Ward Perrin , PNG photoI’ve been wrestling with the dilemma of how to organize my thoughts on the upcoming Canucks season for a couple of weeks now. Certainly there was some intrigue this offseason, with the pseudo-resolution of the goaltending issue, as well as the firing of longtime coach Alain Vigneault – the latter item being perhaps a new definition of “too little, too late.”
However, as I was thinking about everything, I realized I’m just really not looking forward to this season, almost at all. The following outlines why I don’t think this will be a successful season for the Canucks.
Same Old, Same Old?
1) One thing Canucks’ GM Mike Gillis DIDN’T do this offseason was upgrade the team’s roster. The team has had a gaping hole at 3L centre since Manny Malhotra’s eye injury. The team’s braintrust has tried many options here in the past couple of years, including Samme Pahlsson, Jordan Schroeder, and a platoon approach with converted wingers. Look – a team’s third line is extremely important, as it needs to be able to provide some offense while, ideally, shutting down the opponents’ top players. So what do we have to look forward to this year?
Well, it looks like the competition here is down to a small, fast offensive centre who hasn’t been able to post a point-a-game in the AHL (Schroeder); a couple of high draft picks who *may* be ready to play, but likely aren’t (Gaunce, Horvat); a local guy who scored 20 goals a couple of years ago, but who was cut loose by one of the worst teams in the league (Santorelli); or a guy who’s got NHL experience primarily as a 4L player, but who, more than likely, won’t be able to provide the offense that this position requires (Richardson).
Consider me underwhelmed.
2) Let’s consider, for a moment, the Canucks playoff success (or lack thereof) in this era of the hockey club.
2007: Lost badly in 2nd round to eventual Cup champions Anaheim
2008: Missed playoffs
2009: Lost badly in 2nd round to upstart Chicago Blackhawks
2010: Lost badly in 2nd round to Chicago (who improved enough to win the Cup)
2011: Lost in Stanley Cup Final to Boston, while being beaten in the “gutter”
2012: Lost badly in 1st round to L.A. Kings
2013: Lost badly in 1st round (swept) to San Jose
To me, a popular quote of Albert Einstein rings true here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Look – generally, the team has been very good in this timeframe, but other than in 2007 (first year with Luongo as goaltender), the team has been nothing but a disappointment come playoff time. The past couple of seasons have been atrocious, to the point of embarrassment – for both the players and the fans. The roster is aging, the goaltender doesn’t want to play here, and the next wave of young talent (of which, at least, there now is some) isn’t yet ready to help. If you are expecting anything more than a first round playoff loss, I have some cool real estate in New Jersey for sale – drop me a note.
3) This brings me to my main point here – the Canucks roster is STALE. The leadership “core” is comprised of the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Roberto Luongo, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, and arguably Dan Hamhuis. I really believe this core group needs a shakeup. The playoff success in 2011 was a welcome distraction, but it masked the larger problem that has existed for ages – when the going gets tough in the playoffs, these guys have a very hard time scoring goals. Only a career year from Kesler changed this trajectory. Otherwise, it’s been the same story, year after year after year.
This offseason, I feel like the most marketable player was Alex Edler. Teams would have lined up to get a “potential #1 defenseman” with size. There are lots of teams that would have rolled the dice with him. Frankly, I’m sick of his turnovers and brain dead play, and I’m tired of waiting for him to live up to his potential (which is there, we’ve all seen it).
Also, I don’t see how Kesler is a great influence on the team with his diving, yapping, and other on-ice shenanigans, but his recent injury history would have made it difficult to get value for him this offseason. Alas, sometimes moves like this could be viewed as “addition by subtraction”. Of course, with no other NHL-ready centremen in waiting, this move would have been extremely risky unless somehow Gillis would have been able to attact a quality player back. Please, GMMG – target Ryan O’Reilly.
4) Just a bit of a history lesson here: Back in 1994, the Canucks went on a spirited run to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually succumbing to the heavily favoured New York Rangers in 7 games. They made the playoffs the next couple of years, bowing out relatively early for a team with such top end talent as Pavel Bure, Trevor Linden, Alex Mogilny, and Cliff Ronning. However, in each of the following four seasons, from 1996 to 2000, the team missed the playoffs. There was turmoil in the front office, as legend Pat Quinn, the architect of the 1994 Cup team, was removed in favour of Mike Keenan. Important players on that 1994 team had injury troubles (McLean, Bure) and never again played to that level. The team’s consensus MVP, Bure, demanded a trade out of town, and all the high expectations that existed after the team traded for 76 goal-scoring Mogilny were never achieved. Keenan dismantled many of the other pieces (moving Linden), signed Mark Messier out of New York, and the entire franchise went in the tank. GM Place was lucky to have 13,000 fans on many nights in that era, as the team lost its following to the upstart Vancouver Grizzlies. Looking back on this, it’s almost laughable.
As painful as it is to say this, I am seeing a lot of similarities with this current group of Canucks as well as what I see happening in the fanbase and in the team’s popularity. The 2011 team was special, and had the officiating standard not have been changed prior to the Stanley Cup final, had Hamhuis, Kelser, and Malhotra not been injured, had our world-class goalie not melted down 3 times in the series, we could have and should have won the Cup. The fanbase is tired as well, which is manifesting itself in sluggish ticket sales (has everyone noticed the increased advertising, even on TV?). That said, the Canucks failed, and from where I sit, that was the high water mark for this current group. Their ineptitude in the two years’ since come playoff time is evidence enough, and we could be on the precipice of seeing another rapid deterioration of this team on the ice. We’ve seen this movie before, even against the backdrop of optimism and high expectations.
What About Off-Ice Developments?
5) In my mind, this offseason has highlighted what, in my opinion, is the absolute worst development in the franchise – the (apparent, rumoured) increased meddling in hockey matters by the team’s ownership. This really manifested itself in two major places: the hiring of John Tortorella, and the non-trade and non-buyout of Roberto Luongo.
Tortorella wouldn’t have been my first choice as coach. In my mind, Jon Stevens was the best choice, primarily based on his success with the young D core in L.A. – they were good enough to win a Cup, last time I checked. At first, I was against the hiring of Tortorella, but I have to say I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far and I believe he brings a lot of what this team needs – a swift boot in their collective asses, whether they think so or not. But, I digress. Regardless, the rumoured involvement of the team’s ownership in the coach interview process, including the elder statesman of the family, is laughable. I’ve made fun of other franchises where ownership becomes too involved (see: New York Islanders; Calgary Flames; Dallas Cowboys; Oakland Raiders), and I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t hold the Canucks to the same standard.
While the goaltending situation was “solved”, to me, this was a decision seemingly borne PURELY out of financial considerations. When it became apparent that there was no market for Luongo (and his contract) for the 2nd straight summer, the only remaining option would have been for him to have been bought out. From memory, the buyout amount would have approximated $25 million. There’s been lots of rumours about how the Aquilini family wouldn’t approve of performing a buyout for this magnitude, forcing Gillis into the only remaining option: trading the younger, better, and less distracting Cory Schneider. One can argue the merits of trading Schneider for an asset in return vs. buying out the (slightly) worse goaltender, and that would be a valid exercise. However, making this decision based on purely financial reasons is a slap in the face, especially in a market like Vancouver where the fans have made the Canucks an extremely profitable outfit. The fans, who pay the freight in what is the 3rd or 4th most expensive hockey market in the league, deserve better.
6) The other off-ice development working against the team’s success is the league’s realignment and new playoff system. The Canucks now play in the Pacific Division, including Calgary, Edmonton, San Jose, L.A., Anaheim, and Phoenix. Under the new playoff system, only the first three teams in the division make the playoffs, with the potential for a fourth if that team has a higher point total than the fifth place team in the other Western division.
For the first time in ages, making the playoffs is not a fait accompli before the season starts. I can easily see the Canucks finishing outside the top three, as both L.A. and San Jose are probably better than the Canucks, and any of Phoenix, Anaheim, or even Edmonton could have a good year and be as good (or better) than Vancouver. Never mind competing against any of the teams in the Central Division.
Making the playoffs will not be easy for the Canucks this year, and bluntly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they missed them altogether.
At the end of the day, I love this team. I love many of the players on the roster. That said, I have lost faith in this group, and I don’t believe that Gillis has done enough to overhaul the lineup. This group has won only 2 of their last 14 playoff games, and exactly 1 of their last 9. Those are BRUTAL percentages. This team is no longer a Stanley Cup contender – the league’s officiating standard has changed from the heady days when the PP would bail them out of any problems; the core players continue to age and have most likely peaked from a statistical perspective, and the aging, emotional goaltender doesn’t want to be here after believing he was mistreated by the franchise. They play in a tougher division, and the ownership of the team has taken to second guessing management and tying their hands on massive, important issues.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me six times?
By now, I know what to expect.