Roberto Luongo, Revamped Canucks Must Clear Mental Hurdles to Become True Contender

Roberto Luongo, Revamped Canucks Must Clear Mental Hurdles to Become True Contender The Canucks have come close to emerging as a true Cup contender in recent years, but they haven't quite been able to take that next step necessary to truly challenge the elite.

Vancouver has finished first in the Northwest Division in three of the last four years, including last season, but the Canucks haven't made it past the second round of the playoffs since reaching the Cup finals back in 1994. This could be the year to change that, as Vancouver bolstered its blue line this offseason to complement the superior offense and goaltending already in place.

But as good as they look on paper, the Canucks still have to get over that psychological barrier in the postseason to make a real run at a title.

2009-10 Record:
49-28-5, 103 points (first in Northwest Division; third in Western Conference; lost in second round of playoffs to Chicago, 4-2)

Bruins record vs. Canucks: Boston leads the all-time series 67-24-15-1, but the Bruins lost the only meeting last year, falling 3-2 in a shootout on Feb. 6. Pavol Demitra scored the tying goal late in the third, then had the only goal in the shootout.

When to watch: The Bruins play at Vancouver on Saturday, Feb. 26, but the Canucks do not come to Boston this season.

Familiar faces: Former Bruin — and Boston College — defenseman Andrew Alberts is part of the logjam on the Canucks' blue line, while another ex-Eagle will be the backup in goal with Cory Schneider (Marblehead, Mass.) signing a one-way deal with summer. Dartmouth College product Tanner Glass adds some grit up front and the Canucks also drafted Harvard-bound defenseman Patrick McNally (Milton Academy) in the fourth round this year. Vancouver native Milan Lucic will enjoy a rare trip home when the Bruins travel to British Columbia this season.

Key additions: D Dan Hamhuis (free agent); D Keith Ballard (trade with Florida); F Victor Oreskovich (trade with Florida); F Manny Malhotra (free agent); F Jeff Tambellini (free agent); F Joel Perrault (free agent)

Key losses:
F Pavol Demitra (signed with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, KHL); D Brad Lukowich (signed with Dallas); F Matt Pettinger (signed with Kolner Hale, Germany); Nathan McIver (signed with Boston); G Andrew Raycroft (signed with Dallas); F Steve Bernier (traded to Florida); F Michael Grabner (traded to Florida); F Yan Stastny (signed with CSKA Moscow, KHL); D Willie Mitchell (free agent)

Burning question: Can Roberto Luongo lead the Canucks to a Cup?

The Canucks have invested heavily in star goalie Roberto Luongo, naming him captain in 2008 — the first goalie so honored since Montreal's Bill Durnan in 1947-48 — and signing him to a 12-year, $64-million extension last year. That contract is still being investigated by the NHL for possibly circumventing the cap with its front-loaded payments, but regardless of how that issue is resolved, it's clear that the Canucks are committed to Luongo as their long-term starter in goal.

But is he really the answer?

He's been a stellar regular-season netminder but has never taken a team beyond the second round of the playoffs. Last year, he was 6-6 in the postseason with a 3.23 GAA and an .895 save percentage, numbers well below his regular-season performance (40-22-4, 2.57 GAA, .913 save percentage). For his career, his 2.46 postseason GAA is slightly better than his 2.57 mark in the regular season, but he's still a .500 goalie in the playoffs (17-17). Not all of that is Luongo's fault, of course. But now that Vancouver has upgraded its defense to go along with an elite offense, there are no more excuses for Luongo, who will have to prove he's worth his controversial contract in the postseason.

2010-11 outlook: Vancouver possesses a deep and talented offensive cast led by Henrik Sedin, who won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies last year after leading the NHL with 29-83-112 totals. Twin brother Daniel Sedin added 29-56-85 totals despite being limited to just 63 games by injury. And the offensive weapons don't end there, as Vancouver had six players top 25 goals last year with Ryan Kesler (25-50-75), Alexandre Burrows (35-32-67), Mikael Samuelsson (30-23-53) and Mason Raymond (25-28-53) also contributing. By comparison, the Bruins didn't have a single player score 25 goals last year and have had just six 25-goal scorers in the last four years combined.

Vancouver is just as deep on defense after trading for Keith Ballard and signing Dan Hamhuis. The Canucks actually have too much depth on the blue line, with nine defensemen signed to one-way deals, totaling a combined $25.7 million against the cap. That helps explain why Vancouver is currently over the cap by $2.67 million. They'll get some relief with Sami Salo ($3.5 million) going on long-term injured reserve after suffering a torn Achilles this summer, but with six defensemen carrying cap hits over $3 million, someone else will still have to be moved out, with rugged Kevin Bieksa's name most often coming up in rumors. 

Did you know? Tim Thomas hasn't faced Vancouver often, but he's been perfect whenever he has taken on the Canucks. Literally.

Thomas has made two career starts against Vancouver and posted two shutouts — a 2-0 victory in Boston on Dec. 21, 2006 when he stopped 39 shots, and a 1-0 win in Vancouver on Oct. 28, 2008, when he made 31 saves. That's 70 Canucks shots on Thomas without a goal. Thomas doesn't just shut down the Canucks though — he dominates all of Canada. Against Edmonton, he is 3-0-0 with a 0.98 GAA, .968 save percentage and two shutouts, while against Calgary he's 1-1-0 with a 1.50 GAA, .957 save percentage and one shutout. That's five shutouts in seven career games against the league's three Western Canadian clubs.

Thomas also has four shutouts against Ottawa and one against Toronto, giving him 10 of his 17 career shutouts against Canadian-based teams.

Next: We'll begin our look at the Central Division on Thursday with a stop in Chicago, where the reigning Cup champs will look to defend their title after an offseason of unloading key contributors to get under the salary cap.

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