By Greg Beacham, The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES – After the Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs last spring, they overhauled their front office and revamped the roster of a team that won just about everything except the Stanley Cup over the previous half-decade.
So far, it’s going better and happening faster than just about anybody predicted.
When the Canucks return from a four-day break with a game in Edmonton on Wednesday, they’ll look to improve on a 12-6-0 start that launched them into second place in the tough Pacific Division.
Although they’re still getting to know their new teammates and new coach Willie Desjardins, the Canucks are hoping they’re a contender in their first season together.
“We’ve just kind of come together with a different coach and different players, so it’s a work in progress,” said Ryan Miller, the free-agent goalie who got off to a 10-1 start for Vancouver.
“I think our attitude and our excitement has kind of gotten us through this start,” Miller added. “Now, we have to come together and understand what it takes to play some of the teams that are willing to play a little bit of a chess match or a smarter game.”
Although the Canucks are just three years removed from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals and two years past their second straight Presidents’ Trophy, the club launched big changes even before finishing 25th in the 30-team NHL last spring, Vancouver’s worst performance in 14 years.
Longtime Canucks star Trevor Linden was named their president of hockey operations in April, replacing Mike Gillis atop the department. Linden hired general manager Jim Benning and fired coach John Tortorella, who was just one season into a five-deal deal.
Tortorella had said the Canucks’ veteran core grew “stale,” and the club’s new brass agreed. They made several changes to shake up the roster – and so far they’re all working fairly to spectacularly well.
After Roberto Luongo was traded by Gillis in March, the new regime replaced him with Miller, the U.S. Olympian eager to play for a contender.
Vancouver then traded veteran centre Ryan Kesler, who wasn’t eager to stick around for a rebuild. The deal with Anaheim landed centre Nick Bonino and defenceman Luca Sbisa, who have both jumped into regular roles for the Canucks. Bonino, the Ducks’ third-leading scorer last season, is the Canucks’ third-leading scorer with 14 points already.
Veteran Czech right wing Radim Vrbata has six goals and seven assists in 16 games while fitting splendidly alongside the Sedins on Vancouver’s top line. Derek Dorsett has added toughness, while Linden Vey leads several young players injecting new energy into the lineup.
But perhaps the biggest boost for Vancouver has been a bounce-back season for its twin cornerstones. Their declining contributions and changing roles were just one reason that the Canucks managed the second-fewest goals in the NHL last season after years as an offensive powerhouse.
The Sedins are still killing penalties for Desjardins, but they’ve combined for 33 points already this season. They credit their surge to the Canucks’ improved balance.
“We’ve been able to roll four lines and score timely goals, and that’s what we need to win, especially in this conference,” Henrik Sedin said. “We can’t just be a team that thinks we’re going to score three or four goals every night. It comes from playing well defensively.”
The Canucks won’t surprise any future opponents with their new chemistry, and they aren’t getting excited about their hot start yet. After all, they won seven straight games early in Tortorella’s only season in charge.
“Teams are playing us like we’re a (winning) team,” Desjardins said. “There’s a difference when teams are really ready for you and when they’re not, and we’re getting teams that are really ready for us. … We have to be better. You can’t accept playing poorly. You have to find a way.”