October 10, 2016 - 12:00 PM
VANCOUVER - There won't be any mixed messages coming from the Vancouver Canucks this season.
After spending a couple of years trying to nurture young talent while remaining competitive, the club has one goal in 2016-17 — a return to the playoffs.
Getting there, however, could prove to be a big challenge.
"There's always a lot of 'ifs' when you're trying to develop guys and maybe rebuild a little bit or retool," said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin. "You need guys to develop and that's not always easy. You look at guys early on and you think: 'He's going to be a No. 1 centre or a first-line player or a second-line player,' but it's not always going to be that way.
"There are a lot of 'ifs.' But looking at this year and how much they want it, it gives us confidence that it's going to happen."
The "they" Sedin is referencing is a core of youngsters who got what the franchise hopes is valuable experience during a lost 2015-16 campaign that saw Vancouver miss the post-season for the second time in three years.
The Canucks compiled an abysmal 31-38-13 record, good for 28th overall and their lowest point total (75) since the late 1990s, but among the very few positives was the emergence of Sven Baertschi and Bo Horvat as legitimate point producers up front, while defenceman Ben Hutton surprised in his rookie season.
But with Henrik Sedin and his brother Daniel now 36, the Canucks knew their window to win with the superstar twins was closing — some observers argue it has already realistically been slammed shut — and made a series of moves to bolster the club this summer.
General manager Jim Benning acquired bruising defenceman Erik Gudbranson in a trade with Florida before dipping into the free-agent market and signing forward Loui Eriksson to a six-year, US$36-million deal from Boston. The Canucks are also hopeful that Brandon Sutter's injury woes are behind him after the centre played just 20 games in his first season for Vancouver, giving the club three significant pieces it didn't have last season.
"Bringing Loui is going to help us a lot, and a healthy Sutter as well," said Henrik Sedin. "You get guys playing where they feel comfortable. That's key if you want to succeed."
Eriksson, who played on a line with the Sedins for Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey and looks set to do the same with the Canucks, said he had a good feeling about Vancouver's direction before agreeing to terms on July 1.
"They had some injuries to some key guys last season," said the 31-year-old. "Everyone is fresh and healthy right now and ready to go."
Alexander Edler, who also missed a big chunk of last season because of injury, will anchor the No. 1 defence pairing with Christopher Tanev, while Horvat and Sutter will centre the second and third lines behind the Sedins
"We're here to win," said Sutter. "There won't be any excuses for what happened last year."
Head coach Willie Desjardins made the playoffs in his first season in Vancouver, but the team took a big step backwards last year and he could be on the hot seat if things don't go well.
Staying healthy and having success on the power play will be instrumental — the Sedins, Eriksson and Sutter looked sharp in limited exhibition action — if the Canucks are going to have any chance at climbing up the standings in the Western Conference after winding up a horrendous 27th with the man advantage in 2015-16.
"When we were struggling we became a little stagnant," said Henrik Sedin. "We moved the puck, but we never really felt in sync."
Meanwhile, 36-year-old Ryan Miller is back as Vancouver's No. 1 goalie, with Jacob Markstrom eager to carry more of the workload. Miller was 17-24-9 last season, but had solid numbers otherwise with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage for a team that finished second to last in scoring.
"There's that sense there's something to prove," said Miller. "I hope we can take energy from the different points of motivation and do something really fun, really special."
But with Edmonton and Calgary looking stronger, and San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim always tough in the Pacific Division, it might be difficult for Vancouver to achieve its stated goal of a return to the playoffs.
And while experts and oddsmakers have the Canucks pegged for a similar finish to last season, or worse, Henrik Sedin sees positives in the mix of veterans and youth.
"It looks way better than it did last year with the young guys now and the way they finished off," he said. "If they can stay at that level and maybe get to another level, then it looks a lot better for us."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016