2011-12 Vancouver Canucks Preview

Last year, the Vancouver Canucks won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best team in the regular season.

The award's most practical purpose is that the winner gets home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Canucks, that wasn't enough to deliver the franchise its first-ever Stanley Cup title.

Instead, the Canucks succumbed to the visiting Boston Bruins in a decisive Game 7 at Rogers Arena. Shortly after the B's put the finishing touches on a 4-0 victory, downtown Vancouver erupted in riots and one of the world's most beautiful cities was transformed into a burning nightmare.

Although, getting within one win of a Stanley Cup title is nothing to be embarrassed about, the way the season ended has the Canucks, and the city of Vancouver, seeking redemption in 2011-12.

The Canucks are still heavy favorites to win the Northwest Division and are still a threat to win it all, although the usual questions linger about whether the Sedin twins or goaltender Roberto Luongo have what it takes to lift Lord Stanley's Cup.

The best case scenario has Vancouver using last season's disappointing conclusion to its advantage, just like the Bruins did when they followed an epic collapse in the second round of the 2010 postseason with the franchise's first league crown since 1972.

On the other hand, the Canucks could fall back into the cycle of an excellent regular season followed by a playoff run that falls short of the ultimate goal. There are worse things than that, although it's hard to recognize that when a Cup seems to be always just out of reach.

FORWARDS - The quiet and unassuming Sedins somehow always manage to be a lightning rod for controversy. The identical twin brothers, who are now 30 years old, have taken turns leading the NHL in scoring over the past two seasons, but the Sedins aren't being criticized for their regular-season play.

Team captain Henrik Sedin won the Hart and Art Ross Trophies with 112 points in 2009-10, and he added 94 points (19 goals, 75 assists) last season. He also notched three goals and 19 assists over 25 playoff games, but just one of his 22 postseason points came in the seven-game series with Boston.

Daniel Sedin, meanwhile, set career highs in goals (41) and assists (63) en route to claiming an Art Ross Trophy of his own. Daniel recorded 20 points (9g, 11a) in the postseason, but was limited to a goal and two assists by Boston in the final round.

In defense of the Sedins, one of the things that made Vancouver an elite team last year is that the club was supposed to have excellent scoring depth and it can't be only their fault that the Canucks were held to just eight goals in the final round against Boston. Not to mention, Vancouver was facing Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, who seemed nearly unbeatable at times.

As the right winger on the Sedin line, Alex Burrows is another guy that the Canucks count on for offensive production. After setting a personal best with 35 goals in 2009-10, Burrows dipped to just 26 goals and 48 points last year. He had a solid overall postseason with nine goals and eight assists, but outside of a two-goal, three-point night in Game 2 against the Bruins, he went pointless in the Cup Finals.

Second-line centerman Ryan Kesler exploded for a career-high 41 goals in 2010-11 and also added 32 assists over 82 games while also winning the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward. Although, the 27-year-old American battled through a hip injury in the postseason, his one assist in the Cup Finals was obviously a disappointment.

Kesler is expected to miss the first month or so of the 2011-12 campaign after undergoing surgery in the offseason. That will leave a hole in the No. 2 centermen spot that could be filled by Manny Malhotra, Maxim Lapierre or Cody Hodgson until Kesler is ready to return.

Malhotra, 31, plays a strong two-way game and is Vancouver's top faceoff guy. He had a solid first year in Vancouver with 11 goals and 19 assists in 72 games, although a serious eye injury caused him to miss all but the final six tests of the postseason.

Lapierre has the speed of a top-line guy, but is better suited on a checking line. He had just one goal in 19 games with Vancouver following a trade with Anaheim.

Hodgson, meanwhile, was the 10th overall pick of the 2008 draft and will surely see an increase in minutes with Kesler out. The 21-year-old had one goal and one assist in his first eight games at the NHL level in 2010-11 and also garnered 12 appearances in the playoffs. Hodgson worked hard this summer to get into better shape and that could pay off with a breakout season.

The Canucks also have some solid veteran wingers with Mikael Samuelsson, Mason Raymond and Christopher Higgins returning and Marco Sturm was signed in the summer. Samuelsson, who will likely be Vancouver's top penalty killer in the absence of Kesler, is the best of that bunch, as he's coming off an 18-goal, 50-point season. Like Kesler, Raymond will miss an unspecified amount of time to start the season after suffering a broken vertebra in last year's Stanley Cup Finals.

Sturm had 22 goals and 37 points with Boston in 2009-10, but struggled to just 16 points (5g, 11a) in 35 combined games with Los Angeles and Washington last year. He could be a big boost at both ends of the ice with a rebound campaign in 2011-12.

The Canucks can't really improve much on offense during the regular season after leading the NHL in both goals per game (3.15) and power-play efficiency (24.3-percent) in 2010-11. The goal for Vancouver in 2011-12 is to maintain that production.

DEFENSE - Vancouver's biggest offseason loss came at the defensive end with the departure of Christian Ehrhoff, who signed a mammoth 10-year, $40 million contract with Buffalo last season.

With no major defensive additions this summer, the Canucks will be hard- pressed to replace Ehrhoff's blueline-leading 14 goals and 36 assists from last year. However, healthier seasons from returning guys like Alexander Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa could alleviate the loss of Ehrhoff.

Edler had eight goals and 25 assists in just 51 regular season games last year and added 11 points (2g, 9a) in 25 playoff games. At 25, the Swede should be entering his prime years and he could potentially approach Ehrhoff's 2010-11 totals with a full season.

Hamhuis and Bieksa are the highest-paid players on the Vancouver blue line, banking annual salaries of $4.6 and $4.5 million, respectively. Hamhuis was the club's biggest addition in the summer of 2010 and he managed to post six goals, 17 assists and a plus-29 rating in just 64 games last season. The injuries bled into the postseason too, with Hamhuis notching one goal and five assists while sitting out six playoff games.

Bieksa led the entire team with a plus-32 rating despite skating in just 66 games. He also added six goals and 16 assists in that span.

Sami Salo is another guy with offensive capabilities that simply couldn't stay healthy last year. The 37-year-old Swede signed a one-year deal this summer to return to Vancouver for a ninth season. He had three goals and four assists in just 27 contests last year.

Aaron Rome will miss the start of the season with a broken hand, so Keith Ballard will likely be paired with either Chris Tanev or Andrew Alberts to form the final pairing.

GOALTENDING - Luongo, Vancouver's talented but enigmatic goalie, is back once again to prove his critics wrong. The problem is that the only thing that will quiet the Luongo-haters is a Stanley Cup title, and those can be hard to come by.

Luongo turned in an excellent regular season in 2010-11 and then went on a roller coaster ride in the playoffs.

He recorded four shutouts in the postseason, including two in the Cup Finals, but he was also pulled twice against the Bruins and surrendered a whopping 20 goals over the seven games. Earlier in the playoffs, he was also benched for Game 6 against Chicago before returning to win the seventh and decisive game against the Blackhawks.

Still, the 32-year-old onetime captain of the Canucks remains one of the best puck-stoppers in the league. He went 38-15-7 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in 60 games last season and earned a Vezina Trophy nomination in the process.

Luongo's postseason problems are a concern, but Vancouver would be crazy to part ways with such a talented netminder. Yet, calls for backup Cory Schneider to supplant Luongo won't go away, unless the Canucks finally decide to trade the goaltending prospect.

Schneider, the 26th overall pick of the 2004 draft, is now 25 years old and is coming off an impressive campaign as the No. 2 option. The American saw action in 25 games for the Canucks last season and went 25-16-4 with a 2.23 GAA and .929 save percentage.

With Luongo locked up for the next decade and Schneider in the final year of his contract, don't be surprised if Canucks GM Mike Gillis opts to deal Schneider during the season.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Canucks are in a position that can be described as both enviable and difficult. On one hand, the club has reached such a high level in the regular season that only a Stanley Cup title can satisfy the fan base. The bad side, of course, is that any season that doesn't end in lifting a certain silver chalice is declared a failure. That is a rare brand of pressure to play with and it's anybody's guess if the current crop of Canucks will ever be able to overcome it. Playing in a poor Northwest Division, the Canucks could win another Presidents' Trophy and postseason glory will likely be in reach, if they can just manage to grab it.