NHL 2014-15 preview: Vancouver Canucks

Dan Murphy reports from Vancouver where the Canucks refuse to admit that the window has closed on whether they have a championship caliber team.

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Vancouver is our 17th-ranked team.

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Vancouver Canucks
Division: Pacific
2013-14 finish: 36-35-11, 25th overall; missed playoffs
Leading scorer: Henrik Sedin (50 points)
General manager: Jim Benning
Head coach: Willie Desjardins
Captain: Henrik Sedin
Opening night starter: Ryan Miller
Key acquisitions: Ryan Miller, Nick Bonino, Radim Vrbata, Luca Sbisa, Linden Vey, Jim Benning, Willie Desjardins
Key departures: Ryan Kesler, Jason Garrison, Mike Santorelli, David Booth, Mike Gillis, John Tortorella

Off-season grade: B. After a tumultuous year, the Canucks made drastic changes throughout their organization. Longtime general manager Mike Gillis was let go at the end of the 2013-14 season, while new team president, ex-Canucks captain Trevor Linden, was brought to right the ship. He’s a legend on the West Coast. Linden hired Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning to fill Gillis’s GM duties, and the two decided to replace enigmatic head coach John Tortorella with Willie Desjardins, who had great success at the AHL level with the Dallas Stars’ affiliate. Once Linden and Benning began studying the roster, they focused on rebuilding its depth, which included changes to all four forward lines, signing a new No. 1 goalie and trading malcontent centre Ryan Kesler.

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Greatest strengths: After last season, it would’ve been hard to find a single strength on the Canucks’ roster. But it’s a new year. And there are reasons to be optimistic. The biggest: an overall clean slate. Gone is all the drama surrounding goalie Roberto Luongo, the daily questions about whether Ryan Kesler is happy, the antics of Tortorella, and the ineptness of Gillis. It’s a total fresh start, and the players could thrive in that environment. The Sedin brothers had a down year in 2013-14, their worst offensive season in a decade. They could bounce back if Desjardins successfully transitions to a possession-based system that suits their strengths. Tortorella asked far too much of the two Swedes. They shouldn’t have been playing on the penalty kill.

Greatest weaknesses: It’s almost hard to believe, but Vancouver scored less than any other team in the Western Conference last year. Only Buffalo registered fewer goals. And Vancouver didn’t help their scoring output when they dealt Kesler, their No. 2 centre, to the Anaheim Ducks this summer. Kesler had exceeded the 20-goal mark in six of the last seven seasons. To offset that loss, they are counting on additions such as Radim Vrbata, who will play alongside the Sedin brothers, and Nick Bonino to help pick up the slack. But will that be enough to turn Vancouver into a reliable scoring team? They struggled scoring consistently at five-on-five last year and also finished 26th in the league on the power play. They’re hoping their high possession numbers (10th in Corsi) are reflective of a team that can quickly turn those ugly trends around.

Biggest story line to watch: For years, Ryan Miller was considered one of the league’s elite goalies with the Buffalo Sabres. But as the team crumbled around him, Miller was struck with injuries. Terrible timing. And he’s yet to look like the same player who dominated the Olympics for the United States in 2010, which just so happened to be in Vancouver. Miller’s game was particularly troubling when he was dealt to the St. Louis Blues midway through last season, posting a save percentage of .903. He wasn’t the same player. Now, at age 34, Miller is on a mission to regain his spot amongst the league’s best. Worth watching.

2014-15 prediction: After a solid year with the Coyotes, Radim Vrbata reaches a career high in goals playing on Vancouver’s top line. Vrbata fits in nicely with the Sedins and establishes a key role on the power play. He’s a free agent signing that provides immediate dividends.

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