While Harrison prognosticated the inevitable headlines of the upcoming Canucks season to our readership (aka myself and our wives), I'm taking a different tack with my Canucks season preview. All sorts of experts (and Barry Melrose) are picking the Canucks to win not only the Northwest division, but also the Stanley Cup. The Hockey News made the Canucks their favorite to win the Stanley Cup in their annual Yearbook. Even the non-humans are jumping on the Canucks bandwagon, as the AI in EA's NHL 11 has predicted that Vancouver will be hoisting the cup in 2011. You can read dozens of Canucks previews outlining all the ways that the Canucks are good; it would be, quite frankly, incredibly boring to write another in a litany of positive previews.
I'm not here to be the voice of reason, as that would simply entail encouraging Canucks fans to temper their expectations to avoid being disappointed by a good, but not great, season. The voice of reason would remain cautiously optimistic, while suggesting that the Canucks and their fans shouldn't be disappointed if the Canucks don't win the conference or even the division, that simply getting into the playoffs can be counted as a success due to the unpredictable nature of a hockey season with its injuries and unlucky bounces.
Not me. I'm here to be the voice of cold, hard cynicism. I'm here to say that whatever could go wrong will go wrong. This is a Super Cynical Season Preview and I'm not going to pull any punches.*
Many experts point to the Canucks' offense as being their main strength and why not? After all, they finished second in goal-scoring to the Washington Capitals last season, partly on the strength of Henrik Sedin's Art Ross and Hart Trophy winning career year. But therein lies the rub: it was a career year, a massive jump in points from his career average. Even if you only include his post-lockout numbers, Henrik has averaged 78.5 points per season, a far cry from the 112 he posted last year. It would be foolish to assume he will continue at his pace from last season when the rest of his career so blatantly disagrees. Many experts, including Henrik himself, agree that it's unrealistic to expect him to reach such lofty heights this season.
The issue is that Henrik's not the only one coming off a career year. Joining him last year were his brother Daniel, Kesler, Raymond, Samuelsson, Burrows, Ehrhoff, and Edler. It would be unrealistic to expect these players to maintain their numbers after a career year, let alone improve on them. The most worrying thing about this list is that these 8 players were the Canucks' top-8 scorers last year. Add in the fact that a player like Mikael Samuelsson had his shooting percentage almost double from the previous year, and you have all the makings of an inevitable statistical regression.
Additionally, the Canucks are starting the season without their top goal-scorer from last season, Alex Burrows, as he has been placed on Long Term Injured Reserve after shoulder surgery in the summer. He will miss a minimum of 10 games, which means the Canucks will be missing their leading goal-scorer for 12% of the season. Replacing him on the top line will be Mikael Samuelsson, whose shooting percentage, as I already mentioned, is bound to regress towards the mean.
All of these signs point towards fewer goals scored and a less potent offense. By less potent, I mean that they'll struggle to score goals on a Calgary Flames level, or on a Canucks-from-just-three-seasons-ago level. Out of curiosity, I calculated the goal-per-game averages for every player on the Canucks roster: the resultant total for all the players on the roster was 2.51 goals per game. This goals-per-game average would have placed the Canucks at 27th in the NHL last season, tied with the Oilers. Anyone predicting the Canucks will exceed this total is assuming that the majority of the players on the roster will exceed their career averages, an assumption that is not just overly optimistic, but deluded.
The praise lauded on Mike Gillis for improving the Canucks defensive depth this off-season seems, at first glance, to be warranted. He made a splash at the draft in trading the Canucks first round pick, sniper Michael Grabner, and power forward Steve Bernier for YouTube sensation Keith Ballard and acquired the most sought-after defenceman in free agency in Dan Hamhuis. Most Canucks fans assumed that with these two acquisitions meant last season's goat, Kevin Bieksa, was on his way out the door.
Instead, in an entirely expected turn of events, Sami Salo tore his achilles tendon while playing floorball and will miss 4-6 months of the season, if not the entire year. The oft-injured Salo has been a key member of the Canucks throughout his career. Since the lockout, the Canucks have a record of 179-109-29 with Salo in the lineup and 45-37-11 without Salo in the lineup in the regular season. Suffice it to say, the Canucks are a better team with Salo.
In addition, the Canucks lost key minute-muncher Willie Mitchell, who signed with the Kings in free agency. Mitchell averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game throughout his time with the Canucks, and consistently faced the highest quality of competition while doing so. In the absence of Willie Mitchell, the Canucks have no clear shutdown defenceman.
The Canucks have also been praised for their defensive depth, as they started training camp with nine proven NHL defencemen and a slew of hopefuls. Indeed, it's eerily similar to last year's training camp, where they started camp with, what are the odds, nine NHL defencemen after acquiring Christian Ehrhoff, Brad Lukowich, and Matthieu Schneider in the off-season. What happened? Brad Lukowich elected for shoulder surgery while playing in the AHL, Schneider turned into a little bitch-bot, and Mitchell got Malkin'd and missed the end of the season and the playoffs. The Canucks vaunted defensive depth torpedoed to the point that Shane "Pain Lion" O'Brien had to play 22 minutes a night in the playoffs and Sami Salo had to play with (allegedly) only one testicle intact.
Already the Canucks vaunted defensive depth has gone up in smoke as SOB has been traded for first-round disappointment Ryan Parent and, once again, Aaron Rome is the Canucks' seventh defenceman. Slotting in at number six on the depth chart is the man of many nicknames, Andrew "A-Minor, AHLberts, Give Us Barabbas" Alberts, who was deplored at the end of last season for his slowness, ill-timed penalties, and general uselessness. Hamhuis and Ballard have been praised for their durability, but with Ballard coming off hip surgery and Hamhuis being asked to play more minutes in the absence of Salo, an injury seems almost inevitable. And while the depth chart on defence looks nice now, it will be a different story by the time April rolls around.
Roberto Luongo is a fantastic goalie...if you're in a fantasy hockey league. Unfortunately, the NHL is real life and Roberto Luongo has been getting worse and worse every season he has been with the Canucks. In 2006-07, Luongo seemed like the goalie he was deemed to be, with a solid 2.29 GAA and a .921 SV%. The following season saw the first sign of trouble as his GAA bumped up to 2.38 and his SV% dropped to .917. Last season, his statistical regression continued as his GAA ballooned to 2.57 and his SV% hit .913. In his entire career, the only season he posted worse numbers was his rookie year with the Islanders.
It doesn't end there. In the playoffs last season, Luongo had the worst GAA and the second-worst SV% of any goalie who played at least 12 games. Things got to the point that Luongo's chosen goaltending coach was fired and Rollie Melanson hired without Luongo being consulted. Optimists will say that having Rollie Melanson as a full-time goaltending coach will turn around the trend of Luongo's numbers. I cynically say that asking a goaltender to make wholesale changes to his game will negatively affect his play and we're likely in for the worst year of Luongo goaltending yet.
Backing up Luongo is unproven Cory Schneider, who has posted great numbers in the AHL, but has been shaky in his brief time in the NHL, posting a 3.59 GAA and a .896 SV% in 10 games. Considering that these are worse career numbers than Andrew Raycroft, who was serviceable as the Canucks back-up last season, and you can see the reason for concern.
With the Canucks' offensive prowess last season, they often won despite their goaltending. If they are unable to score their way out of trouble this season, expect to see a lot more losses.
As Justine Galo accurately pointed out, "Canucks fans have a lot to be humble about." The Vancouver Canucks have a long history (approximately 40 years) of stunning mediocrity. As I pointed out during the summer with the Canucks Mount Suckmore, what often defines the Canucks is the eras of shame more than the eras of success. The Canucks have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals only twice in their history, bowing out once in four straight, and coming achingly close in seven games in 1994. Their historical win-loss record is a painful 1248-1363-379-64.
In more recent history, the results aren't much better. I distinctly remember a season in which the Canucks were hyped as Stanley Cup contenders guaranteed to make the playoffs while steamrolling through the Northwest division with ease. That year? 2007-08. That was one year removed from Luongo's first season wearing the Orca when the Canucks posted a record-setting 105 points in the regular season, winning the Northwest division and coming out on top in a thrilling seven-game series against the Dallas Stars before losing in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks. The experts agreed: Vancouver was on their way to the top and was a legitimate cup contender.
Instead, the Canucks slumped magnificently, finishing dead last in the Northwest, capped off with three straight losses at the end of the season. Not a single player scored 30+ goals, nor did any member of the Canucks manage a point-per-game pace. It was a sad send-off for Canucks legend Trevor Linden, who retired shortly after the season ended. This season, once again the Canucks are hyped as cup contenders, guaranteed to make the playoffs. Are we in for a similar collapse?
The Canucks management and ownership are well aware of the history of failure and mediocrity in Vancouver, as they have purchased the Vancouver Millionaires trademarks in order to more closely associate the Millionaires with the Canucks. It seems obvious to say, but the Millionaires are not the Canucks and are in no way associated with the Canucks except for the fact that they played in Vancouver. The Millionaires' final season was in 1925-26 and the Canucks did not come into existence until 1945-46, 20 years later. The Millionaires Stanley Cup win in 1915 has no relation to the Canucks success, however much the Canucks owners and management might want it to.
The Bottom Line
Canucks fans, on the whole, are a self-loathing bunch, at least when they're not a Canucks-loathing bunch. We desperately want to be optimistic about the upcoming season, but years of disappointment have soured us, turning us into bitter old men and women before our time. Because of years of disappointment, we already know, deep-down, that this season will be just one more year of heartbreak.
This preview may seem overly cynical**, but if the Canucks start the season 0-3 like they did last year, you can expect this to be the majority opinion on the Canucks.com messageboards, Team 1040 phonelines, and your co-workers who just realized that the NHL season started on Thursday. Because even though we're Canucks fans, we're also incredibly moody and irrational, jumping to conclusions like we're Tom Smykowski, not only after every game, but after every play. The players who are our heroes now, will, with one misplayed puck, become the goats. One moment a player is starring in a commercial for the NHL, the next you're vilified for costing the Canucks a playoff series. What seems overly cynical now may soon be your opinion.
Go Canucks Go.
* The above post does not accurately reflect the views of its author, who is hopelessly optimistic for the coming season, believing that Henrik will brazenly defy the odds and post 100+ points, that Dan Hamhuis is really Jyrki Lumme in disguise, and that Roberto Luongo will have the best season of his career under the tutelage of Melanson. He has already begun construction of his own parade float. Please don't hate me, I'm sensitive.
** Of course it's overly cynical, didn't you read the title?