With the Canucks having clinched their first ever President’s Trophy, attention will now be focused on trivial matters like getting Daniel Sedin his Art Ross Trophy, another piece of hardware for the brotherhood. Ho hum.
Indeed, it seems the faithful and the players alike are taking this monumental regular season in stride. It was a forgone conclusion before the season began that nothing would matter until playoff time. And it’s this even keel attitude adopted by the players since the home ice debacle versus the hated Chicago Black Hawks back in November that has buoyed this squad to easily their most dominant regular season performance ever.
Statistically speaking, this Canucks’ season is not only one for their own record books, but ranks as one of the most dominant performances in post expansion NHL regular season history.
The Canucks are on pace to become the first team since the late 1970’s dynasty of the Montreal Canadiens to both lead the league in most goals scored and the least goals allowed. And they are on track to become the first ever (in the post expansion era) to do that and possess the top ranked power play and penalty kill.
While pre-season predictions for this team were lofty, we’re not sure anyone would have seen this kind of success coming. Clearly to put up this kind of remarkable run, a number of factors are at play.
Mike Gillis is to be applauded for his efforts to build a very deep blue-line. It wasn’t just simply the fact of having 8 NHL experienced defenders under contract, but the investment in prospects that most teams wouldn’t have bothered with (late bloomers like Chris Tanev and Lee Sweatt) has brought cheap and unexpected insurance.
Gillis also deserves credit for paving the way for a hassle free season for Roberto Luongo. No longer weighed down by the burden of the captaincy, supported by a full time goalie coach (who seemingly made the right tweaks to Roberto’s game) and simultaneously supported and challenged by a star net-minder in waiting (Cory Schneider), Luongo’s play in the second half of the season rivals his career best - and that is saying something. And is something that many may not have predicted at this point in the arc of his career.
And, of course, Gillis has been successful in getting a number of star players to play here for less than market value. If the likes of the Sedins and Ryan Kesler had demanded their full monetary worth, there would not have been a surplus of experienced defenders to weather the injury storm. In the salary cap constrained world, Gillis has recognized that there must be more than simply dollars to attract and retain players. He has clearly been successful in making Vancouver a place that players, despite the fishbowl frenzy, want to play.
Like any successful run, there is a certain element of good fortune. And despite the perceived injury problems on the back end, this team has seen plenty of “good to be lucky” action this season.
While there has been no shortage of man games lost on the back end, as noted it seems these losses were fully anticipated by Mike Gillis. And they seemed to occur at the most opportune times from a salary cap perspective (the Edler injury occurring with the almost coincident return of Sami Salo and now the Manny Malhotra fatality happening just in time for the team to possibly insert Edler and Andrew Alberts before playoff time).
Further, the Canucks have been nearly unscathed up front with their top three forwards (the Sedins and Kesler) not missing a shift let alone a game. Imagine the change in Canucks’ fortunes this season if they had to endure the injury troubles to their top three forwards that the Pittsburgh Penguins have suffered this season (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal have combined to miss 111 games so far this season).
And, of course, timing is everything. The Canucks have risen to the top of their game while all their divisional opponents (against whom they play a most significant portion of their schedule) have plummeted to the bottom of the NHL standings. Indeed, in all likelihood Vancouver will be the only team from the Northwest to make the post-season. Though the Canucks can’t make any apologies for that. How many years did Detroit pad their stats while loading up on lesser lights like Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago (before their renaissance)?
And what about Alain Vigneault? How much credit does he get? Well, clearly he has benefited from the defensive depth stockpiled by Gillis and the superlative play and health of his top forwards and goal-tending. But he has presided over the top special teams in the league - surely a partial credit to him and his staff after the disappointing play of both last season. Once again, the Sedins lead the league in scoring while coming nowhere near the lead in ice time. Clearly, Vigneault has had the good sense to not ride his horses too hard. And most remarkably, this team has transitioned from an undisciplined highly penalized lot into a team that simply makes you pay on the scoreboard. While this more likely stems from the vision and calm confidence of the general manager, you must credit Vigneault for moving away from his typical modus operandi. So while he may not be a hall of fame coach, he’s clearly recognized the opportunity presented to him, working well with the vision laid out by his boss.
Of course, should the Canucks get bounced in the first round, Vigneault could become the first President’s Trophy winning coach to be fired in the same season.
Which brings us back to here and now. And the success of this season, despite all the regular season record breaking, will be determined by what happens in the next two months. Everything about this team seems to indicate that they are bound and determined for bigger and better things. So are they?
Well, many a critic (say Kyle Wellwood and Theo Fleury) will point to the poor play of Roberto Luongo in the last two playoffs as testimony to his lack of big game readiness. We’re not so sure.
Luongo is a groove goalie. That is, when he’s on his game, he is near unbeatable. When he’s not, well, watch last year’s playoffs again. The point is, his game is at a different place right now. Last year, he was fighting the puck, not absorbing it. The last time Luongo played this well entering the post season, he simply elevated his game even higher posting a sublime .941 save percentage in 12 games during his inaugural season here. So the claim that he melts under pressure is not likely valid. At least not yet.
You will remember last season’s collapse against the Chicago Black Hawks and the remarkable breakdown in team discipline that precipitated it. Sadly, the Canucks were more concerned about what the Hawks were doing to them than what they could do to the Hawks. Well, fast forward twelve months and we are witnessing a team that presumably learned that lesson well. At this moment, there is nothing to indicate that this team is about to become unglued.
Other critics will point to a general lack of playoff success in team history, as if there is some kind of curse on this franchise. The simple fact is that for the majority of their history, the Canucks simply haven’t been good enough to compete come playoff time.
Let’s not forget that their two runs to the Stanley Cup Finals came completely against the grain - a sub .500 team in 1982 had the remarkable good fortune of not playing a single team with a better record than them until they ran into the dynastic New York Islanders and in 1994 they were an underachieving but talented group that elevated their game at the right time.
And while there have been plenty of relative playoff disappointments in the last 15 years, none of those teams ever entered the post season tourney as a predominant favourite (save perhaps the 2003 season which culminated in a 3-1 series blown lead against the stifling Minnesota Wild with Dan Cloutier unable to battle beach-balls and Marc Crawford beginning to lose his grip on the team).
The point is there has never been a reason to be this optimistic heading into the post season. As a previous post noted, there is no President’s Trophy curse. The top ranked regular season teams are more likely to win the Cup.
So excluding things that are beyond the Canucks’ control, like running into a hot goalie or devastating injuries to top players, is there anything that could preclude the team from continuing their regular season dominance into the playoffs?
From our perspective, there is one glaring hole and that is the lack of depth at the centre ice position. While the absence of Manny Malhotra is overstated in terms of the loss of what he brings (really do a couple of extra face off wins and an extra blocked shot every now and again really add that much value?), it is the complete lack of a serviceable replacement that could cause problems. And even more troubling, should either Ryan Kesler or Henrik Sedin fall to injury, the Canucks (given their resistance to play Cody Hodgson) are left with Maxim Lapierre as their number two centre with the hulking, hustling stone hands and soft shoulders of Alexandre Bolduc moving to third on the depth chart.
With Malhotra gone and the revolving door of talent that has occupied the fourth line all season continuing, the bottom two lines have almost zero chemistry entering the post season. And while it is the play of the elite players that will likely determine the extent of the Canucks’ success, you must only recall last year’s Stanley Cup Champions and the valued play they received from their bottom six forwards.
So is this little problem enough to hold the Canucks back from the glory? Possibly. But it does not change the simple fact that this post-season represents the best opportunity in their 40 year history to bring home the ultimate prize. Go Canucks. Go.