The Vancouver Canucks on paper look to be the strongest of the Canadian teams, but an Olympic year will present a unique challenge.
For the first time since NHL players began participating at the Olympics in earnest, one of the league's member cities will host the Games.
The Canucks reached the Western Conference semifinals for the second time in three years last season, and according to assistant general manager Lorne Henning, they paid close attention to how they were beaten.
"Certainly Chicago's defence has a lot of mobility and puck-moving defencemen," Henning told CBCSports.ca. "It's the way the game is going now, you've got to be able to skate.
"It was one of our keys for the summer — to upgrade our speed all-around, forwards and defence."
Of course, a bigger key was re-signing their three biggest stars — Roberto Luongo and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
At a Glance
2008-09 record: 45-27-10, Northwest Division winner, Western Conference semifinals.
Hello: Christian Ehrhoff (D), Brad Lukowich (D), Andrew Raycroft (G), Aaron Rome (D), Mikael Samuelsson (F), Dave Scatchard (F), Mathieu Schneider (D).
Goodbye: Jason LaBarbera (G), Mattias Ohlund (D), Taylor Pyatt (F), Curtis Sanford (G), Mats Sundin (?).
No. of Olympians: 8 (Alex Edler, Ehrhoff, Ryan Kesler, Roberto Luongo, Mikael Samuelsson, Sami Salo, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin).
What to like
Luongo should have plenty of motivation after saving the biggest stinker of his two-season playoff career in Game 6 against Chicago. He has signed a contract that could keep him in Vancouver for the rest of his playing days, and has designs on the Canadian Olympic starting job in his NHL home.
The Sedins twins rarely take nights off, and Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows became vital forwards last season. It is expected that at least one of Kyle Wellwood and Steve Bernier — both put on a fitness regime in the off-season — will increase their offensive output.
The defence corps is deep, with a more diverse group of styles than in years past. For all the talk of Luongo's Game 6 troubles, less attention was paid to how the Blackhawks riddled the back end.
Egos shouldn't get in the way on the blue-line, either: there is only a difference in salary of $1 million US from first to sixth spot.
With the additions of Christian Ehrhoff, Mathieu Schneider (currently injured) and Mikael Samuelsson, the Canucks seem poised to improve on a power-play unit that was middle of the pack last year.
"We just felt that, with our defence, when [Sami] Salo went down, we didn't have the depth that we wanted [at the point]," said Henning.
What to sweat
The Buffalo Sabres and the Calgary Flames have paid the price in the last two seasons to different degrees for skimping on the backup goalie spot and overworking their No. 1 man.
The Canucks are courting similar trouble with Luongo in an Olympic year. It's unlikely to put them out of the playoffs, but it could cost precious points.
Andrew Raycroft had his worst season (2007-08) when he sat on the bench for weeks between starts, which is exactly what the Canucks will be asking him to do. Even Curtis Sanford, who was jettisoned by the club, had better stats in the last two years than Raycroft.
"I think Raycroft looked at it like he's got something to prove and has been really strong in camp and he's working hard with [goalie consultant] Ian Clark," said Henning.
Henning said the team will have no problem calling on Cory Schneider if Raycroft falters, even though the current conventional wisdom is that a young goalie shouldn't spend most of his time riding the pine.
Another intangible is complacency. Luongo and the Sedins signed big contracts. Secure in the knowledge the three most important players are in tow, will the supporting cast ease up and not carry its collective weight?
Henning said the bitter taste of last season's elimination, along with the personalities of players like Kevin Bieksa, Kesler and Ryan Johnson will prevent any kind of psychological letdown.
Fresh Face:Christian Ehrhoff
It will be interesting to see how Ehrhoff responds in Vancouver after being able to progress in the shadows of Rob Blake and Dan Boyle in San Jose. While Bieksa and Willie Mitchell loom large personality-wise, Ehrhoff will expected to be a primary offensive cog from the back end.
Like many of his Sharks teammates, the German had a terrific start last season and then tailed off down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Under pressure: Pavol Demitra
Gillis signed his former client to a two-year, $8-million US deal and at best he met expectations last year. He suffered a shoulder injury in the playoffs, but has never been a particular standout in the post-season.
He is now confronted with an early season injury for the second year in a row, and with young forwards like Sergei Shirokov, Mason Raymond and Cody Hodgson angling for key roles to start the season, he will need to pay some immediate dividends when he returns or perhaps find himself expendable.
The Olympic players from the Canucks will be close to home, but there are nine candidates: Luongo, Kesler, the Sedins, Ehrhoff are locks, with Salo, Demitra, Samuelsson and Alex Edler somewhere between possible and probable.
More importantly, Vancouver hosting the 2010 Games and Paralympics means that GM Place will be unavailable for a long stretch. The Canucks play eight on the road heading into the NHL's Olympic break, and six more in a row away from home when the league picks up its schedule.
That means an eight-game home stretch in December and a span of nine home games in the last 14 of the season are particularly important.
We won't get fooled again.
Last September we said the margin of error was too thin for Vancouver due to their offensive depth issues. We predicted Alain Vigneault could be the first coach of a Canadian team fired.
Close. Luongo jumpstarted the team with five shutouts in his first 14 games, Kesler and Burrows each upped their point totals by 20-plus, and Vancouver took the Northwest. Vigneault remains, while four of the other five Canadian teams have changed coaches in the interim.
We doubt the Canucks used our dire assessment as motivational material, so we have no problem this time around pegging them as the division winner. Until Calgary shows it can gel as a team, it's the most sensible choice.
The Olympic effect is a bit worrisome, but offset by the fact that the other two divisions in the conference are arguably even more fiercely contested than the Northwest. So we'll go as far as putting Vancouver in the second or third conference slot heading into the playoffs.