Blueline depth battle set for Canucks

By Hosea Cheung, 24 hours Vancouver

Keith Ballard (right) will be among those fighting for a blueline spot on the Canucks this season, most likely in a fifth- or sixth-man role. (Reuters file photo)

Keith Ballard (right) will be among those fighting for a blueline spot on the Canucks this season, most likely in a fifth- or sixth-man role. (Reuters file photo)

It’s no secret the Vancouver Canucks will again be considered favourites to contend for the Stanley Cup in this lockout-shortened season.

But that doesn’t mean the two-time Presidents’ Trophy winners aren’t without glaring holes in their lineup as the new campaign rapidly approaches.

One of the main questions needing addressing, especially since a condensed schedule could increase the injury toll, is their depth on defence.

While the top-four blueliners appear set — Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler and Jason Garrison — the remaining spots will be hotly contested among a smaller, less-appealing group throughout the extremely short training camp and early into the season.

For now, the main candidates competing for position in the defensive pecking order are Andrew Alberts, Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev.

The latter two joined the strong turnout of Canucks players skating at the University of B.C. Wednesday for the first time since the end of the lockout. Ballard, the highest paid of the three with a $4.2-million cap hit, said he’s well aware of the situation with the Canucks back-end.

“There’s not a lot of new guys to get to learn the system, to get to learn how we play. For that sense it’s good,” said Ballard, who had seven points in 47 games last season. “I played well the last half of last year and I just continue from there. Everyone has certain roles and certain things they bring to the team and you do that within a team setting and you’re fine.”

Derek Joslin, who has yet to arrive in the city, is another player in the mix after signing with the team as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. Meanwhile, veteran Jim Vandermeer, who has been skating with the players in Vancouver for most of the lockout, and former Chicago Blackhawk Cam Barker are speculated to be offered tryout contracts with the club.

Barker, the third-overall draft pick in 2004 behind Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, has struggled to land a regular role on an NHL squad of late. The 26-year-old spent the past three seasons with three different teams, most recently with the Edmonton Oilers.

“Obviously I’d love to play for the Canucks, but at this point in time my agent is talking to teams. If that was the case, that would be amazing,” said Barker, who won the Spengler Cup with Canada in December. “I would be grateful for the opportunity but at this point, I’m just here to skate.”

Prospect Kevin Connauton is another defenceman hoping to fight for a big league job. In 31 games with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL this season, the team’s third-round pick in 2009 has two goals, nine points and 48 penalty minutes. While his numbers may not stand out, the 22-year-old Edmonton native said as far as he’s concerned, he’s ready for the NHL.

“I got the abilities … and I want to more than anything,” he said. “I’m moving well, I’m feeling fast out there, feeling strong. It’s a process and I’m putting it all together. “If the opportunity ever presents itself, it’s up to me to take full advantage of it.”

Henrik Sedin has good memories of ex-bosses

Going from Brian Burke to Dave Nonis as the general manager is nothing new to Henrik Sedin.

After all, the pair was instrumental in landing his brother Daniel and himself for the Vancouver Canucks in the 1999 draft, but also guided the team through their first seven seasons in the NHL. Burke was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, with Nonis promoted to the GM role.

When asked about the differences between the two executives, the Canucks captain said there really wasn’t much aside from their personalities.

“They’re really similar in the way they want to build their team,” Henrik said. “Nonis is really low-key and very soft-spoken, while Burkie likes to be in the spotlight a little bit more. I think that’s the biggest difference.”

With a chance to look back, Henrik is appreciative of what Burke was able to do for the twins — being able to draft both of them second and third overall.

“We don’t know what would have happened otherwise, but we really appreciate where we are,” he said. “He was always great to us.”

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