VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks want to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.
Not expected to be a playoff team by many observers after one disastrous campaign under John Tortorella, Vancouver finished a surprising second in the Pacific Division in 2014-15 with 101 points before losing out in the first round to the Calgary Flames in a tight six-game series.
That step forward aside, there’s a similar negative feeling surrounding the Canucks heading into this season _ a sentiment that, not surprisingly, isn’t shared inside the locker-room.
“No one gives us credit and no one thinks we’re going to make the playoffs,” veteran winger Chris Higgins said recently. “Staying together as a team and just worrying about ourselves and not what’s being talked about our team is going to be key.”
Despite last season’s success, the Canucks are a franchise of two minds — wanting to compete for a playoff spot while also bringing younger players into the fold to compliment a veteran core led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
General manager Jim Benning added forwards Brandon Sutter and Brandon Prust in the off-season with an eye towards physicality and speed while saying goodbye to forwards Zack Kassian and Nick Bonino, defenceman Kevin Bieksa and goalie Eddie Lack.
“Last year when I watched our team, I felt like we were a little bit in between,” said Benning. “We weren’t fast enough to get in on the forecheck and we didn’t spend enough time in the other team’s end.”
Head coach Willie Desjardins said he’s especially excited to have Sutter, who signed a five-year extension with the Canucks after coming over in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the fold as his likely No. 2 centre.
“He’s a player that wins. He finds ways to win,” said Desjardins. “He’s not super flashy. He’s not a guy that you rave about offensively, but he’s a guy you can win games with.”
Bo Horvat should have an increased role in his second year, likely centring the third line and getting time on the power play. Vancouver could also to keep one or both of its 2014 first-round picks, Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann, for at least nine-game auditions before having to decide whether or not to send them back to junior.
Brendan Gaunce, a 2012 first rounder, has also made a strong case at training camp to be a part of Desjardins’ plans when the season starts Oct. 7 in Calgary, while Sven Baertschi looks to be locked into a spot up front.
“When you hear people talking about us getting younger and looking at that as a negative, I think it’s a positive for us,” said Henrik Sedin. “(There’s) a lot of excitement. A lot of players have upside.”
Ryan Miller is back as the Canucks’ No. 1 goalie after missing most of the second half of last season with a knee injury. Jacob Markstrom will serve as the backup following a strong campaign in the AHL that convinced the Canucks they could afford to part with Lack.
Meanwhile on defence, Matt Bartkowski was signed in free agency to add some speed to a unit that still includes Dan Hamhuis, Alexander Edler, Christopher Tanev, Luca Sbisa and Yannick Weber.
And while Benning said he believes he’s improved his roster, the same can be said for many of Vancouver’s closest rivals.
Calgary added forward Michael Frolik and defenceman Dougie Hamilton, the Los Angeles Kings acquired forward Milan Lucic and will be rested and restless after missing the playoffs last season, while the Edmonton Oilers grabbed generational talent Connor McDavid with the first pick in the draft.
“I think our team is better now than it was last year,” said Benning. “But we’re dealing with all the other teams in our division getting better, too.”