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Fierce battle shaping up on Canucks' blueline

For the moment, the Vancouver Canucks are content to let the situation resolve itself. It's only the first week of NHL training camp, head coach Alain Vigneault said yesterday, so the excruciating decisions are still a fortnight away.

But on Oct. 1, when the Canucks face off against the Calgary Flames in the regular-season opener for both teams, the music will stop and at least one defenceman accustomed to playing a regular NHL shift will be left without a chair. It is the most intriguing issue with the defending Northwest Division champions at camp this month, and it's adding some pizzazz to the otherwise dull slate of practices and exhibitions.

The Canucks are carrying 10 defencemen on one-way contracts, and eight of them would be considered NHL regulars. Vigneault said the team would keep all eight into the season, with 40-year-old free-agent addition Mathieu Schneider likely on the injured list, recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.

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"Their play will dictate whether they are dressed or not and their play will dictate their ice time," Vigneault said. "I love the fact that we have some internal competition and it should make our team better."

But internal competition also comes at a price.

The Canucks have more than $22-million (all currency U.S.) invested in their blueline, and are roughly $3-million over the league's spending limit of $56.8-million. Ownership, flush with the revenue from five-plus seasons of sellouts at GM Place, is willing to pay NHL salaries for players stationed at the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Winnipeg, but that isn't a cure-all.

Some of those tenured rearguards would have to clear waivers, which is no certainty given the premium NHL teams place on the blueline.

Vancouver lost two defencemen to waiver claims last season, and that could be the case again this year should it try to sneak veterans to the minors. Even if one of those players does arrive in Manitoba, he would also have to clear waivers should he be summoned back to the NHL.

"Those are the chances and the gambles that you take," Vigneault said.

General manager Mike Gillis said that losing a player to waivers would not be the ideal scenario for the organization, and acknowledged that the Canucks are in a position to trade from an area of strength. The team cannot submit an opening-night roster in excess of $56.8-million, meaning something has to give before the games start counting.

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In the meantime, assistant coach Rick Bowness, who oversees the defence, said his group is receiving another benefit. Bowness said the Canucks' defencemen must treat the next two weeks with greater competitiveness.

"It also helps everyone prepare themselves for the season because there's competition for jobs, so they can't cakewalk through the exhibition schedule," he said. "They have to put something into it."

The Canucks plan on increasing Alexander Edler's ice time this season, believing that the up-and-coming Swede will eventually be the bedrock of their blueline.

The 23-year-old is going to see more power-play time and more time in situations where the Canucks need offence. In essence, Edler is going to play minutes that were allotted to Mattias Ohlund, who departed in free agency this summer.

Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Willie Mitchell, Sami Salo and Christian Ehrhoff, acquired in an August trade with the San Jose Sharks, seem assured roster spots, although they will battle for minutes.

"Some guys know their roles are pretty secure, it's just that they're going to get pushed a little bit," Bowness said. "Other guys are going to have to earn that ice time."

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But a fierce competition will be waged for the sixth and final spot. The contenders include Schneider, Shane O'Brien, Brad Lukowich and Aaron Rome, a free agent who played eight games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last year. Lawrence Nycholat, a journeyman also on a one-way contract, is a dark-horse candidate.

"It's up to us as a group, collectively, to think about the end goal and what's most important for all of us, and that's a championship," Mitchell said about the logjam.

"If you're thinking about yourself and your minutes, I'm not speaking for everyone, but the team probably doesn't want you here."



Kevin Bieksa

2008-09 23:29 minutes a game, 43 points

2009-10 cap value $3.75-million (all currency U.S.)

Outlook The 28-year-old led Vancouver defencemen in ice time and points last season, but unlike most veterans, he lacks a no-trade clause.

Alexander Edler

2008-09 21:07 min., 37 points

2009-10 cap value $3.25-million

Outlook The team views Edler, 23, as a future top-pair defenceman and has him locked up for four more years.

Christian Ehrhoff

2008-09 21:14 min., 42 points

2009-10 cap value $3.1-million

Outlook Management used its salary-cap space to acquire this 27-year-old from San Jose.

Brad Lukowich

2008-09 16:12 min, 8 points

2009-10 cap value $1.57-million

Outlook A throw-in in the San Jose trade, Lukowich, 33, is a candidate to wind up in the AHL.

Willie Mitchell

2008-09 22:54 min., 23 points

2009-10 cap value $3.5-million

Outlook The 32-year-old is entering the final year of his contract, meaning it could be a swan song for the B.C.-bred assistant captain.

Shane O'Brien

2008-09 14:55 min., 10 points

2009-10 cap value $1.6-million

Outlook The 26-year-old was No. 6 on the blueline last year but will have to earn those minutes this season.

Sami Salo

2008-09 20:10 min., 25 points

2009-10 cap value $3.5-million

Outlook The team's record without him was sub-.500 last season, so as always with the 35-year-old Finn, it's about staying healthy.

Mathieu Schneider

2008-09 21 min., 32 points

2009-10 cap value $1.55-million

Outlook The 40-year-old will likely begin on the injured list and serve as a power-play specialist.

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