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Canucks shooting for return to playoffs

New coach, offseason additions could help improve poor power play

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Correspondent

Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin didn't hesitate when asked what would make this season a success.

"Making the playoffs," he said.

That would not be a small step for the Canucks, who finished 28th and 29th in the NHL in missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons, but they certainly have improved on paper since 2016-17 ended. After firing coach Willie Desjardins and replacing him with Travis Green, they signed six free agents, including veteran forwards Sam Gagner and Thomas Vanek, in an attempt to improve their depth and scoring.

The question now is whether the Canucks can find the right mix to make a big enough difference on the ice after they finished 25 points behind the Nashville Predators for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference.

If not, the decision to add veterans in free agency at the expense of opportunities for young forwards will be questioned. But management has been adamant about the importance of making sure roster spots are earned rather than gifted to young players.

"We've said we want to get younger, but it's a fine line between throwing guys into the water and into the deep end before they are ready to swim," said Green, who coached Vancouver's American Hockey League affiliate in Utica the past four seasons.

Here is a look at the five keys for the Canucks, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. New coach pushing right buttons

The Canucks are deeper with the additions at forward. The signing of Alexander Burmistrov gives Vancouver six centers, but only Henrik Sedin and Bo Horvat are likely to play there all season. Burmistrov, Gagner, Markus Granlund and Brandon Sutter are likely to see time on the wing, with the latter three taking a turn on the top line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin either last season or this preseason.

Sutter and Gagner could play anywhere from top-line right wing to fourth-line center, and Green has talked about the importance of versatility, a four-line attack and not being afraid to mix up his lines depending on who is playing well.

"We'll play around with a lot of different combinations," Green said.

2. Finding right fit for Boeser

Forward Brock Boeser signed a three-year, entry-level contract March 25, after his sophomore season at the University of North Dakota, and had five points (four goals, one assist) in his first nine NHL games. The 20-year-old scored four goals in his first three preseason games, quieting talk in Vancouver he might start in the AHL and generating hype that he could be in the Calder Trophy discussion. The question is where Boeser fits after all the offseason additions, especially because a top-six role likely pushes Loui Eriksson down to the third line, and the top power-play unit appears set without him.

Video: VAN@CGY: Boeser cuts to slot, fires wrister five-hole

3. Better point play on power play

The Canucks signed defenseman Michael Del Zotto to improve a power play that was last in the NHL over the past two seasons (15.0 percent). Green promised different looks from, and less reliance on, a Sedin-led top unit that hasn't changed much structurally despite being second-to-last in the NHL during the past five seasons (16.0 percent). Gagner playing at the point on a four-forward unit appears to be part of those plans, but the Canucks could use Del Zotto to get more from the point.

4. Right mix on defense

For all the focus on an offense that scored the second-fewest goals in the NHL over the past two seasons (364; New Jersey Devils, 362), the Canucks were 24th in goals against in 2016-17 (241). The top defense pair of Alexander Edler and Christopher Tanev is back together after being split up to help with matchups on the road last season. The remaining pairs appear to be Del Zotto with Troy Stecher, and Erik Gudbranson with Ben Hutton.

"No clue," Hutton said when asked if he's figured out the pairs. "Every day you come in and go battle with whoever is at your side and try to gain chemistry with every defenseman here."

Patrick Wiercioch signed a one-year contract July 1 after playing 57 games for the Colorado Avalanche last season.

5. Confident, competent goaltending

With all those question marks in front of them, unproven goaltenders Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson can't afford any about their play early in the season. General manager Jim Benning stressed the importance of confidence and experience when the Canucks signed free agent Ryan Miller before the 2014-15 season and did his best to bring the veteran back for a fourth season. With Miller signing with the Anaheim Ducks, it's up to Markstrom and Nilsson to make sure the trust of teammates doesn't waver.

Video: VAN@LAK: Markstrom robs Kopitar's wraparound try

 

ROSTER RESET

Biggest lock

Horvat should get ample opportunity to improve on his Canucks-leading 52 points (20 goals, 32 assists) last season after signing a six-year, $33 million contract Sept. 8. Despite expectations early in his career that he would be a strong two-way center who might play a shut-down role, Horvat's underlying defensive statistics are underwhelming. But he has shown an ability to produce offensively beyond what many expected when the Canucks selected him with the No. 9 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, and he should get increased power-play time on the second unit.

Video: VAN@ANA: Horvat stuffs a rebound into the cage in 1st

Biggest battle

Jake Virtanen has three goals in five preseason games after scoring nine in 65 games in the AHL last season. The 21-year-old left wing arrived at training camp 15 pounds lighter than the year before (when he was 229 pounds) and has shown more consistent signs of the fast, physical style and hard shot that made him the No. 6 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Virtanen outlasted wings Nikolay Goldobin and Anton Rodin, but even with veteran Scottie Upshall leaving his professional tryout after interest from another team, Virtanen is in competition with Burmistrov, Derek Dorsett and Darren Archibald for the final two forward spots.

Most intriguing addition

Nilsson sat quietly next to Markstrom as the latter answered questions about being ready for the No. 1 job the first day of training camp, but Green later made it clear it would be an open and ongoing competition. Nilsson, who signed a two-year contract July 1, doesn't have the pedigree of Markstrom, who was selected by the Florida Panthers in the second round (No. 31) of the 2008 NHL Draft. But he did have a .923 save percentage with the Buffalo Sabres last season compared to Markstrom's .910 for Vancouver, and two seasons ago earned the starting job for the Edmonton Oilers ahead of Cam Talbot for about two months.

Biggest potential surprise

There was a lot of talk about Gagner sparking a turnaround in the sagging power play after he signed July 1, but the bigger benefactor of top-unit minutes with the Sedin twins may be Vanek. Though Gagner, who had 18 of his NHL career-high 50 points on the power play with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, appears to be in the early plans as a point man on a four-forward top unit, Vanek has seen most of the early opportunities down low with the Sedins and shown an ability to read off them well to create chances in tight.

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Daniel Sedin -- Henrik Sedin -- Markus Granlund

Sven Baertschi -- Bo Horvat -- Brock Boeser

Thomas Vanek -- Sam Gagner -- Loui Eriksson

Alexander Burmistrov -- Brandon Sutter -- Derek Dorsett

Alexander Edler -- Christopher Tanev

Michael Del Zotto -- Troy Stecher

Ben Hutton -- Erik Gudbranson

Jacob Markstrom

Anders Nilsson

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