There were injuries to veterans in 2015-16 that forced a number of younger players higher up the lineup, but the plan was always to stay competitive while continuing to retool an aging roster.
And although valuable experience was gained, that seemingly contradictory approach was picked apart as the club stumbled towards the finish line.
With players reporting to Rogers Arena for testing and physicals on Thursday, the Canucks’ goal is much clearer this time around as they head to Whistler, B.C., for training camp — get back to the post-season.
“I feel our group’s ready to challenge,” said head coach Willie Desjardins.
Vancouver, which made the playoffs under Desjardins in 2014-15, was just 31-38-13 last season and would probably need at least a 15-point improvement in the Western Conference standings for that to happen.
“It was a tough year last year for lots of guys that are really determined,” said the coach. “That’s a realistic expectation, that we’re going to fight for a playoff spot.”
Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the superstar twins who turn 36 on Monday, need to stay healthy and keep producing, while the same goes for Loui Eriksson, who signed as a big-ticket free agent and will start on the first line with his Swedish teammates when the trio returns from the World Cup of Hockey.
“We knew when we signed (Eriksson) he had good chemistry with (the Sedins) watching him play with them in the Olympics and world championships,” said Benning. “He’s the type of player that whatever line you play him on, he makes other players around him better.”
Key veterans like centre Brandon Sutter and defenceman Alex Edler will also have to stay out of the press box after both missed for long stretches due to injury in 2015-16, and younger players like forwards Bo Horvat andSven Baertschi, along with defenceman Ben Hutton, will have to continue to progress.
Vancouver added bruising defenceman Erik Gudbranson in a trade with theFlorida Panthers to beef up the blue-line in the rough-and-tumble Pacific Division, while goalies Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom — also away at the World Cup with Sweden — need to be sharp for a team that has struggled offensively.
“In every position we have more depth,” said Desjardins. “That was one of our problems last year — we got into a little trouble with our depth. But this year when I look at all our positions, I feel we’re stronger at every position.”
Miller will be the No. 1 goalie heading into the season, but he knows that on a team desperate for a return to respectability, everyone is going to be on a short leash.
“In the NHL it’s always sort of: ‘What have you done for me lately?”‘ said the 36-year-old. “I understand that I have to perform. It’s been the way I’ve entered every season.
“You enter the same way. You have to compete, you have to earn it.”
And like his GM, the veteran goalie has a sense the Canucks are ready to surprise some people.
“Coming off last year, I think there’s a lot to prove,” said Miller. “Some of that positive exuberance you can kind of feel is something to harness right now.”