(SportsNetwork.com) - The Vancouver Canucks hope to put the disastrous John Tortorella era further in the past when they open their 2014-15 season on the road Wednesday against the Calgary Flames.
The Canucks are aiming to hit the restart button after missing the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2008. As a result, Tortorella was axed from the head coaching position after only one season in Vancouver and general manager Mike Gillis also joined him on the unemployment line.
Gillis, of course, was the man who made the ill-fated decision to fire head coach Alain Vigneault after the 2013 campaign and replace him with Tortorella. All Vigneault did in 2013-14 was take over the reins for Torts with the New York Rangers and lead the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Jim Benning, who replaced the fired Gillis, hopes he has done enough to retool the Canucks and get the club back to the postseason for the sixth time in seven years. The new GM finally pulled the trigger on a Ryan Kesler trade, sending the forward to Anaheim for depth and draft picks, while also signing star goaltender Ryan Miller to take over the No. 1 netminding position following Roberto Luongo's trade at last season's deadline.
Benning also installed Willie Desjardins as Tortorella's replacement behind the bench and the rookie NHL coach will be tasked with developing a cohesive unit from the new faces and the old standbys, including the Sedin twins, who are out to prove a down 2013-14 season was merely an aberration.
Vancouver's defensive depth is a big question mark heading into the season and the club could be even thinner on the blue line if Kevin Bieksa misses tonight's game. Bieksa is dealing with an undisclosed injury and is a game- time decision for the season opener.
"You want to play on opening day, I definitely would like to play, but you also have to be smart," Bieksa told his club's web site. "Playing one game and then sitting for four or five is not smart and not good for the team. A lot of factors to consider but it's Game 1 and there's a lot of games this year."
The Flames, meanwhile, are in rebuilding mode and missed the playoffs last season for a fifth straight spring. Considering it plays in the stacked Western Conference, Calgary figures to have an uphill battle at making the postseason in 2014-15.
Calgary is coming off a 77-point season, the lowest for the club since it notched just 75 in 2002-03. But just because the Flames are young and inexperienced doesn't mean they are pushovers. President Brian Burke, general manager Brad Treliving and head coach Bob Hartley have an exciting young nucleus to work with and they want it to be one that gives maximum effort and doesn't quit. Hartley certainly saw that last season, when Calgary matched an NHL record with 49 one-goal games.
And while Calgary look for its young guns to gain valuable experience and deal with the free agency loss of Mike Cammalleri, the front office filled holes with solid veterans, adding wingers Mason Raymond and Devin Setoguchi, defenseman Deryk Engelland and goaltender Jonas Hiller. Those new faces join the rest of the veteran leadership, guided by defenseman and captain Mark Giordano as well as Curtis Glencross, Jiri Hudler and Matt Stajan.
The Flames youth movement is led by Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and T.J. Brodie. Joining the parade of talented youngsters is Johnny Gaudreau, a 21-year-old former Boston College standout who made Calgary's roster out of training camp. The forward better known as "Johnny Hockey" won the coveted Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA's top hockey player in 2013-14. Gaudreau expects to play in his second NHL game tonight after debuting with the Flames late last season.
Sam Bennett, the fourth overall pick at the 2014 draft, also could have made his NHL debut tonight for the Flames if not for a shoulder injury. Calgary fears the 18-year-old forward may need surgery and it's unclear how long he will be sidelined.
Hiller will get the call in the season opener for Calgary. He went 29-13-7, 2.48 GAA and .911 save percentage in 50 games for the Anaheim Ducks last season and hopes to bring stability to Calgary's crease.
Vancouver dominated the Flames last season, winning all five meetings while outscoring Calgary by a combined 17-8 margin. The Canucks have won seven straight and 10 of 12 in the series overall and have claimed the last three encounters at Calgary's Scotiabank Saddledome.