or 6-foot-7 Nikita Tryamkin on the third pair, Benning said he feels he has a physical presence on each pair.

"We have guys now that can make it uncomfortable for the other team's forwards," he said.

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4. Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi in the second half

Horvat struggled in the first half, especially when Sutter's absence forced him into tougher matchups. He had eight points through mid-December and a 27-game goalless drought into early January but finished with 30 points in his final 40 games.

Baertschi was a healthy scratch early and had two goals and seven points his first 27 games, including a 13-game drought into mid-December. Sparked by power-play time and playing with Horvat, Baertschi finished with 13 goals and 21 points in his final 42 games. The Canucks need Horvat and Baertschi, who signed a two-year, $3.7 million contract in June, to pick up where they left off.

Here are three key questions facing the Canucks:

1. Can the defense score too?

Vancouver's defense was the fourth-lowest scoring in the NHL last season, one spot ahead of Florida, so many wondered how the addition of Gudbranson, who has 43 points in 309 NHL games and poor possession numbers, was going to help a team struggling to score.

Despite a trend toward defensemen who can get the puck out of their end quickly, Benning wants to balance skill with a defensive presence on each pair. He said the Canucks already have it with Edler and Christopher Tanev on the top unit and can achieve it by pairing Gudbranson with the puck skills of second-year pro Ben Hutton on the second.

"We want a puck-moving defenseman with kind of a stay-at-home, physical player," Benning said, adding they hope Philip Larsen can bring that skill to a third-pair with Sbisa or Tryamkin. "It's not so much about a style of defenseman, but it's finding a good fit with the pairings."

2. Are Loui Eriksson and Philip Larsen enough to fix the power play?

It's hard to envision the Canucks gaining enough ground in goal scoring without significant improvements on a power play that fell from 11th in the NHL two seasons ago to 27th last season continuing to run through Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin off the right boards.

Video: Analyzing the Canucks' signing of Loui Eriksson

Vancouver hasn't had a quarterback at the point since defenseman Christian Ehrhoff left as a free agent after the 2010-11 run to the Stanley Cup Final, but hopes Larsen, who was the fifth highest scoring defenseman in the Kontinental Hockey League last season, can provide that right-shot presence. Whether that, along with the addition of Eriksson up front, will be enough remains to be seen, especially because Larsen has to earn a spot in the rotation at even-strength.

3. Is there enough top-end skill in the top six?

Though most assume Eriksson will reprise his role from the Sweden national team on the right side of a top line with the Sedins, the Canucks may need to move him around to balance their lines and make up for the lack of proven scoring on left wing, especially if they want to keep Baertschi and Horvat together on a third line.

Anton Rodin, who was the Swedish League MVP last season, Eriksson, Emerson Etem and Alexandre Burrows can play either right wing or left wing, but Rodin has never played in the NHL and is coming off a knee injury that ended his season in January, and the latter two seem better suited for a bottom six role.

"We got some versatility," Benning said. "It will be up to the coaching staff to find the right fit."

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