Recent history may not be on the side of Mike Gillis but the Vancouver Canucks general manager is setting his sights on nothing less than the Stanley Cup.
He recently told reporters the team that blew a two-game lead in the Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins last spring needs nothing more than consistency to get back to the NHL championship final and win it this time. Gillis backed up his belief by making no significant free-agent signings or trades in the off-season, although he did hedge his bet by keeping Cory Schneider as the backup goaltender (for now) to the famously wobbly Roberto Luongo, whose lifetime contract makes him unmovable.
And there is enough leeway in recent hockey history to make it impossible to dismiss Gillis as a GM who cannot see the obvious flaws in his team. While the Pittsburgh Penguins were the only team in the past 10 years to win a Stanley Cup (in 2009) a year after losing the Cup final, each of the teams that never made it over the top had problems that do not afflict the Canucks.
Most of those problems can be summed up as old age and free agency. The Detroit Red Wings, for example, beat the Penguins in 2008 and lost to them in 2009 as their core players grew older. They are still an elite team but the Cup is no closer.
The final was the best the Ottawa Senators could manage with the group of marvellously talented young players they drafted through the late 1990s and early 2000s. They were effectively undone by the introduction of the salary cap in 2005, which forced them to make decisions about which players to keep. They got the big decision wrong when they kept defenceman Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara and never recovered.
However, Gillis and the Canucks did not face those problems last June. They did lose defenceman Christian Ehrhoff to free agency, which took some offence away from their back end, but he was the only significant loss. The Canucks hope the promising Chris Tanev, 21, will help fill that spot although the defence will be weaker this season.
The big question, though is Luongo. He was respectable enough in the regular season and then flopped in the playoffs. But his age, 32, and $5.3-million cap hit for the next 10 years mean the Canucks are stuck with him.
Last season, lots of NHL people were saying the Canucks were quietly exploring a move with Schneider. The 25-year-old proved he was ready for the NHL and Gillis knew he could get some sizable assets in return.
But the fact Schneider is still with the team is a sign Gillis may not have complete confidence in Luongo. If he flops this season – and head coach Alain Vigneault still likes Luongo enough to give him lots of rope to start with – Schneider will get the top job because the Canucks are thinking only of the Cup.
There are some questions up front, too, and not just about the team’s grit. The Canucks were pushed around by the Bruins in the Cup final. One of their few hard-nosed types, Raffi Torres, is gone but the only similar replacement in sight is Victor Oreskovich.
Centre Ryan Kesler’s recovery from hip surgery does not seem to be going well. He is not likely to be ready for the start of the season, which really hurts. In addition to being the team’s heart and soul, Kesler’s production on the second line takes some heat off the Sedin twins.
Also out is third-line winger Mason Raymond, who may not play until November because of a fractured vertebra. This creates an opportunity for a couple of talented young forwards in Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder. Hodgson, 21, is healthy after battling various injuries for two seasons.
Add it all up and the Canucks are not the easy pick to represent the Western Conference like they were a year ago. But they are still a contender.