2013-14 Vancouver Canucks Preview

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If the carrot doesn't work, it's time to give the stick a try.

By firing easy-going head coach Alain Vigneault and bringing in John Tortorella as his replacement, Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis is sending a message to his players. That message says the team needs to get tougher and more disciplined, or suffer the wrath of their new fiery bench boss.

Coincidentally, the fired Vigneault also replaced Tortorella after the latter coach was let go by the New York Rangers. It will be interesting to see which team, and coaching style, leads to greater success for the two clubs in 2013-14.

But, Tortorella has big shoes to fill in Vancouver, bigger than the ones he left behind in the Big Apple, anyway. Vigneault led the Canucks to the playoffs in six of his seven years with the team. That run included six division titles (including the club's fifth straight Northwest title in 2013), back-to-back Presidents Trophies in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011. However, after a second straight first-round playoff exit in the spring of 2013 the Canucks decided it was time to part ways with Vigneault.

Of course, Torts does have something Vigneault doesn't: a Stanley Cup championship on his resume. Even if it was back in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the fact that Tortorella has been to the top of the NHL mountain in the past means something to the Canucks, a franchise still awaiting its first championship.

Gillis also raised some eyebrows this summer when he opted to trade Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils while holding onto the highly-paid Roberto Luongo. For months and months, the GM tried to deal Luongo and make Schneider the undisputed No. 1, but he eventually accepted that the former player's annual $5.33 million cap hit through the 2021-22 season made him virtually un- tradeable.

Even Luongo was shocked by the decision, but he is on board at this point. Who knows? He may even flourish under Tortorella, who expects all his skaters to play a responsible defensive game in front of their goaltender.

Another change that comes from outside the organization is not a good development for the Canucks, as the NHL's realignment plan could put an end to Vancouver's string of division titles. The Canucks dominated the Northwest for years while teams like Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton and Minnesota fell on hard times. This season, however, Vancouver will play in the much tougher Central Division, which includes the defending Stanley Cup champions as well as the St. Louis Blues. The improving Wild are also in the Central, as are Colorado, Dallas, Nashville and Winnipeg.

FORWARDS - Despite the presence of the extremely productive Sedin twins up front, the Canucks somehow managed to finish 19th in the NHL with an average of just 2.54 goals per game.

Although there is some concern Tortorella will clash with the Sedins, it's not like he can afford to bench them. After all, Henrik Sedin led the team with 45 points in 2013, Daniel Sedin was next with 40 before a big drop-off to Jannik Hansen, who was third on the club with 27 points.

Henrik and Daniel have played center and left wing, respectively, on the same line since they were children and that level of familiarity shows on the ice. The brothers are adept at cycling the puck and playing keep away with the defense, a tactic that has produced countless offensive opportunities over the years.

Daniel has historically been the goal-scoring Sedin, with 291 of his 758 career points coming via goals. Henrik, meanwhile, has 792 points on 182 goals and 610 assists.

Although Alexandre Burrows has usually been the Sedin's right winger in years past, Tortorella is going to give Zack Kassian another shot to fill that role in 2013-14. Kassian had five goals in the first seven games of the 2013 season while primarily playing with the Sedins, but was eventually dropped down in the rotation and ended the season with just seven goals and four assists in 39 games.

Kassian was selected by Buffalo with the 13th overall pick of the 2009 draft, but later traded to the Canucks during the 2011-12 season in exchange for centerman Cody Hodgson and defenseman Alexander Sulzer. At 22 years of age, the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Kassian could be primed for a breakout season, although he'll sit out the first five games this year due to a suspension for a high stick on Edmonton's Sam Gagner in the pre-season.

The key to spreading out the offense in 2013-14 is having centerman Ryan Kesler on the ice. The oft-injured American won the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward in 2010-11, a year in which he also recorded 41 goals and 73 points while playing in 82 games, but Kesler dipped to 22 goals and 49 points in 77 games in 2011-12 before playing in just 17 games during last year's lockout-shortened campaign. Kesler had four goals and nine assists in 2013 while missing time with a shoulder injury and a broken right foot.

A healthy Kesler could help improve Vancouver's power play in 2013-14, after the Canucks finished 22nd in the league on the man advantage last season.

Burrows could line up to the right of Kesler on the second line. The versatile forward had his string of four straight seasons of 25 goals or more halted in 2013, but still managed to record a team-best 13 goals to go along with 11 assists. However, Hansen could push Burrows for playing time on the second line after registering 10 goals and 17 assists in 47 contests in 2013.

Chris Higgins, who played for Tortorella and the New York Rangers in 2009-10, is a high-energy guy who could benefit from the new coach. Higgins, a natural left winger, had 10 goals and five assists in 41 games for the Canucks last season.

The Canucks would like to see winger David Booth bounce back from a dreadful 2013 campaign. After scoring 16 goals and adding 13 assists in 56 games with Vancouver in 2011-12, he had just one goal and two helpers while playing in just 12 games during an injury-plagued 2013.

Booth's 2013 Season ended in mid-March after he suffered a broken ankle and ligament damage. He was expected to be ready to go at the start of this season, but suffered a groin injury during the pre-season and is questionable for the club's season opener.

Vancouver lost centerman Maxim Lapierre to free agency this summer, but signed Brad Richardson to a two-year, $2.3 million contract to replace his energy. Richardson was a member of the Los Angeles Kings' championship run in the spring of 2012 and provides leadership and checking ability.

Youngsters Bo Horvat and Hunter Shinkaruk, who were both first-round picks by Vancouver in the 2013 draft, could start the season in the NHL, but may need more time in juniors before making the jump. However, 22-year-old centerman Jordan Schroeder, a first-round pick by Vancouver in 2009, will be in the regular rotation as he tries to build off three goals and six assists in a 31- game run as a rookie in 2013.

DEFENSE - As a whole, the Canucks ranked ninth in the NHL in team defense last season, a testament to the club's deep blue line and the goaltending of Schneider and Luongo.

Vancouver is returning pretty much the same group of defensemen in 2013-14, a rotation led by the top pairing of Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis, who finished first and second, respectively, on the club in minutes last season.

All told, the Canucks received 28 goals from its blue line, with both Edler and Jason Garrison notching eight markers each. Hamhuis, meanwhile, paced Vancouver's D-men with 24 points on four goals and 20 assists.

Garrison and Kevin Bieksa are expected to form the second pairing. Bieksa had six goals and six assists in 36 games last season, while Garrison led all Vancouver blueliners with a plus-18 rating.

Chris Tanev will be on the bottom pairing and is expected to be joined by either veteran Yannick Weber or Frank Corrado. The 24-year-old Weber was signed to a one-year, $650,000 after spending his entire career with the Montreal Canadiens. Corrado, 20, is a homegrown prospect who played in three games for the Canucks in 2013.

GOALTENDING - Although the goaltending carousel involving Luongo and Schneider was surrounded by drama, the platoon actually worked fairly well last season.

Schneider was the No. 1 and did have the stronger season, going 17-9-4 with a 2.11 goals against average and .927 save percentage. However, Luongo did well in the backup role despite playing amidst constant trade rumors and finished 9-6-3 with a 2.56 GAA and .907 save percentage.

Luongo also went 0-2 with a 2.58 GAA in three playoff games -- two starts -- while Schneider nursed an injury. Although the Canucks were swept by San Jose, the postseason loss could hardly be blamed on Luongo, as Vancouver's offense contributed only eight goals over the four games.

Luongo is now back to his usual role as Vancouver's undisputed No. 1 netminder and that may not be such a bad thing. Before losing the starting job, the 34- year-old averaged over 37 wins a season during a six-year stretch from 2006-07 to 2011-12.

Rookie Eddie Lack is expected to be the backup to Luongo, but the club also signed Swedish netminder Joacim Eriksson to provide further organizational depth in the crease.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Watching Tortorella and Vigneault's impact on their new teams should be one of the more interesting storylines to follow in the NHL this season. For both guys, getting to the playoffs is only where the expectations begin, as the Canucks and Rangers have been stuck with the "playoff underachiever" label in recent seasons. Although the Canucks are not considered a favorite to win the newly-formed Central Division, the club does have a good shot at landing one of the division's three automatic bids to the playoffs. Whether Tortorella's fiery style pays dividends come playoff time is another story altogether.