The Vancouver Canucks begin the season's abbreviated training camp in a strong position, starting with much the same squad that won back-to-back Presidents' trophies and is ranked among the league's best teams.
"We're very happy with our goaltending, we're very happy with our defence, we've got some questions in certain areas but for the most part our team is pretty good and pretty set," said Canucks president/general manager Mike Gillis on Sunday morning as players did their medical testing.
Expectations for the team, from inside the organization and among Canucks fans remain nothing less than a Stanley Cup victory, that championship that was almost within grasp in June, 2010, and much farther away last April. And while the team appears to be, yet again, ready to stand among the league's powerhouses, there are questions, starting with the one about a certain goaltender.
When will The ballad of Bobby Lu finish?
The Robert Luongo saga has become an epic and the goaltender, benched last April, started camp with his teammates on Sunday, his seventh training camp with Vancouver. President and GM Mike Gillis presented, as he has before, an air of calm patience, in terms of moving Luongo. He said there have been no concerns from other teams about the size of Luongo's contract – 10 years and $47.3-million (all currency U.S.) remaining – and has not considering keeping a chunk of the salary to facilitate a trade, a move allowed under the new labour deal. As Luongo said Friday, the situation could extend into the season. Gillis made clear he's looking for strong players in return. A goalie in return is a possibility, as an entwined question for the Canucks is who will back up Cory Schneider. "I don't feel any pressure here to trade Roberto for any other reason other than to improve this hockey team," Gillis said. "I certainly don't believe you give away all-star players because of some, you know, idea that you're under pressure because it's an untenable situation. He's too good a player for that."
Will Schneider find full-time work?
While Luongo's still around, backup-turned-starter Schneider will be under the tremendous scrutiny placed on all goaltenders in Vancouver. His past two seasons behind Luongo have been top-tier, going 36-12-3, with four shutouts and a dizzying .933 save percentage. But it is new territory now, how Schneider will fare playing the bulk of the games. "It's something I've been preparing for a long time," said the 26-year-old on Sunday.
Zack Kassian, stud or dud?
The 6-foot-3, 215 pound forward turns 22 next week and if he puts up a big season that justifies Gillis's faith in the young player, it will add much-needed oomph – physically and on the scoresheet – to the Canucks. Where he'll play, however, is unknown, and coach Alain Vigneault has never been a huge fan of young players, in terms of giving them big minutes. Last year, as Vancouver went down to L.A. in the playoffs, Kassian didn't even play the final game of the series. He'll have to produce to secure a notable role, as Vigneault starts the year how he left off last year. "We're going to start with what we know has worked in the past and make the adjustments we need to make as we move forward," Vigneault said on Sunday.
What about Edler's backache?
The Canucks' top scoring defenceman Alex Edler produced a career-best 49 points (11 goals and 38 assists) in 82 games last season and is starting the final year of his contract, choosing not to sign a new deal before the lockout. Edler's question is his back, hampered by a bulging disc through much of the fall. It remains, at times, sore and stiff, which he had experience at points during last season when he played the full schedule. How he fares will particularly important, given the Canucks' lack of scoring in the final two months of last season – and Edler's own poor play in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings. "My back is going to be the thing that might bother me from time to time but I expect to be able to play at 100 per cent," Edler said on Sunday.
When will Ryan Kesler be 100 per cent?
Off-season surgeries to his left wrist and left shoulder have put the 28-year-old centre through a long convalescence. And while Kesler said last week his range of motion in his shoulder is still poor – he couldn't raise his arm above shoulder height – Gillis on Sunday said he was confident the centre could be back "quicker rather than later." Kesler leaves a big hole in the second line, which is expected to be filled either by veteran journeyman Andrew Ebbett or rookie Jordan Schroeder.