Wednesday, October 04, 2006


AP photo -- Gene J. Puskar

Hockey seasons starts today in a slightly toned-down opening night from the all-30-teams-playing bonanza on the same night last season. I'd gone much too long without hockey, and it was incredibly hard following the Canucks from the east coast in 2005-06, but I tried. My biggest challenge with following them this year will be the amount of overtime I have to work.

Anyway, opening night will be carried this year on the Versus network, formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network. Once they got hockey before last season, it was pretty much a smart move to rename the network something else since the NHL is very rarely played in the out-of-doors, and also since boxing and professional bullriding are also sports that appear to take place in arenas. The opening night games to be televised are the very good rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals last year, Buffalo at Carolina, and the second game, which is merely Dallas at Colorado. They're two teams I don't generally like, but I'll probably watch anyway.

It took a long time to find a Canuck photo in the Photobucket from last year that has players still on the team. There's a ton of pictures in there of Anson Carter, whose crazy season with the Sedin twins last year priced him out of Vancouver. He was signed by Columbus, who wanted an insurance policy in case the brilliant Nikolai Zherdev decided to play in Russia. They signed Carter, but Zherdev ended up signing with Columbus. This re-opened the annual Vancouver question of who skates with the Sedins. Though the opening night lineup is in place, it might take a while to find out who can skate and actually produce alongside the Sedins.

With the NHL's salary cap era in year number two, the player turnover is much more prevalent. The Canucks lost half of their top four defensemen in the offseason before the 2005-06 season (Brent Sopel and Marek Malik) and lost Nolan Baumgartner, Bryan Allen, and most notably Ed Jovanovski (a Canuck since the Pavel Bure trade) off last year's team. A trade for Buffalo defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick as well as a free-agent signing of grade-A pest Willie Mitchell took place to plug the defensive holes. Also, after threatening to make last year's team but ultimately spending another year in junior (and helping the Moncton Wildcats to the Memorial Cup finals), 19-year-old Luc Bourdon is on the roster for the big club to start the season.

But the biggest move for the Canucks was obviously the one that occurred right before draft day. Allen, goalie Alex Auld (last year's team MVP), and Todd Bertuzzi (and the black cloud following him) were traded to Florida for defenseman Lukas Krajicek along with a sixth-round pick and goalie Roberto Luongo, who is sort of good. Good in that he's the number-one goalie Canuck fans have long been wanting. The game of goaltending musical chairs sorted itself out more when fired Canuck coach Marc Crawford got a new job with the Los Angeles Kings and brought Dan Cloutier along for the ride. Somewhere along the way, little-used deadline acquisition Mika Noronen decided he was going to play in Russia. That opened the way for grizzled veteran Wade Flaherty to finally get the shot to break back into the NHL for the first time since the 2001-02 season.

Ultimately, it's still a mystery of where all the scoring is going to come from. Part of what the Canucks were trying to do with the offseason moves was to cut down on all the defensive giveaways that killed them last season and left Alex Auld to stand on his head every night in net. One other thing that killed the team last season was the inability to play 60 good minutes of hockey. There were quite a few games where they'd play 55 or so minutes of great hockey and just throw the game away with the other five minutes (like allowing three goals in two minutes or something), and it was quite infuriating. The team started 8-1-1, but it masked all the imperfections in the team, and it all unraveled after that.

What we do know is that the goaltending is going to be great. Luongo is going to steal some games for this team and keep the Canucks in games they have no right to be close.

All this and I didn't even get to Philly GM Bob Clarke using the rarely-used tactic of the offer sheet to ratchet up the price for Ryan Kesler (the Canucks matched the offer to the tune of $1.9 million), ticking off many GMs across the league. Lou Lamoriello of the Devils also has ruffled feathers recently. The offer sheet hadn't been used in quite a while, but the Lamoriello stuff just points to different loopholes in the new collective bargaining agreement that, though legal, reek when exploited.

Back to the team, though, they finally shook up the core by trading away Bertuzzi and Cloutier (though I could have done without Jovanovski going to Phoenix). They're going to be a different team, and they're going to have to find their identity at some point, and no one knows how long that will take. The start of last season and the downward spiral to its ultimate end (eliminated in Game 81) left a sour taste in the mouths of Canuck fans, and everyone's dying for them to get into the playoffs. Then again, with all the turnover that's occurred in terms of personnel (both players and coaches), getting into the playoffs as an eighth seed might be a great accomplishment for this team, and that's quite a low expectation considering what the fans in Vancouver have been used to over the last handful or so of years.

All in all, this is where my riffing ends, but the new journey begins when actual gameplay starts for the Canucks with game number one out of 82, tomorrow night in Detroit.

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