The Vancouver Canucks open up their 2015-16 season tonight against the Flames at the Saddledome in Calgary. The Canucks’ final game of last year was played in the same Saddledome in April when the Flames eliminated Vancouver from the playoffs in six games with a 7-4 win.
Game Time: 7:00 pm
Obviously, both clubs would love to start off the season with a strong performance and a win. There is no shortage of intriguing storylines involving the Canucks, but for today we’ll look at the match-up, the Canucks’ new faces, and fan’s expectations.
1. Familiarity breeds contempt
These two teams simply don’t like each other. After a few dormant years, the rivalry was renewed in January 2014 when then Canucks coach John Tortorella tried to storm the Flames dressing room to get at Calgary coach Bob Hartley.
Last spring, the Flames pummeled the Canucks and eliminated them from the playoffs. The Canucks had trouble coping with the Flames’ aggressive forecheck and physical game.
Recognizing that some of their weaknesses were exposed, Canucks management made some significant changes to their lineup. Newcomers Matt Bartkowski and surprising rookie Ben Hutton are both strong skaters and should be able to get the puck out of their end.
Up front, Brandon Prust brings a physical presence, Bo Horvat is even stronger, and journeyman Adam Cracknell plays a gritty game. We’ll see how well they match-up against the tenacious Flames.
2. New faces
The Canucks are expected to start six players who weren’t on the roster to end off the year: Brandon Sutter, Brandon Prust, Matt Bartkowski, Adam Cracknell, and rookies Jared McCann and Ben Hutton. Add rookie Jake Virtanen (likely to be the 13th forward), and that means that seven players (30%) of the 23-man roster are new this year.
That’s a lot of turnover for one offseason, with the Canucks’ quick exit from the playoffs necessitating a change.
Of all of the newcomers, Brandon Sutter will be under the most scrutiny. Much has been made about his poor possession numbers in Pittsburgh even against weaker opponents. The team signed him to a five year, $21.875 million contract extension in August, coining him a “foundational player”. Whether playing in the middle or on the wing – as it looks like he will to start the season – Sutter will need to produce offensively (while playing sound defensively) to live up the “foundational player” tag.
3. Fan expectations
“You can play 1,000 games in this league, but that first game is always so special. I’m excited for all the young guys” – Sbisa #Canucks
— Vancouver Canucks (@VanCanucks) October 6, 2015
Canucks fans have been clamoring for change for the past few years and now it seems they are getting their wish. With Horvat, Baertschi, McCann, Virtanen, and Hutton all on the roster, the Canucks finally have the look of a team that is starting to rebuild.
On the flip side, there are a lot of older players on the club; Burrows, the Sedins, Vrbata, Higgins, Prust, Hamhuis, and Miller are all over 30 years old.
Do the Canucks have enough firepower to keep up with the other Western Conference teams (most of which seemed to improve over the summer)? Will the Canucks be able to keep the puck out of their own net?
When it comes to expectations, the safest bet is to not really have any. I’m hopeful that this team is battling for a playoff spot in March as this team could surprise us like last year’s club. A lot of things would have to go right for them though, mainly health and scoring.
Or, the Canucks could regress given the number of rookies in the line-up. If that’s the case, I believe that the fan base here is mature enough to suffer through a couple of lean years if that means a competitive team soon.
Call me a homer (or overly optimistic…take your pick) but I’m going to predict that the Canucks sneak into the playoffs as one of the two wild card teams.
Ryan Miller will get the start in goal, while Jake Virtanen and Yannick Weber are expected to be healthy scratches. Chris Higgins is still injured.
*Update: Jacob Markstrom tweaked something in practice. The Canucks have recalled Richard Bachman, who will back-up Ryan Miller tonight.
Here is how the Canucks lined-up at practice:
|D. Sedin||H. Sedin||Sutter|
I predict a Canucks 4-2 win in an entertaining and hard-fought game. Bo Horvat will score and the legend will grow.