There is a much higher sense of optimism in Canucks land these days, not just because they finished the preseason with a 6-0-1 record, but mostly because of a new kind of energy on the ice. The team looks reinvigorated. They look bigger and faster, and at least through the exhibition games, they seem more confident with the puck instead of playing hot potato with it like they did near the end of last season. Can they keep this up over 82 games? Perhaps, but really, their success comes down to how they respond to the following questions.
Can the Canucks put the puck in the net?
Over 7 preseason games, the Canucks scored 24 goals (3.42 goals per game), balanced throughout the lineup. 8 Canucks averaged a point a game in at least four preseason games; another 4 Canucks averaged just under that (via USA Today preseason stats). As we all know, the preseason isn’t completely indicative of what to expect when the “real” games start, but it’s not a bad sign either.
Mike Gillis didn’t make the big splash we were all waiting for. In fact, the only big name he signed was Pavol Demitra who, when healthy, is an upgrade on Brendan Morrison as the Canucks’ number 2 center. He also acquired Steve Bernier who may or may not mesh better with the Sedins than Markus Naslund did.
More likely, what Gillis is hoping for is a breakout season from guys like Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen and Kyle Wellwood. Raymond will start the season on the second line, but whether or not he remains there depends on how much offense he can produce. He’s certainly teased us with his 3 highlight reel goals this preseason and he seems to have some good chemistry with Demitra. Hansen will start on the third line with Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows and can hopefully build on his 5-point preseason. Wellwood has proven big league talent, but still has to prove that he has the work ethic to go along with it.
What is sure to help though is a healthy defense. Decimated by injuries throughout the year, the defense only combined for 34 goals, 82 assists and 116 points. Consider the defense’s point totals in previous seasons – 45G-109A-154P in 06/07, 47G-145A-192P in 05/06, 47G-113A-160P in 03/04, 39G-138A-177P in 02/03, etc. – and it’s obvious that a healthy defense corps can help shoulder the offensive load. Which leads to the next question…
Can the defense stay healthy?
I’d like to think that last season was a fluke. It’s not often that a team loses five of their top-six defensemen at the same time for extended periods of time. Here’s hoping that Murphy leaves the team alone this time around.
If they do stay healthy, the Canucks continue to have one of the strongest groups of defensemen in the league. I realize that they don’t have anyone of the same calibre as a Lidstrom or Phaneuf, but anyone from Ohlund, Salo, Mitchell and Bieksa can easily be counted on to play big-time minutes and play them well. We are also seeing the emergence and maturation of Alex Edler, who has simply been stellar this preseason, and the team has added Rob Davison, Shane O’Brien and Lawrence Nycholat for depth.
Can the special teams be special?
The Canucks scored a mindblowing 12 powerplay goals in 7 preseason games. I don’t expect them to stay at that pace; however, compared to last season’s 18th ranked powerplay, this team seems to be developing some good habits. They’re moving the puck around nicely and finding the open guy. The point men are getting shots through to the goaltender because the big bodies are providing a screen. It’s a simple plan, yet effective.
Last season, the Canucks ranked 14th in the league with an 82.6% penalty-killing rate; the season before, they led the league with an 86.9% PK rate. They finished this preseason with an 88.9% PK rate. A couple of things that have contributed to the PK’s success so far: winning faceoffs and blocking shots – they’re doing a lot of both.
Can Luongo have a bounce back season?
It’s strange to characterize Luongo’s 2007/2008 season as a disappointment. After all, he still recorded 35 wins (8th in NHL), a .914 save percentage (14th) and a 2.38 GAA (13th), and despite all the off-ice distractions last season, he kept the Canucks in the playoff hunt until the second-last game of the season. That said, I don’t see any reason why he can’t “bounce back” and record numbers more similar to his 2006/2007 season – 47 wins (2nd in NHL), .921 save percentage (4th) and a 2.29 GAA (6th) – when he finished second to Martin Brodeur in Vezina Trophy voting.
Already, Luongo looks fresher and more focused than ever. He played in 4 preseason games, stopped 86 of 92 shots (.935 save percentage) and finished with a 1.85 GAA – if anything, he already looks to be in midseason form.
What will further help Luongo’s cause is the added muscle Mike Gillis acquired. Surely, other teams will think twice about crashing Luongo’s crease – and they crashed a lot last year – with Rob Davison, Shane O’Brien and a healthy Kevin Bieksa in front of him. Darcy Hordichuk, Rick Rypien and Mike Brown can (and will) provide some protection for the Luongo and the rest of the lineup as well.
How good is this team?
Given their play this preseason, it’s easy for expectations to increase. At least through 7 exhibition games, the team looks much improved from last season. I just hope they can carry this level of play through the regular season, and if they do, a return to the postseason may not be unlikely.