Even with a change behind the bench, this will be a trying season in Vancouver. Their controversy in net was solved over the summer, but it wasn’t Roberto Luongo that left town. They are as tight against the cap as any team in hockey, and have significant financial decisions to make in the near future.
How will the Canucks fit into the new-look Western Conference? How will they manage the lower cap this year? And will Vigneault be the first of a series of significant changes in the organization? The next 82 games will answer a lot of questions -- and undoubtedly raise others.
The group up front in Vancouver is already making life interesting for Torts. Zack Kassian is already suspended to start the regular season, putting additional pressure on an already thin set of forwards.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin will be back, both wearing a letter on the chest of their sweater, but they are both unrestricted free agents in 9 months. With almost $14 million in cap space committed to Alexandre Burrows, David Booth and Ryan Kesler, the Canucks could be looking at adding another $16-18 million to the face(s) of their franchise.
The financial commitments to those five forwards, coupled with four significant contracts on the blue line, have limited the Canucks’ depth up front. They’ll look to Kassian, Jannik Hansen, Brad Richardson, Chris Higgins, Tom Sestito and Dale Weise to provide the needed depth to carry them through a tough new division schedule this year.
The Canucks have a decent, older group of top-four defensemen returning this year that the organization desperately needs to stay on the ice. Alex Edler, 27, and Kevin Bieksa, 32, are solid, reliable defensemen that have been rocks for the Canucks for the last five years. But health concerns -- especially with Bieksa -- make the Canucks’ cap situation more tedious this year. Edler is the youngest of the Canucks’ top four entering this year.
Dan Hamhuis, 30, and Jason Garrison, 28, will be asked to provide special teams depth and contribute offensively this season. Garrison earned a six-year deal with the Panthers in 2011-12, when he scored nine power play goals in Florida. He added three in the lockout-shortened season last year, and will remain on point with Tortorella in town.
Behind those four is a crapshoot this season. The Canucks claimed Ryan Stanton off waivers from the Blackhawks, adding the 24-year-old career AHLer to a group that will also see Chris Tanev, Yannick Weber and Andrew Alberts vying for ice time.
As expected, the Canucks made a splash at the draft when they traded a goaltender. However, it was Cory Schneider, not Luongo, that was dealth out of town. With Schneider now in New Jersey, the Canucks will once again ask Luongo to play heavy minutes and win big games for them a year after they publically put him on the trade block. (For more on the drama between Luongo and the organization, be sure to follow him on Twitter - @strombone.)
Eddie Lack, a 25-year-old without an NHL game on his resume, will replace Schneider behind Luongo. He appeared in only 13 games for the Chicago Wolves in the AHL last year, but will need to be ready if/when Luongo needs a break (especially in an Olympic year).
Garrison and the Sedins will return to lead what should be potent power play unit. Unfortunately, the talented Canucks ranked only 22nd in the league with the advantage last year, scoring only 15.8 percent of the time.
An area that must improve for Vancouver this year is the penaly kill. The Canucks had one of the better penalty kill percentages in the league last year, but they were in the box 169 times in 48 games, which was tied for 22nd in the league. They were especially bad on the road, serving the fifth-most road penalty minutes (147:23) in the NHL last year.
With limited depth because of the cap, the Canucks will need to play disciplined hockey to compete in the Pacific Division. If they don’t play disciplined hockey, we can all look forward to Torts telling the media who didn’t measure up.
Was there a more interesting team than Vancouver over the last 20 months? Adding Tortorella to an already-combustible situation with Luongo and the limited depth on the roster could be a powderkeg for soundbites this year.
However, there aren’t many offensive sure-things like the Sedins in the NHL. If the Canucks follow the formula they have been successful with over the last few years -- pencil in Henrik and Daniel for 90-100 points and play strong, physical defense -- they will be in the mix in the Pacific. But an injury -- or suspension -- could derail an important season with big-time contractual decisions coming.
They’re always fun to watch, both for their skill on the ice and the drama that follows them off it. This year will be no exception for the Canucks.
Tab Bamford is the Chicago Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.