Everybody knows that Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars have already won the 2014 offseason. But that doesn't mean that the rest of the Western Conference spent the summer sitting on their hands. Except Winnipeg, who did exactly that. Over the past month and a half we've looked at the true enemies of the Dallas Stars... the members of Conference III. However, in a spirit of paranoia, one must admit that the Stars' enemies are not just confined to the Central Division. No, they're everywhere. And so we shift our gaze westwards, to the revamped, downgraded, but now more appropriately named former home of the Stars. The Pacific Division. We began with Rebuild 3.0 over in Edmonton, last week saw us move on to Alberta's other heroes, the Calgary Flames, and today we round out the Canadian contingent with a look at the Vancouver Canucks.
Let's be honest. Last season wasn't a great one to be a Canucks fan. All those Vancouverites had gotten complacent you see, and took for granted their team's being a playoff contender. And for the beginning of the season, while it might not have been all roses, everybody nevertheless assumed that playoff contention was a given. And then the implosion happened. Or explosion? I don't really know which to call it, since with John Tortorella at the helm, collapsing quietly was never going to be an option.
In fact, that was one of the great things about the Canucks last season. Regardless of how well they were or weren't playing, Torts was always good for a sound byte. But no more. At least not from Vancouver anyway. John Tortorella, gone but not forgotten:
"Even though I was fired, it still says ‘Stanley Cup Champion' on my resume so I will be fine. Other coaches will be canned, teams will get desperate, and that‘s when I‘ll strike. Either that or I'll just do what all unemployed coaches do and become an analyst somewhere." *
While I'm sure becoming an analyst is an option for Torts, let's be serious for a moment here. Everybody knows he's really intending to take this opportunity to focus on his budding music career:
So with John Tortorella officially gone, who were the Canucks going to turn to in an attempt to regain relevance, and perhaps be laughed at less along the way? Why, none other than former Texas Stars coach Willie Desjardins. Desjardins coaches the Baby Stars to Calder Cup success, and what does he immediately turn around and do? Reject an offer to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fair play. Except he then accepted a position with the Vancouver Canucks. Oh dear... A few thoughts about the transition Desjardins will be making:
"On my first day I went through the Coach's office and found a binder marked ‘GAME PLANS'. The only thing inside was a bunch of crudely drawn pictures of a man riding a horse made of money. It appears Tortorella is as competent an artist as he is a hockey coach." *
Interestingly, while Desjardins will be starting a new job, he'll have a lot of familiar faces around him. Coming along for the ride is Doug Lidster, the lone assistant coach last season down in Cedar Park and the newest member of the Canucks coaching staff. And additionally, there'll be a reunion of sorts with former Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan. Unfortunately, the last time Willie and Gully worked together, it was Gultzan as the head coach, with Desjardins as his assistant.
Good luck sorting that relationship out.
So beyond the coaching changes, and new Vice President Trevor Linden, and new GM Jim Benning... what did the Canucks get up to over the summer? Well, before the Paul Stastny and Jason Spezza sweepstakes, there was the Ryan Kesler trade. After demanding a trade, and only being willing to waive his no-trade clause for Anaheim or Chicago, Kesler was, unsurprisingly, shipped off to Anaheim. Not that any of that fiasco should be blamed on Kesler:
"Forget what you heard, I gave the Canucks several options for teams I would waive my NTC to go to. Is it my fault they wouldn't trade me to the Atlanta Thrashers, Quebec Nordiques, California Golden Seals or the New York Yankees? That's on management." *
With Kesler gone, the Canucks turned an eye to the free agency market, signing winger Radim Vrbata on July 2nd. Know who else they signed on July 2nd? Dustin Jeffrey. Did you even know he'd left the Stars?
The signing of Vrbata will help to somewhat replace the offense provided by Kesler, and Nick Bonino (another piece in the Kesler trade), had 49 points for the Ducks last year, in his first full season in the NHL. Wait a minute... Kesler only had 43 points in the same number of games, and has been declining the past five seasons...
Somebody remind me why this trade was a good idea for the Ducks again?
Aside from the Kesler trade, and the Vrbata signing, the biggest offseason acquisition of the Canucks was goaltender Ryan Miller. Poor Eddie Lack. He'd admirably burst from the shadow of Roberto Luongo (something Cory Schneider couldn't do for years), chased Lu out of town, and now suddenly he's forced back into the role of backup to an aging average goaltender. At least Lack though has a good attitude about it:
"The way I see it, I chased the 2010 gold medal winning goalie out of this city, so getting rid of the 2010 silver medalist should be easier." *
Eh, whatever. It wouldn't be Vancouver without a little goalie controversy. And anyway, Luongo is happy to be playing for the Panthers:
"It‘s great to be back in Florida, playing in front of my family and friends. Literally, those are the only people that come to the games. Well, there is this one other guy I haven‘t met yet, but I‘m sure this season we‘ll become close friends." *
* I guess I'd better include some fine print here. One of my favorite things about Stars-Canucks games is the 'Postgame Quotes (I Wish Were Real)' feature over at the Legion of Blog. Thanks to Jordan Bowman for humoring me with a few offseason quotes (we wish were real).
* * *
Besides making up quotes for NHL players and coaches, Jordan also does write a genuinely good blog about the Canucks. Which is why I'm further stealing his talents to answer a few quick questions about our friends up in BC.
1. Last year saw the Canucks swap coaches with the Rangers, with disastrous results. Well, for you guys anyway. Thoughts on the end of the short-lived Tortorella era and the arrival of Desjardins? Oh, and by the way, you're welcome.
As much as I'll miss having a head coach that storms the opponents dressing room and tries to fight their head coach (and I will), every Canucks fan worth their salt knows this is a move that had to happen. It was the worst season the Canucks have had since Messier left the Rangers and came to the West Coast, so clearly a "nobody from New York" policy needs to be enacted by Canucks ownership. Torts was great for sound bytes, but the revelation that he hated practice more than Allen Iverson explains why Vancouver looked so bad last year. Thankfully, the "Tortorella Era" became the "Tortorella Blip" and Vancouver scooped up a no-nonsense mustachioed Willie Desjardins from Dallas. The fruit basket is on the way to Big D. Thanks again.
2. Eddie Lack won the starting job and chased Roberto Luongo out of town, and now Ryan Miller comes swanning in as the presumed starter. Miller's rental to the Blues last season didn't go so well. Concerns about how he'll fare in the spotlight of Vancouver? Secretly rooting for Lack?
Everybody in Vancouver loves Eddie Lack, so it's hard not to root for the guy. Miller comes in with a hefty price tag, which already puts him in the cross-hairs of Canucks fans who love to label players as "over-paid" (see Booth, David or Ballard, Keith). Taking into account that Miller's numbers last season weren't much better than Lack's, fans hoping for a season without goalie controversy will only get what they want if Miller gets shutouts for all of October (he can let in a goal or two in November, that‘s fine). The void left by Roberto Luongo extends beyond the ice, so the first thing Ryan Miller needs to do to be a success in Vancouver is step up his Twitter game. Being a Canucks goalie is a thankless job, and even when Lu would struggle, fans still had his back because of how irreverent and witty he was on social media. Miller should learn from this, but also be aware that the Canucks fanbase has lost Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo in consecutive seasons, so he shouldn't let the fans get too close. We can't get hurt like that again.
3. Ryan Kesler is gone. Good or bad?
In a word: good. In three words: very, very good. Sure, Vancouver will miss his scoring (which has steadily declined over the years and was his worst in six seasons in 2013-14), but what they won‘t miss are his cringe-worthy dives and constant scowl. The Canucks need a quick rebuild to be competitive in the future, and having an oft-injured, surly malcontent in the room is counter-productive to that. He couldn't have left town on worse terms, demanding trades and essentially making it known Anaheim was the only team he‘d waive his no-trade clause for. Knowing they didn't have to outbid anyone else, I'm sure the Ducks started negotiations with "a bag of pucks and a ride pass to Disneyland" and went from there. Good riddance, Ryan Kesler.
4. With Kesler out and Vrbata in, how does Vancouver's offense compare to last season?
Vancouver's offense really has nowhere to go but up (basically, just like their position in the standings). Last year was incredibly difficult for fans that had to watch one of the highest scoring teams in the league turn into "Calamity on Ice", and this season won't be any easier to watch. Radim Vrbata getting a chance to play with the Sedin twins should elevate his game and form a deadly combo, but a lot of focus will be on Nick Bonino, who came over in the Kesler trade (with the bag of pucks). Bonino as a 2nd line center raises question marks all over Vancouver, but having a young guy coming off a 49 point season playing with Chris Higgins and either a (hopefully) healthy Alex Burrows or a potential filled Zack Kassian could actually work out well for the Canucks. The option is always there to put Burrows back with the Sedin twins or give Kassian another shot with them, which would put Bonino and Vrbata together and give Canucks fans both "Kesler replacements" on one line. If that happens, you might as well go ahead and call it the "Scrutiny Line" right now.
5. Prospects! I don't know a thing about the Vancouver system. All I remember is the Canucks trading up for the number 9 pick in the 2013 draft, and proceeding to not pick Val Nichushkin with it. Bo Horvat? How's he doing? And Jake Virtanen? Anyone else I've never heard of poised to make an impact at the NHL level?
There are many fans in Vancouver who watch Nichushkin with intense envy (our eyes are greener than the Stars' jerseys). Having to watch Cory Schneider get traded away for that 9th pick was tough, but that it would've felt okay if Horvat had the instant impact Nichushkin did. Prospect wise, Horvat is still looking to crack the lineup this year, but will find it difficult even though the bottom 6 is unimpressive. This is a team that will be spending another year cultivating prospects, and with the focus being the future of the franchise, it alleviates some concerns knowing they aren't just going to throw the kids to the wolves (*cough* Edmonton *cough*). Horvat is a well rounded center who doesn't have the flash of Nichushkin, but Vancouver might already have that with prospect Hunter Shinkaruk, who had an exciting pre-season in 2013 (which included some of the nicest goals Vancouver scored all year). The Canucks opted to develop him further, and Shinkaruk had hip surgery in January which he has seemingly made a full recovery from. Niklas Jensen made a big splash early in his late season appearance with the Canucks last year, but then fizzled out and returned to the minors. 6th overall draft pick Jake Virtanen has a lot of Canucks fans buzzing, but again, it's simply far too early for him to make the team. It might be a rough couple seasons for the Canucks, but if Horvat, Shinkaruk, Jensen, Virtanen, Brendan Gaunce and Jared McCann continue to develop, Vancouver will be ready to transition away from the Sedins one day. With the way the Canucks have relied on the Sedins, that might not happen until the twins are in their 40s and the NHL has expanded to Seattle, Las Vegas, Quebec and one more hilarious attempt in Atlanta.
6. And lastly, where do you see the Canucks ending up in the standings? Do they have a chance to crack the top three and make the playoffs (since we all know both wild cards are again going to the Central)?
Ugh, I almost don't even want to think about that. If the Canucks are lucky and get some breaks, 8th seed is the ceiling for them in 2014-15. The Pacific Division remains top heavy, so I cannot argue that the Wild Card spots will go to the Central [Ed. note: I was trolling, but if he's gonna go with it...]. Of the teams in the Western Conference that DON'T go to the playoffs, the Canucks will be the best. I hope there is a banner for that. We need more banners.