Cam Cole: Have the Canucks emerged from their theatre of the absurd?


Good old days older: Many players have a lot to prove as curtain opens on new season

After a season riddled with soul-destroying turnovers, Alex Edler has the ability to become a No. 1 defenceman again, says Canucks general manager Jim Benning.

After a season riddled with soul-destroying turnovers, Alex Edler has the ability to become a No. 1 defenceman again, says Canucks general manager Jim Benning.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

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Act 1, Scene 1: Stage is dark, speaker system plays audio from inside Vancouver Canucks' dressing room.

Voice of coach Willie Desjardins: "Anyone who thinks he had a good season last year, please stand up."

(Five seconds of silence.) WD: "Thanks, Nick, you can sit down. You, too, Derek. I was thinking of the guys who were HERE last year."

(Sound of crickets chirping.)

And that is just the way it was, for the 2013-14 Canucks. Nick Bonino's season in Anaheim and Derek Dorsett's in New York don't count. No one on this roster a year ago could reasonably declare, straightfaced, in front of his teammates: "Hey, our team was lousy, but I was pretty good."

Still, from among the many underachievers whose performances dropped off the edge of a cliff under John Tortorella, a few stood out: Alex Edler, Alex Burrows, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, David Booth.

So in compiling the list of players who have the most to prove when the season opens this week - Kesler doing his proving in Anaheim; Booth (surprise) already injured in Toronto - they would be a logical beginning.

Eddie Lack has to prove he can be a starting goalie in the NHL, but that question is probably moot, for the time being.

But really, who's kidding whom? As a group, they failed. Finding their way back is no simple task.

Of them all, Burrows has the most wiggle room. From averaging 29 goals and 54 points in the four seasons before the lockout, his five goals and 15 points last season was so far below expectations, it is easily written off as an anomaly, caused by a grossly unlucky series of injuries.

"I wouldn't say I was unlucky," Burrows was saying last week, then reconsidered.

"Yeah, I guess it's bad luck.

First game of the year, you break your foot, then you break your jaw and you play with a face protector, break your thumb ... but I think it's a lot of things. Linemates got injured, we were juggling lines a lot, system. It's tough to pinpoint only one thing, but at the end of the day, it happened to me, and the way I look at it, if it doesn't break you it makes you stronger.

"I've overcome this in the past, and the only way I know how to get out of a slump or a bad season or a few bad games is, you've got to work harder."

It's such a common refrain among players, it almost seems trite. Work harder? Come to camp in good shape?

"Yeah, talk is cheap, and I'm sure a lot of other teams are saying that," said Kevin Bieksa, the feisty defenceman who at 33 is among the many key components of this team - including his defence partner Dan Hamhuis, the twins and Burrows - hovering around that iffy age.

"But I've always thought, just from talking to guys who've come from different teams, that the standard is a little bit higher here in Vancouver, what working hard in the summer actually means.

"So it's what happens on the ice: how we're going to be in the third period, if we're going to be outlasting teams when they get tired. We'll have to go out and prove it."

To be fair, every team that missed the playoffs last season or went out in the first round no doubt considers its season a failure. Proving, and re-proving, are a constant in professional sports.

The danger - and it's been lurking ever since Trevor Linden took over as president saying the talent is still here, a view echoed by new GM Jim Benning and rookie head coach Desjardins - is trusting too much in what the Canucks were at their best.

Is Edler capable of regaining his confidence, and his early career form, after a soul-destroying season of awful turnovers?

Was Burrows only a creature of the Sedins' creation, or can he prove to be the Mr. Fix-It who can play on any line and make it better?

Are the twins on the far, far side of the hill, or can they still be near point-a-game producers ... and even if they are, is that enough?

There are far more questions than answers on this team.

"In (Burrows') case, he had a rough season. He had three injuries, and every time he'd come back and kind of get in the swing of things, he'd get hurt again," Benning says. "So for him, it's getting back to playing on that fine line, that edge that makes him a successful player, and not getting hurt doing it.

"I know how well Alex Edler played in that 2011 finals against (Benning's former team, Boston), he was a dominant defenceman with his size and strength.

"He was physical, he was skating the puck out of his own end, making good plays, getting shots through on the power play ... I think confidence is a big part of every player's game. I don't know exactly what happened, but with his physical skill set, I think he can be a No. 1 defenceman."

Benning knows it can be a trap to overestimate a team's talent based on memory. Especially distant memory. That Boston-Vancouver final was 3½ years ago.

Looking back at it now, the former Bruins assistant GM cuts those Canucks a break based on the number of injuries they incurred on their run to the final.

There are no 1980s Edmonton Oilers any more, he said. There's so much parity in the league, it's a much finer line now.

"That run (the Bruins) had in 2011, we were lucky enough to go through the whole playoffs with ... like Nathan Horton got hurt in the finals, but we went through that whole run without getting hurt," he said. "It's not using injuries as an excuse, but it's a big part of winning. So you've got to look past that and say: they were a good team, and they had a chance to win and because of injuries and stuff it didn't happen for them."

That's ancient history, though. What the Canucks have to prove, now, comes from the decline of subsequent seasons.

"I think because the team's had success in the past, and there's a lot of negativity around the team, these guys are a focused group," Benning said.

"We have a lot of guys this year that have something to prove. If that's the cause of their focus and to work hard for one another, then I'm OK with that. Everybody showed up in great shape. Everybody. And that tells me, from a management standpoint, that these guys care about one another.

"My attitude is, I expect to win. I expect the team's going to compete hard every night, stick up for one another, and they're gonna win. That's what I expect. I hate losing. I hate losing more than I love winning. That's why we made the moves we made this summer."

Is there life yet in the bones of this team?

Act 1, Scene 2: Stage lights come on, curtain goes up. The plot commences.

Canucks By the Numbers through 40-plus years here

After a season riddled with soul-destroying turnovers, Alex Edler has the ability to become a No. 1 defenceman again, says Canucks general manager Jim Benning.

After a season riddled with soul-destroying turnovers, Alex Edler has the ability to become a No. 1 defenceman again, says Canucks general manager Jim Benning.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

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