Ryan Kesler's health woes may force Vancouver to seek depth at center via trade. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
The Vancouver Canucks won their second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy last season as the NHL’s best regular season team, but their hopes for a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup final were short-lived, as they were eliminated from the opening round of the playoffs in five games by the Los Angeles Kings.
Despite the Canucks’ place among the league’s elite teams, there’s a feeling in Vancouver the club’s window of opportunity to win a Cup with its current core is closing.
The Canucks’ regular season stats were impressive. They ranked among the top five in goals-per-game (fifth), goals-against (fourth) and power play (fourth), as well as sixth on the penalty kill.
Those numbers, however, meant nothing by season’s end, especially the offensive ones, as Vancouver’s attack was anemic against the Kings.
A genuine goalie controversy took place during the season, as fans and pundits called for backup Cory Schneider to take over from long-time starter Roberto Luongo. They got their wish midway through the series against the Kings, though Schneider’s strong performance couldn’t prevent the Canucks’ inevitable elimination.
The mutual respect between Luongo and Schneider prevented the situation from becoming ugly, but it’s clear ‘Bobby Lu’ no longer has a place with the Canucks.
Canucks GM Mike Gillis won’t have to shove Luongo out the door. His willingness to waive his no-trade clause for the right deal set off rampant speculation over the summer as to where he might end up.
To his credit, Luongo has handled the situation well, saying he’s willing to return in a backup role if more time is needed for Gillis to arrange a suitable trade.
Luongo would’ve preferred returning to the Florida Panthers, where he began his NHL career (played 24 games for Islanders). While the Panthers initially had some interest, it reportedly faded as Gillis sought some of their top prospects as part of the return.
The Chicago Blackhawks were also thought to be a potential destination, but it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs rumored to have the strongest interest.
Not even the current NHL lockout has silenced the Luongo-to-Toronto rumors, as some reports claimed the Leafs and Canucks had a deal in place shipping the netminder to Toronto post-lockout.
Gillis and Leafs GM Brian Burke denied the rumors, but early November sightings of Canucks scouts at Toronto Marlies games kept the speculation alive.
Though Gillis would prefer to move Luongo as soon as possible, he’s repeatedly stated he won’t be rushed into a deal. If we take him at his word, it will be weeks or months following the lockout before the right one is found.
Much will depend upon what is contained in the new collective bargaining agreement, as there’s talk of a provision allowing teams to absorb part of a player’s contract to facilitate a trade.
Given Luongo has 10 more years at a cap hit of $5.3 million per season on his contract, the Canucks absorbing part of his salary could entice more clubs to make offers for him.
Speculation over Gillis’ asking price has varied, but it’s believed he’d want a promising center plus a good defenseman and/or a first round draft pick.
Depth at center appears to be an issue. Ryan Kesler, the Canucks’ best two-way player, has undergone surgeries the past two summers and there’s concern he’s wearing down.
Gillis would like to add a young center capable of playing the third line now and moving up if Kesler is injured again. That explains why Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak is frequently mentioned as part of a rumored return from Toronto for Luongo.
If Gillis cannot land a defenseman as part of the package, his current blueline corps (anchored by Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Alexander Edler and Jason Garrison) should still be in good shape this season.
The Canucks GM will also look to left winger David Booth and right winger Mason Raymond to rediscover their scoring touches.
Booth, who joined the Canucks via trade with Florida last November, struggled to adjust, finishing with only 30 points in 62 games. Raymond, meanwhile, missed the opening two months of last season recovering from a back injury suffered in the 2011 Cup final and was slow to regain his form.
If Booth and Raymond regain their offensive consistency and Kesler makes a full recovery from off-season shoulder surgery, it would ease the offensive load carried by the first line of the Sedin Twins and right winger Alex Burrows.
Failing that, and depending upon cap space, Gillis may be forced to look for help via the trade market.
Gillis’ concern over his scoring depth led to his unsuccessful efforts over the summer to woo unrestricted free agent right winger Shane Doan. Though the Doan camp had serious interest in the Canucks, he eventually returned to the Phoenix Coyotes.
If second-line scoring depth remains an issue early in the season, Luongo would be a valuable trade chip to address the problem, provided he’s still with the club at that point. Otherwise, Gillis might have to wait until the trade deadline to land an affordable rental player.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.