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Vancouver Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell comes over to celebrate a goal by Kyle Wellwood during a preseason hockey game in Edmonton, Alberta on Sunday, September 27, 2009. (Jimmy Jeong)
Vancouver Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell comes over to celebrate a goal by Kyle Wellwood during a preseason hockey game in Edmonton, Alberta on Sunday, September 27, 2009. (Jimmy Jeong)

Team preview

Canucks will have to be road warriors Add to ...

Several times this summer, Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis used the word "perfect" when describing how his team has to perform to win a Stanley Cup this season.

Gillis cites history - only one West Coast team, the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, has raised Lord Stanley's mug - and the travel demands on the Canucks, which are probably the most arduous in the NHL.

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But the Canucks, with their 40-year history of falling short, also face a campaign unlike any other, one with an interruption of Olympic proportions. Never before has an NHL team been so entwined in an Olympic Games, and it comes at a cost.

The Canucks will embark on a 14-game road trip from late January to mid-March, a sojourn broken by the two-week shutdown of the season for the Olympics. The men's hockey tournament, and the women's medal round, will be held at GM Place.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, no NHL team has faced a trip longer than 11 games, meaning Vancouver will make history when it plays its 12th consecutive road game on March 7 in Nashville. The team is not bitter about its plight because the monstrous trip is broken into eight- and six-game segments, and because it includes less time-zone hopping and backtracking than previous journeys.

Yesterday, head coach Alain Vigneault said he is more concerned with two segments of the schedule around the Olympic break. Therein lies the complication for the Canucks.

Because the team will be out of its arena for nearly six weeks, its home games are concentrated in the first four months of the season. Like every other NHL team, the Canucks will play a higher concentration of games to account for the Olympic fortnight. Vigneault cited a two-week period in late October, when the Canucks play nine games, and a 13-day stretch in early March, when the club has eight games, as most worrisome.

The schedule means that goaltender Roberto Luongo, typically a slow starter, cannot be rounding into form through October, lest the Canucks squander too many points on home ice. It also means that Luongo, a strong candidate to make the Canadian Olympic team, may not play the 70-plus games that he would in a typical campaign, and that Andrew Raycroft, the former Toronto Maple Leaf trying to reignite his career, becomes an important cog.

"We're going to need our backup goaltender this year, because it is an Olympic year, to play anywhere between 15 to 20 games," Vigneault said. "The schedule is challenging, and depending on how many games Roberto plays at the Olympics, [Raycroft]is going to get some action and has to be really good for us."

The Canucks have 10 players who could participate in the Olympics, and already have three players injured from training camp or the off-season. Vigneault said the schedule and the prolonged trip mean he will have to monitor the team more carefully than in other years. The Canucks are hoping that a plan to educate players on sleep and nutrition comes home to roost this season.

"What we're going to have to do this year, without a doubt, is really be on top of where we are energy-wise, and where we are mentally," Vigneault said. "Obviously, we can't do anything about the travel, and the travel is always challenging, but we're going to have to be on top of that. It might mean more days off, shorter practices, more conditioning off-ice."

The Canucks are a deeper team than one season ago. When healthy, they have eight NHL-calibre defencemen on the roster, and fewer question marks up front, particularly when Pavol Demitra and Jannik Hansen regain good health next month or in November.

But for an organization that coveted cap space last season, the Canucks will begin the year within $2-million (all currency U.S.) of the spending limit, and that cushion could well be eaten up when injured players such as defenceman Mathieu Schneider return to the lineup. That means Gillis won't have the luxury of spending $5-million in midseason for a player like Mats Sundin, and will have to unload salary to add expensive reinforcements by the trade deadline.

"We think we have a good team," Luongo said. "We've got a lot of depth at each position, so when injuries occur along the way, which they always do in this day and age, we'll have guys who can play good roles for us."

Training camp news

Rookie Sergei Shirokov, a 23-year-old winger from the KHL, and Tanner Glass, a 25-year-old journeyman forward, made the team. Defenceman Mathieu Schneider (off-season shoulder surgery) will be placed on the long-term injury list. Forward Pavol Demitra will miss at least the first two weeks with an ailing shoulder, and Jannik Hansen broke three fingers Sunday and will miss six to eight weeks. Centre Cody Hodgson, the organization's top prospect, was returned to junior.

Salary-cap number

$55.4-million (U.S.).

Breakout player

Defenceman Alexander Edler. The 23-year-old has big talent and is expected to become a minutes-eating stalwart this year. Edler will play in offensive situations that were previously reserved for Mattias Ohlund, who signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning this summer.

Crash-and-burn player

Right wing Mikael Samuelsson. He will either play with the Sedin twins or on the second line. At worst, he's a third-liner, so the chances of the free agent flopping are slim. But of all the Canucks expected to play major roles, he's the biggest unknown.

Will make the playoffs if …

They stay healthy. The Canucks have better depth up front and on the back end, and they sustained a 24-game injury to goaltender Roberto Luongo last season. One worry is that as many as 10 players could be seconded to Olympic teams.



Follow on Twitter: @mattsekeres

 

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