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(Nick Didlick/2009 Getty Images)
(Nick Didlick/2009 Getty Images)

With Luongo close to re-signing, Canucks likely to focus on blueliners Add to ...

The Vancouver Canucks are expected to target defencemen in today's NHL entry draft, and the presumption is that the players selected today will eventually play in front of goaltender Roberto Luongo.

That's because the Canucks and their star goaltender appear to be close to a contract extension, which would kick in following the 2009-10 NHL season, and pre-empt a year of worry in Vancouver. Luongo, who can become an unrestricted free agent after next season, is reportedly building a home in the Nicola Valley, in B.C.'s southern interior, and has apparently deemed the Canucks a Stanley Cup contender, which is his long-stated priority in selecting a team for the long-term.

Asked yesterday about an extension for Luongo, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis acknowledged that he has talked to Luongo, but said the sides had not yet reached a deal. An ESPN commentator said the deal was done and was simply waiting on July 1, the first day when the sides can announce an extension.

"We've had some good discussions," Gillis said from the draft in Montreal last night.

In his 14 months in Vancouver, Gillis has tried to change the culture of the Canucks organization and create a player-friendly environment that will eventually lead to salary-cap savings because free agents will take less to play on Canada's West Coast.

So far, he has yet to sell the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, on the Canucks at an agreeable price. The sides were to meet again last night in Montreal, with the potential free agents expected to provide an answer to the team's most recent proposal.

Vancouver has counter-offered based on the 12-year, $63-million (all currencies U.S.) contracts the Sedins asked for last week. It is believed to be a long-term deal.

The Canucks rejected the players' proposal because there was too much money due - around $20-million, or one-third of the total value - after the twins turned 34 years old.

Gillis has also made changes to the team's player-development model, increasing that budget threefold and stressing it as a recipe for long-term success. That includes tweaks to draft decision-making.

Before Gillis arrived, the Canucks' draft table was an exercise in democracy. Canucks scouts voted on which players to select.

All votes were not equal - a European scout less familiar with a North American prospect didn't have an equal say - but the old formula, had it been in place last year, would have produced forward Kyle Beach, a Western Hockey League bad boy, and not super prospect Cody Hodgson.

Hodgson was chosen the No.2 prospect in the world by The Hockey News this spring. The 19-year-old centre is expected to make the Canucks in 2009-10 after impressing at training camp last autumn.

Today, the Canucks are selecting 22nd overall, 12 picks down the first round from where they netted Hodgson last June. It is no secret the Canucks would like to add defencemen at this lottery.

Vancouver has but one legitimate prospect on the blueline, and he is by no means a sure thing. Yann Sauvé, a second-round selection last year, had a difficult season with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and, unlike last year, he was not invited to Hockey Canada's camp for world junior championship prospects.

Even if he rebounds, Sauvé's offensive upside is limited, meaning defencemen with offensive ability have become a priority for the Canucks.

The 2009 crop of draft prospects is considered so deep that Gillis refused to part with his second-round selection, 53rd overall, to add a veteran forward at the March trade deadline. Additional picks in the first two rounds would interest the Canucks, but they have few chips to trade outside minor-league winger Michael Grabner, a former first-rounder.

There are four defencemen expected to be selected in the top 10 of the draft, and another three or four could go before the Canucks are on the clock.

Ryan Ellis of the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires, and John Moore of the U.S. Hockey League's Chicago Steel, might be interesting enough that the Canucks make a deal to move up the draft board. If they stay put, there are several prospects ranked between 20 and 30 on various draft lists who could help.

They include Swedish blueliners David Rundblad and Tim Erixon, Minnesota high-school defenceman Nick Leddy, and offensive-minded defenceman Calvin de Haan of the OHL's Oshawa Generals. The Canucks also value intelligence, meaning Saskatoon Blades defenceman Stefan Elliott, a North Vancouver native chosen the WHL's scholastic player of the year this season, might also fit.

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