Canucks face tough calls as season looms

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Hockey season is here again, and with it comes the usual array of issues concerning the Vancouver Canucks as they open training camp in Victoria. Here are five key questions facing the guys with the new uniforms this season.

1) What does Markus Naslund have left? At 34, and in the final year of his hefty contract, the Canucks' captain claims he's up to the challenge of leading this hockey club offensively once again. If–and that's a big if–that's going to happen, it must show from the first workout at training camp. Despite a track record of exceptional production earlier this decade, Naslund has been in a steady decline for years. He admits that he's gone away from his bread and butter–shooting the puck–and vows to find ways to put more rubber on net this season. But even if he improves on last year's 24 goals, can Naslund hit the 30-goal mark anymore? And does a bump of six goals really help this hockey club? One positive that Canucks fans might cling to is Naslund's performance in last spring's five-game loss to the Anaheim Ducks. When the captain scored goals in three consecutive games against the eventual Stanley Cup champions, he showed the kind of hustle and determination you'd expect from a leader. He looked nothing like the lost soul who went from late November through early January last season without scoring a goal. With teams focusing on Daniel and Henrik Sedin this season, the Canucks will need Naslund–and others–to step up. The prediction here, though, is that 30 goals will be a stretch.

2) What, exactly, do the Vancouver Canucks have in Ryan Kesler? It's time to find out. Injuries derailed his third season as a Canuck, limiting Kesler to 48 games and just six goals. The 2003 first-round draft pick showed plenty of character recovering from mid-season hip surgery in time to return for the team's playoff opener. But the comeback didn't last long, as Kesler suffered a broken finger in that marathon game against the Dallas Stars to end his year. He got a new three-year contract in the off-season, and as a fourth-year player, the 23-year-old needs to make a significant step up this season. Over the years, he's shown flashes, using his strong skating to get in on the forecheck, and he has demonstrated a willingness to provide the grit that all good teams need. But it's no longer enough for Kesler to skate miles and not accomplish anything. His hockey sense and his on-ice vision are suspect, and his ability with the puck appears limited. Still, he has to find a way to contribute, and anything less than 15 goals and 35 points would be a disappointment for a team seeking offensive improvement from within. If he remains at centre, those numbers may be tough to come by. Perhaps it's time to convert Kesler to a winger and give him a chance to play on a line with Naslund and Brendan Morrison.

3) Which off-season acquisition will make the biggest impact on the hockey club? If you're looking for a player who'll make a difference, you're not going to find one among Byron Ritchie, Brad Isbister, Aaron Miller, and Curtis Sanford. Aside from the veteran Miller, a solid NHLer for several years, the rest are spare parts with spotty track records at this level. That doesn't mean they can't or won't contribute here, but none of the new Canucks is an impact kind of guy. Ritchie will be a regular, adding some grit to the club's fourth line, while Isbister is a 30-year-old retread who never became the player so many other teams hoped he would, so it's a stretch to think it'll happen here. The Canucks are counting on a handful of players to contribute more than they have in the past. Simply put, the Canucks need more from their off-season acquisitions this time around.

4) Is this the best defensive group the Canucks have ever had? Roberto Luongo single-handedly rewrote Canuck records with his performance last season and his Vezina and Hart trophy nominations. The 28-year-old netminder was a huge reason the team set a franchise mark, allowing just 201 goals, despite missing Willie Mitchell and Sami Salo for long stretches and Mattias Ohlund for a handful of games. If they can stay healthy, if Kevin Bieksa and Lukas Krajicek continue to develop, and if Miller comes in and battles every night, there's no reason why last year's mark won't fall. Where top-six defencemen are concerned, it's hard to find a stronger group in the NHL, and, top to bottom, it's tough to think of a more solid crew ever to wear Canuck colours.

5) Do the Canucks keep Alexander Edler or Luc Bourdon as their seventh defenceman? Bourdon started last year here but showed early on that, as a teenager, he wasn't ready for the NHL. Edler progressed so rapidly in his first season in the minors that he became the first call from the farm on a handful of occasions. With their top six spots on defence seemingly spoken for, the Canucks have to decide if Edler or Bourdon will benefit more from practising with the big club but seeing only spot duty, or playing a lot at the American Hockey League level. With their farm team in Winnipeg–an easy flight to Vancouver–the Canucks should stick both youngsters in the minors and let them continue to develop there. They'd be available in the event of injuries with the big club, but if they're not going to play regularly here, it makes no sense to rob either player of an important year of development.

The Canucks start answering these questions–and many others–this week at training camp. The preseason begins Monday (September 17), when Anaheim visits Vancouver. The Canucks start playing for keeps on October 5 at home against the San Jose Sharks.

Jeff Paterson is a sportscaster and talk-show host on Vancouver's all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at jeff.paterson@team1040.ca

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