The Vancouver Canucks start the abridged 2012-13 hockey season with a potentially weaker team in a possibly much stronger division than one year ago.
As the collective bargaining agreement is put on paper, the talk of where goaltender Roberto Luongo lands will swirl – but the biggest question for the Canucks is their biggest stars, the Sedin twins who turned 32 last September. The Canucks of last season succeeded even without Sedins' greatness, winning their second straight Presidents' Trophy in 2011-12 as the Sedins' offence tapered dramatically. Both twins failed to notch a point a game for the first time since 2007-08, when the team was just another mid-range contender.
In 1994-95, the last lockout shortened season, many veterans struggled to replicate their scoring of the previous season, and younger players dominated the scoring table. The Sedins' biggest scoring punch – Henrik had 112 points in 2009-10 and won MVP; Daniel had 104 in 2010-11 and was a MVP finalist – may never be seen again.
How the Sedins play will be crucial, since a shortened season makes every game near-double as important. On Sunday, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said any ideas for experiments with younger players can't be conducted.
"We're going to have to go with our best players every night," said Gillis on a conference call with reporters.
The impact of injuries will also be much heavier.
"Long-term injuries at this point of the season would be devastating," said Gillis.
On the scoring front, even if the Sedins manage a point a game, it's not exactly clear where the firepower comes from. The Canucks are already dealing with a major long-term injury: the season starts with a large hole in the second line, injured centre Ryan Kesler is months behind in recovery from offseason surgery on his left wrist and left shoulder.
The team's strongest point could be its fairly impressive defensive core - Dan Hamhius, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, and free-agent acquisition Jason Garrison.
In goal, while the Canucks anointed Cory Schneider as their No. 1 man last spring in the playoffs, this season does mark Schneider's first as a starter in the NHL, one with a jarring January start after he hustles back from a sojourn in the Switzerland. The problem for Vancouver is it is hard to imagine that Schneider and whoever is his backup – Eddie Lack is currently injured – put up better numbers than what Luongo and Schneider tallied last season, when they often carried the low-scoring Canucks, or the year earlier when they won the Jennings Trophy. The first job will be to find a backup, a free agent, or through trade.
So big questions on offence, and at-least-somewhat weakened goaltending. And it comes as the Northwest Division could be a lot tougher. While last year's No. 2, Calgary, may fade, the rest look to rise, led by Colorado. But it is the low finishers, Minnesota and Edmonton, that are the most intriguing.
Minnesota actually led the Northwest for an early spell last season and now have the $98-million twins, Zach Parise, and Ryan Suter. And for Edmonton, in what will be a sprint of a season, there is a lot of young firepower – Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and potential star on D, Justin Schultz. The Luongo situation will in theory be settled quickly, though Vancouver may be motivated to hang on to him if the offers are too little. Gillis, in past months and again on Sunday, suggested there was demand for Luongo, saying on Sunday that numerous teams have questions in goal.
The now almost-de facto rumour is Luongo to Toronto – with its need for steadiness in goal in a short season – for Tyler Bozak, the 26-year-old centre who would answer several questions for the team, playing a position where the Canucks are needing and scoring his best-to-date 47 points in 73 game last year.
Gillis predicted a flurry of deals once the CBA is officially ratified, as teams try to plan for a rodeo of a season.
"There are a lot of teams thinking about a lot of things," said Gillis.