BRITISH COLUMBIA

NHL PREVIEW:Lots of new faces, but core remains the same for Canucks

10/07/2014 11:17 EDT | Updated 12/07/2014 05:59 EST
VANCOUVER - "Change is Coming" was the Vancouver Canucks' marketing slogan this summer.

In truth, most of the upheaval had already happened.

With a 25th-place finish and their first spring without playoff hockey in six years just starting to sink in, the Canucks got to work early, firing president and general manager Mike Gillis and replacing him with Trevor Linden in April before the team had played its final few meaningless games.

The club's new president of hockey operations dropped the axe on head coach John Tortorella a few weeks later before settling on Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins as the men to help with his blueprint to revive the franchise and its on-ice product.

"I wanted a builder with similar views that could help us set up the Vancouver Canucks for the next decade and beyond," Linden said when Benning was named GM on May 23. "What really became apparent during our interviews is how much we connected on our vision and our values and how we see winning organizations in the National Hockey League."

Exactly a month later, Linden — a former Canucks captain and fan favourite — was back at the podium with his new head coach: "Willie ticks all the boxes we were looking for. He's hard-working, he's down to earth, he's a very honest and genuine person. He's won everywhere he's been as a head coach."

Whether Linden, Benning and Desjardins — all rookies in the NHL at their positions — can win with a lot of the same core that went to the Stanley Cup final three years ago, but missed the playoffs last season remains is the biggest question heading into 2014-15.

"We're excited about the group. The guys have worked hard," said Desjardins, who led the AHL's Texas Stars to a Calder Cup championship last season. "Now we'll see what we've got."

Veteran goalie Ryan Miller was added in free agency to shore up the crease, and sniper Radim Vrbata was signed to play with Henrik and Daniel Sedin on the first line. Ryan Kesler finally got his wish and was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks for Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa, while Derek Dorsett and Linden Vey were also acquired in trades.

Despite all those pieces, a return to the playoffs for the Canucks largely hinges on whether an aging nucleus that Tortorella described as "stale" before being shown the door can rebound.

The Sedin twins, Alexandre Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alexandre Edler all had down years because of injuries, poor play, or both, and will need to rediscover their form for Vancouver to have any chance in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division.

"I think every year you're got something to prove," said Burrows. "It's clean slate for 30 teams. All 30 teams are chasing the same goal. Right now for us we've got to make sure we start off strong."

Added Hamhuis: "When you don't win the year before you're always motivated to get off to a good start. I think everyone's very motivated."

That feeling is felt throughout the locker-room and into the coaches' office, where Desjardins will get his first taste of the big stage Wednesday when the Canucks travel to Calgary to take on the Flames in the season opener.

"I certainly never take anything for granted. If you take things for granted you don't prepare," said the 57-year-old. "That's the way I've always been and I don't think this season will be any different."

One of the major focuses in training camp and pre-season was the system Desjardins wants to implement with the Canucks — a fast, puck-possession style in stark contrast to Tortorella's failed defensive, shot-blocking scheme that never really meshed with the roster.

"It's going to be a hard-working team that plays for each other," said Henrik Sedin. "I think you're going to see more plays, better hockey, more offensive hockey, holding onto pucks (and) creating off the rush.

"We have guys that can play hockey on all four lines and if you give them the opportunity to do that it's going to create more chances. For me personally it creates more chances off the rush. We rarely scored off the rush last year."

The Sedins also played big minutes under Tortorella and wore down as the season dragged on —something Desjardins plans to keep a close eye on.

"You like to have them on the ice because they do so much, but you have to be smart," said the coach. "They do the most when they're fresh and we have to keep them fresh."

Bonino looks set to centre the No. 2 line with Burrows and Chris Higgins in hopes of providing some secondary scoring to a team that registered the third-fewest goals per game (2.33) last season.

"The Sedin line's not going to score every night. Other teams are going to put their best guys on them," said Desjardins. "That's all their focus is going to be, to shut them down. We can't count on that line every night. Are they a good line? Ya they're real good, but we've got to get scoring out of the other three and our guys know that."

Daniel Sedin said he sees a major improvement in the team's depth at forward with the addition of Vey, Dorsett, Shawn Matthias — acquired as part of the Roberto Luongo trade — and 2013 first-round pick Bo Horvat, who will at least start the year with the big club despite suffering a shoulder injury in pre-season.

"This year I'm excited because we have four lines that can score," he said. "If we're able to roll four lines, that's the best thing for any team. If you look at the top teams in this league they have that."

The lack of offence under Tortorella was also attributable to an anemic power play that ranked 26th overall after leading the league during the Canucks' run to the Cup final in 2011.

"You want to prove yourself, but more so this year," said Henrik Sedin. "We've had some issues the last couple years where we lost in the first round, missed the playoffs. I think the feeling around the city is not as good as it has been."

After years of being considered contenders, expectations are tempered outside the locker-room, but the players seem energized thanks to new personnel and new ideas.

"The new guys coming in are great guys. It feels like we want to do this together as a team and that's the most important thing," said Daniel Sedin. "It's been exciting. Any time you have a bad season like we did last year, change is going to come. It's been a lot of change."

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