Canucks begin rebuilding phase with season opener vs. Oilers

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks have decided to give youth a chance.

But will a younger version of the rebuilding club necessarily make things better?

It is the question on the minds of fans and team management types alike as the Canucks prepare to open their 2017-18 season on Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena.

As stars Henrik and Daniel Sedin enter what could be their final season with the club, many observers are looking for signs of hope of improvement on a 29th overall finish last season. That hope lays mostly with youngsters like Brock Boeser and Jack Virtanen, who cracked the opening-night roster after a pre-season featuring strong internal competition.

However, neither Boeser, a 20-year-old who scored four goals in his first nine NHL games last spring, and also had a strong preseason, nor Virtanen, who was drafted sixth overall in 2014 but languished in the minors most of last season, are taking anything for granted.

"Just because I made the team doesn't mean I'm gonna stay here," Boeser said.

The same goes for the rest of the Canucks as this revamped edition tries to get the franchise back to the playoffs after a two-year absence. Few jobs are guaranteed as new coach Travis Green -- who was promoted from the club's American Hockey League farm team in Utica, New York -- takes over for the fired Willie Desjardins, who was blamed for trying to win instead of developing players.

In other words, nobody quite knows what to expect from a team that includes a mix of budding twenty-somethings, such as Bo Horvat, who is being billed as a future captain, Markus Granlund and Sven Baertschi up front, along with Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher on the blue line.

Canucks general manager Jim Benning surprised more than a few people after he went out and signed veteran free agents, including forwards Thomas Vanek and Sam Gagner and defensemen Michael Del Zotto in moves that will likely reduce youngsters playing time.

The veteran newcomers' potential contributions are being viewed ambivalently by a skeptical local media contingent and fan base.

Loui Eriksson, who struggled in his first season after being signed to a six-year $36-million contract, has been virtually forgotten.

Goaltender Jakob Markstrom, a former backup who will be the starter after Ryan Miller departed as a free agent for Anaheim, is receiving little scrutiny in a market where goalies are often viewed with high acclaim.

"It's gonna be a test for all of us here," Virtanen said.

Meanwhile, the Oilers, led by 20-year-old captain Connor McDavid, who won the league scoring title and most valuable player awards in 2016-17 have much bigger aspirations. Although they are also a predominantly young team, they are setting their sights on a Stanley Cup after rebuilding largely through four first-overall draft picks that resulted from six mediocre seasons.

The Oilers know they are good, too, especially after McDavid scored three goals in a 3-0 season-opening win over Calgary on Wednesday.

So, while Green tries to build confidence in his young corps, Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, recalling days when his former San Jose Sharks clubs failed to live up to lofty predictions, is seeking to avoid complacency.

"You rest on your laurels and you get stung for it," he told Sportsnet. "I don't expect any of players to be like that, but we have to be aware of it. The stress that's on the team is different now, because of expectations. So, when things aren't going well and we will have those times, how does the group react, behave, and treat each other?

"Players have to remember and they will be reminded daily how hard it is to win."

But the ultra-talented Oilers, who came close to reaching the Western Conference finals last season, still managed to fit a new young offensively gifted player into their lineup. Winger Kailer Yamamoto, the team's top draft pick this year, cracked the roster out of training camp and made his NHL debut on Wednesday.

"First couple of shifts I was a little bit nervous," he said. "It wasn't really a shock, just a little bit nervous. But the guys settled me down. And being out there with McDavid during a regular season game almost seemed surreal. It was awesome to take in. I will probably remember that for the rest of my life."

Some Vancouver players will probably remember Saturday's game for the rest of their lives, too but not necessarily for positive reasons if the Canucks are unable to beat Edmonton.

Updated October 6, 2017

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