The Vancouver Canucks franchise has spent much of its existence as a laughing stock, though the club seemed to have turned a corner over the past decade. Since being purchased by the Aquilini Group in 2006, the franchise has managed to win two consecutive President's Trophies in 2011 and 2012, advanced to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, and from 2006 to 2011 won at least one playoff series in four of five years.
Expectations have been tempered, though, following a disastrous 2013-14 campaign. For the first time in a while, the Canucks will head into the 2014-15 season not as aspiring contenders, but as an aspiring bubble team.
Though many observers have given up on the Canucks as a serious threat in the Western Conference, Canucks defender Kevin Bieksa is defiantly optimistic about his club's potential upside.
"I still believe in our group," Bieksa told Ed Willes of the Vancouver Province this week. "I trust the [Sedin] twins are going to come here and be ready. [Defenceman Dan Hamhuis] will be hungrier than ever. We have a lot of pride on this team, a lot of integrity, and we’re not happy about what happened last year. I think we’re all going to look in the mirror and come back motivated. I’m excited about this year.
"We made some big changes," Bieksa admitted, singling out the pair of lopsided deals that sent Roberto Luongo and Ryan Kesler to warmer climates and lower intensity hockey markets. "Obviously people aren’t going to have the same expectations for out team they’ve had in the past. But our expectations are making the playoffs. We feel we have a team that can compete."
Though the Canucks have seen a steady outflow of talent in recent years and struggled enormously in 2013-14, there are signs that they could be poised to bounce back this upcoming campaign. In particular, the club remained a top-ten team by score close even-strength unblocked shot differential - a critical, results-independent statistical indicator that suggests their unsuccessful season may have been an aberration.
Incoming general manager Jim Benning also performed significant surgery on the bottom-end of the club's forward group, a glaring weakness for several years. Bieksa believes that the added layer of depth up front will pay dividends.
"We’re going to be a more balanced team," Bieksa opined. "It’s going to be different, but I think we have a lot of good hockey left."
Though additional forward depth will help, this club's fate will ultimately be determined by their top-of-the-lineup pieces - the Sedins, Alex Burrows and a trio of veteran defenders including Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler. To a man, all six players had off-years in 2013-14, which is particularly troubling since all six players are on the wrong side of 30.
"As a team we kind of lost ourselves," said Bieksa of last season's nightmare.
Still, he's confident that Vancouver's core - dubbed old and "stale" by outgoing head coach John Tortorella at his season-ending press conference - can find another level. In particular, he pointed to the group's fitness level as a reason that they might surprise this upcoming campaign.
"You can look around the league and I don’t think you’ll find a group of guys our age who are in the shape we’re in."