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Canucks ‘have a lot to prove’ this season, general manager says

Vancouver’s Brandon Sutter, left, seen in a game against Columbus in November, 2015, says he’s confident about the progress younger Canucks players have made in the offseason.

Jay LaPrete/The Associated Press

The forecasts for the Vancouver Canucks are resoundingly negative: From bookmakers to prognosticators, the Canucks are a consensus pick to be among the worst teams in hockey this season.

Inside Rogers Arena on Thursday, as the team readied for its training camp, there was a quiet defiance. Players and management cited offseason roster additions and hope that the team will be healthier this season as reasons the Canucks could compete for the playoffs in the challenging Western Conference. But everyone at Rogers Arena knows, after finishing near the bottom last season, the climb back is a long one.

"I realize we have a lot to prove," general manager Jim Benning said.

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Vancouver begins the third year of the Trevor Linden era. He took over in 2014 as a rookie NHL executive, the former on-ice hero recruited to salvage the team as it cratered at the end of Mike Gillis's tenure. Linden then hired two other rookies, Benning as GM and Willie Desjardins as coach. A playoff appearance in the first season was followed by Vancouver's worst season since the late 1990s. The Canucks were beset by injuries but also played poorly. The pressure, starting with club ownership, is on to make a push back to the playoffs.

That pressure to deliver results this season – rather than work toward a longer-term rebuild – was obvious in the off-season. Benning signed 31-year-old free agent Loui Eriksson for six years and $36-million and traded promising but raw 20-year-old scorer Jared McCann for 24-year-old defenceman Erik Gudbranson, whose play has been undistinguished.

"The things that management did in the off-season to make us better now is something that really sent a message to our dressing room about what we're about: We're here to win," said centre Brandon Sutter, who was injured for most of last year.

Asked about the negative outside view of the Canucks and his own confidence, Sutter cited the improvement among the team's younger players and the team's showing in the early going last season. The Canucks, at the end of December, were in 10th place in the Western Conference, before the team started to really struggle.

"If you look at the way we played for the first half of last season, we had a lot of positive things," Sutter said.

Desjardins – whose job is widely considered to be on the line if the Canucks stumble in October and November – said there is more depth on the roster and players are motivated after last year's failings.

"That's a bit of a step," Desjardins said, regarding the 15 or more additional points the Canucks would need to add to vie for the playoffs. Desjardins offered a goal of staying in contention through the winter. "That's a realistic expectation, that we're going to fight for a playoff spot."

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Bookmakers do not agree.

Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook pegs the Canucks' odds of a Stanley Cup win at the second-lowest in the NHL, at 100 to 1, alongside the Arizona Coyotes, better only than the Carolina Hurricanes at 200 to 1. Sports Interaction puts the over-under on Vancouver's wins at 331/2, a little higher than the Canucks' 31 last year. Bodog has the over-under on the Canucks' point total at 761/2, fractionally higher than the 75 points that had them third-last in the NHL at the end of 2015-16.

The Canucks' first line, at least, should be in fine form as the season begins. The Sedin twins (who turn 36 next Monday) and their new winger, Eriksson, are playing well for Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey.

In goal, veteran Ryan Miller is the nominal starter but 26-year-old backup Jacob Markstrom, who played well for Sweden at the World Cup, will likely see regular action.

Still, the Pacific Division will be tough, led by the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings. The Anaheim Ducks could still be strong, and the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have top young talent.

Bo Horvat, going into his third year, looks to keep up with his young division rivals such as Connor McDavid and Johnny Gaudreau. Horvat, at 21, could be an assistant captain.

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"There's been young leaders in the league," Horvat said when asked about the shift in Canucks leadership with veterans such as Dan Hamhuis departed. "I've learned a lot over the past couple years and I feel like I'm ready to fill that void, for sure."

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More

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