By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
The Canucks were one of the most exciting teams in the league last season, featuring two of the top three scorers in the NHL.
Vancouver had the fourth-best power play in the league last season, with Todd Bertuzzi potting 14 goals and Markus Naslund getting eight. The loss of ace playmaker Andrew Cassels to Columbus in the offseason could hurt the power-play production.
The Canucks had a sluggish start to the season, but a reading of the riot act from general manager Brian Burke turned things around after Christmas. Vancouver finished the regular season by going 28-9-3-3, the best record in the league during that stretch.
GM Place hosted its share of shootouts last year, since the Canucks led the league with 254 goals, three more than the mighty Red Wings. Unfortunately it was those Motown boys who bounced Vancouver from the playoffs after the Canucks took a shocking 2-0 series lead by sweeping the first two games in Hockeytown.
The Canucks will have a tough time repeating their 94-point season from a year ago in the highly competitive Western Conference, but they should be in the postseason mix right down to the wire thanks to their impressive offensive talent.
Naslund put up 40 goals and 50 assists, topping his previous career-high of 75 points thanks to a surge from 34 assists two years ago to 50 last season. He continues to be one of the top threats with the man advantage and now has 47 goals and 70 assists on the power play in the past four seasons.
Naslund showed he wasn't shy offensively by attempting 302 shots, the fifth most in the league. His frequent shooting led to just a 13.2 shooting percentage, but he was big in the clutch, netting six game-winning goals to tie for 16th most.
The Canucks' captain improved his all-around game last season, too, recording a team-best plus-22 rating. Though Bertuzzi may be a big bear fighting in the corners and in front of the net, it's Naslund who has become captain clutch for the Canucks.
Dan Cloutier's confidence -- The Canucks were swimming along with a two-game lead against the mighty Red Wings when Nicklas Lidstrom wound up and uncorked an innocent-looking 100-footer from center ice. And that was pretty much the end of it.
Cloutier was never the same afterward, his confidence dimishing with each game as the Wings won four in a row. There's certainly no shame in losing to a Hall of Famer-filled roster like Detroit's, but Cloutier fell apart at the seams and was pulled in the first period of the final two games.
The Canucks netminder allowed just five goals on 71 shots in 113:46 in the first two games, but then gave up 11 goals on 52 shots in 139:43 in the next four games.
After posting a respectable 31-22-5 record with a 2.43 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage during the regular season, Cloutier's numbers ballooned to a 3.30 GAA and an .870 save pct.
"I've always been a 'glass is half full rather than empty' type of guy and I really believe we're going about this the right way," Canucks head coach Marc Crawford told the Vancouver Province. "We've talked to Dan a lot about last year's playoffs and we feel he can learn from that experience. We talked about how much [Dominik] Hasek struggled in the early part of his career to get focused and his game in gear. That's what the great goalies do and I think Dan has worked very hard and continues to work very hard to improve and obviously we think he will."
A positive sign is that he tied for second in the league with seven shutouts in the regular season, so maybe the pressure just got to him in the postseason. But that just proves how hit or miss Cloutier can be, something that is maddening to a team with such an effective offense.
Could it be that the first round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft was cursed? Patrik Stefan, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin and Pavel Brendl have all been enormous disappointments so far. Only Buffalo's Tim Connolly (chosen fifth by the Islanders) has more than 100 points, and seven of the first-rounders have yet to appear in the NHL.But of the first-round busts, the Sedin twins seem to be the most puzzling. Daniel has 29 goals and 37 assists in 154 games, while Henrik has 25 goals and 40 assists in 164 games. Playing for a freewheeling, offensively talented team, it would figure that the Sedins would have better point totals after two seasons.
Though they possess excellent size (Daniel -- 6-foot-2, 193 pounds; Henrik is 6-foot-3, 193 pounds), they have not been toughened up by the North American style. Similar to fellow top-four picks Stefan and Brendl, the Sedins have maintained their European finesse games and haven't adjusted well to the bruising NHL game.
Daniel went from 20 goals and 14 assists as a rookie to nine goals and 23 assists last season, though he played hurt for much of the season. Meanwhile, Henrik improved from nine goals and 20 assists to 16 goals and 20 assists. They are still just 21 years old and can't be written off yet, but breakthrough seasons from the Swedish siblings would help the Canucks compete in the deep Western Conference.
Bryan Allen's time with the Canucks is now. With Scott Lachance and Jason Strudwick off to greener pastures (or at least Columbus and Chicago, respectively), there are openings on Vancouver's blue line that Allen will be counted on to fill.
"I think Bryan Allen has taken a big step and I'd be surprised if he wasn't playing opening night," Naslund told the Vancouver Sun. "He just looks like he is more confident and has probably matured physically, too. I think he looks stronger than he did last year. It looks like he is turning into a man."
Though he has 17 games on NHL experience under his belt, Allen hasn't made much of a mark during his brief call-ups. But his time in the IHL and AHL has proven what a tremendous all-around player he is expected to eventually become at the top level. Allen had seven goals, 18 assists and 121 penalty minutes in 68 games with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL last season, but was scoreless with just six penalty minutes in 11 games with the Canucks.
"I'm not taking anything for granted as far as having a spot on this team," Allen told the Vancouver Sun. "This is my fifth year pro and I've learned that you have to earn everything you get. It's been tough at times for me, but I don't know if frustrating is the right word. You can't live in the past. I think I'm ready to play in this league."
Allen will eventually be a very good top-four defensive defenseman. Offense will never be his forte, but he will chip in with an occassional goal or assist, and won't be a liability in his offensive zone. But his dominating defensive potential is what excites the Canucks the most about him.
"We're pretty determined to bring him along the right way this year," Crawford told the Vancouver Sun. "We're not going to tempt ourselves, no matter how well he plays, to throw him into the big minutes."
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.