When you’re the defending Western Conference champion and repeat President’s Trophy winner and you lose to the eighth seed in five games in the first round, you’ve got plenty of explaining to do. And in a market that loves to make mountains out of molehills, we’ve got an extended summer to pick apart this Canuck corpse.
There will be the obvious excuses like the Duncan Keith elbow late in the regular season that forced Daniel Sedin to the sidelines for the first three games of the playoffs. Though really, this is an adversity an elite team should be able to overcome. And in the end, it’s the first significant injury to a front line player in many a post season for a franchise that has been remarkably fortunate in that regard.
And what about the Sedins? To win, you need your best players to be your best players or so the adage goes. Except the Sedins were the Canucks’ best players in this series, looking more inspired than they ever have, seemingly aware that the rest of the team had checked out.
The magnet for most criticism in this market usually falls on the combustible Roberto Luongo. But this time around, he was the team’s best player in game 1 before getting relieved by Cory Schneider after a game 2 performance where he was sold out by his teammates, busy practicing their fire drill. So even Bobby Blue gets a free pass this time around though it may not be enough to save him his job in this market.
And, of course, there will be mention of the dreaded hangover from last season. But really, we’re not buying that. It’s not like the Canucks went pedal to the metal during the regular season. In fact, despite their President’s Trophy win, there were not many 60 minute efforts this season (unless you count the goaltenders). Elite teams do return to the Stanley Cup Final. It does happen. Look at Pittsburgh or Detroit in recent years.
And the uneducated will reference the President’s Trophy curse - after all, three of the last four winners have been bounced in the first round. But that is simply loser talk. There is no curse. Bottom seeded teams don’t win the Cup. Ever. Top seeded teams usually do. There is never a guarantee, but winning in the playoffs correlates near perfectly with winning in the regular season. It’s fact.
In the end, what cost this team the series was ridiculously poor defensive coverage (witness the Kings’ first goal last night) and an inability to score either at even strength or with the man advantage. And remarkably, these were not recent developments, but problems that had plagued the team for good portions of this regular season (and late in last season’s playoff drive). They were masked by superior goaltending, from both Luongo and Schneider, and an incredibly easy divisional schedule.
But come playoff time, these are deficits that will cost you your season in short order. And they certainly did.
There is no doubt that the moves made during the season by general manager Mike Gillis seemed to water down the offense without any measurable increase in size and toughness.
David Booth has speed to burn and a willingness to drive to the net (i.e., he’s no Mason Raymond), but rarely completes a pass and, more importantly, has little idea what to do when he doesn’t have the puck. While speed is the essence of the modern NHL, hockey smarts are close behind and Booth’s hockey IQ is borderline retarded. Meanwhile, the cagey Mikael Samuelsson has four points in five games for a Florida team that is on the verge of advancing to the next round. The curse of Dale Tallon continues.
Certainly, the jury on the Cody Hodgson trade is still out, but the decision for a Cup contending team to trade away a contributing asset for one that simply may have potential was, and remains, mind boggling. Hodgson was the Canucks’ most efficient five-on-five scorer and held down the second unit power play, while Zack Kassian could only play his way to the press box.
It is becoming clear that Ryan Kesler’s brilliant performance versus Nashville last playoff was simply an aberration. Over the last two playoffs, excluding the Nashville series, he has tallied two goals and eleven assists in twenty four games - remarkably poor production from your second line centre and the biggest single reason why this team struggled so mightily to score.
Up front, the Canucks’ top wingers are players with a remarkably similar skill set - speedy forwards with reasonable grit and the occasional scoring touch, but none are physically intimidating and there is a serious lack of play making ability. Indeed, the playoff performances from the likes of Alex Burrows, David Booth, Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond featured plenty of flash and dash, but no pucks in the net.
Overall, the Canucks’ defense had a pretty miserable season. Ironically, the best of the bunch, Dan Hamhuis, wore the goat horns on the Kings’ winner last night (and for all you homers calling for a penalty on that play, give your head a shake).
Kevin Bieksa was predictably boneheaded at points this season (and post season), while Alex Edler suffered a serious case of the playoff yips. By the post-season, Sami Salo looked every bit of his 37 years. And Keith Ballard’s concussed head is still spinning and his game still reeling after inexplicably rocketing up the depth chart at playoff time.
If we’re looking for one person for which to aim the blame at, we’re looking at Mike Gillis. In short, he seemed to overrate the depth of his defense and his moves to bolster the team’s size and toughness up front seemed to cause an identity crisis for his team down the stretch. Gone was the team with the high tempo attacking style and in its place was a squad that was prone to running around in their own end while struggling to simply muster long distance scoring chances on an elite goalie. The intent was to become a team that was comfortable winning 1-0 or 2-1 games. They got the 1-0 and 2-1 games, but they didn’t win. And the players who were to add a physical presence up front (notably Byron Bitz and Zack Kassian) rarely saw the ice.
We’ve often been critical of Alain Vigneault around here and you’d think he should get some of the blame this time around, too. And he should, but other than the bizarre decision to play David Booth, for the first time all season, with the Sedins come playoff time, it’s hard to find specific fault with any of his coaching moves. Though there is no question that his teams often lack killer instinct and desperate play for desperate times. When the playoffs opened with two losses at home, the Canucks clearly weren’t as ready to play as were the Kings. And when they ended, the same was true (witness last night’s third period and overtime). Alain Vigneault’s elimination game record is now a poor eight wins versus twelve losses.
So there you go, plenty to ruminate on as we begin yet another summer of discontent. Stay tuned for more.