We will have ample time this spring and summer to analyze what went wrong with the Canucks in 2013. Mike Gillis is a patient man, and I would expect him to remain that way for the coming weeks before making any decisions. Emotions are very high once again after a miserable postseason performance in Vancouver, and unlike last summer, big changes are expected to be on the way.
There isn’t really a focused topic or theme to today’s column – just 1000 words (roughly) on four major issues that have affected the team over the past year or two.
The Golden Touch
Gillis could do little wrong in his first few years at the helm of the Canucks. He convinced many players to take significant hometown discounts (Sedins, Kesler, Burrows… the list goes on). He locked up Roberto Luongo to a lifetime contract with a very cap friendly dollar figure. At the time, there wasn’t a person in hockey who didn’t think the Luongo contract was a slam dunk for Vancouver.
Gillis stole Christian Ehrhoff out of San Jose. He convinced Mats Sundin to come to the Canucks, which made major waves in the hockey world. No one outside of Vancouver expected Sundin to spurn the Rangers and head West, but he did exactly that. The move didn’t work out on the ice, but Sundin’s impact on his teammates and on the team’s overall perception cannot be overlooked. Dan Hamhuis is criminally underpaid for what he brings to the team each night, as well.
Gillis embraced analytics, and he and ownership went to great lengths to provide an atmosphere to attract top talent (state of the art facilities, sleep doctors, and so on).
However, Gillis seems to have lost his Golden Touch over the past few seasons. Letting Willie Mitchell go in favour of Keith Ballard was a mistake. At the time, in was the right move to make, but as fans and commentators, we are allowed to use the benefit of hindsight (aren’t we?). David Booth, he of the extremely high Corsi, has been a total flop. He skates like the wind and is 215 pounds, but he handles the puck like the kid in the Tim Horton’s ad with Sidney Crosby. The Canucks gave up little in return, but the pro scouts obviously saw something with Booth that he hasn’t delivered in Vancouver.
The Kassian-Hodgson trade is still a huge wait-and-see, and Kassian’s first round play was encouraging. However, Hodgson is the better player right now, and it was a curious trade for a team short on skilled centers to make. What Gillis is finding out – winning in this league on a consistent basis isn’t easy. And it is even harder to win or come out ahead on every player transaction.
Not every move is going to work out in your favour. But he has lost almost every major player transaction since the 2011 offseason. Derek Roy was solid in the regular season, but he had an atrocious postseason. When Roberto Luongo mentioned after Game 2 that a "couple of guys" were playing their hearts out, he was very likely indirectly referencing the likes of Roy, who seemed to have his mind on his summer home back in Ontario. Many of my Buffalo Sabre followers on Twitter referred to Roy as a stat sheet hero after the trade, and I can now see why. He just didn’t bring the intensity and effort required to do much of anything in the playoffs.
And at this point there is really nothing else to say on the Roberto Luongo trade saga. Gillis’ ultra-patience likely will come back to bite him in the rear end on that move, but he deserves a few more months to see if he can pull a rabbit out of his hat.
The Ehrhoff Effect
Could the Canucks have financially matched Buffalo’s 10-year offer to Ehrhoff? Yes (don’t forget, Ehrhoff received $18 million over the first two years, primarly in the form of massive signing bonuses). Would they have? Probably not.
Paying that kind of money to a defenseman who isn’t a superstar as he approaches 40 is a risky proposition. However, if they had the cap space available at the time, they could have made him a more competitive offer than the one they actually gave him (five years at $4.6 million per season, the same one Kevin Bieksa signed). And the Canucks would have found the cap space if they had jettisoned Keith Ballard somewhere. Anywhere.
Great teams usually have coach and GM on the same page, and for the most part, Gillis and Vigneault had similar views on how to build a team and construct a game plan. But the Ballard situation is completely baffling. Here is a proven top four defenseman who can’t get into the lineup. At all. And he is paid to play 20+ minutes a night. On a team short on cap space, Ballard’s $4.2 million cap hit has been a major hindrance on potential transactions.
Ballard didn’t play much in the 2011 postseason, even with the entire defense injured. And he lost his spot in 2013 to a 20-year-old rookie (Corrado) and a player who plays like a 20-year-old rookie (Alberts). His time in Vancouver is done, and it should have been done two years ago. Acquiring him was a sunk cost, and the Canucks should have realized that and cut bait and moved on. And it very likely cost them Ehrhoff, who brought more to this team than either Gillis or Vigneault realized (and if they did realize it, then that makes this decision even more curious).
This topic can and will be expanded upon, but Alex Edler’s subpar playoff performance is a huge cause for concern. The team felt comfortable losing Ehrhoff because they figured Edler would emerge and continue to develop into a legitimate top pairing defenseman. Well, since 2011, one could argue he has regressed. Maybe what we see from him now is his best – a highly skilled but inconsistent two-way defenseman who can’t be relied upon defensively unless he has the perfect defensive partner.
Above all else, the Canucks have failed in the past three postseasons because their offense has failed. For a team supposed to be built around speed and skill, this shouldn’t happen. Tuesday night was the best offensive performance we have seen from the Canucks since Game 2 of the Final against Boston, and it took them an elimination game to play with the aggressiveness necessary to generate chances against an elite defensive team.
Most will blame Vigneault for this offensive implosion, as they will point to his penchant for sitting back on leads and reverting to a defensive system whenever possible. While Vigneault is guilty of sitting back on leads (just like every coach in the history of professional sports), he was the coach at the helm of the Canucks that led the NHL in goals for.
It is the GM’s job to bring in players to produce. And the GM has to rely on his pro scouts for a lot of the recommendations. Roy was a flop. Booth has been a flop. Remember Marco Sturm? Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre have been great role players in Vancouver, and Gillis deserves credit for bringing them in. And we can’t forget that he aggressively pursued both Ryane Clowe and David Clarkson at the 2013 trade deadline. But nobody remembers the near misses and the attempted trades. This is a team that has been a forward or two short.
Simply put, if you take one thing away from this loss against San Jose, the Canucks couldn’t score enough goals. It starts with the core, but the depth simply wasn’t good enough, either. And after getting steamrolled by the Kings last season, that core was given another shot to turn things around. Beating up on Colorado and Calgary all season long sure doesn’t look like the best practice for postseason hockey, does it?
Injuries and Refereeing
The Canucks have had their fair share of important injuries in recent years. In 2011, their entire defensive core was injured by the time the second game of the Boston series began. Last year, they were without Daniel Sedin for the first three games of the LA series. And this year, Cory Schneider’s end-of-season injury was bizarre and ill-timed. Luongo was great in game two, but it was just another chapter in a ludicrously drawn-out goaltending saga.
Blaming referreeing (as bad as it was in Game 4) just continues to propel the reputation of the club and organization. Life isn’t fair. Referring isn’t always good (in the NHL, you could argue it is rarely good). But many of the Canucks have dug their own graves on penalties. Kesler, Burrows, and Lapierre, most notably. Burrows has reformed his game and has never really been a diver, but it is a bit ironic to see Kevin Bieksa calling out the Sharks for diving when one of his teammates has built a well-deserved reputation as one of the most frequent embellishers in hockey. Tommy Wingels embelished the Bieksa crosscheck, but you can’t put the ref in the position to make a call there.
When the Canucks hang their fifth consecutive division banner this October, fans around the league will likely chide the team for rewarding regular season success. The Canucks have been one of the most successful teams since the lockout (1.0), and winning and success breeds jealously. As does playing with an edge, which many of Vancouver’s players do.
Even if the numbers say that Vancouver was in the San Jose series, they didn’t pass the eye test. They couldn’t solve a defensive group without a lot of star power (full marks to Larry Robinson for helping speed up the development of Justin Braun and Matt Irwin).
It is now the time to make changes. Big changes? I’m not sure. San Jose has made changes over the years after repeated playoff failures. They have largely the same core, but I don’t see any Pavelskis or Coutures in the Vancouver system at this moment. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, and that is exactly what the Canucks have done over the past two years. It’s time to take the "window to win" and smash it into a million pieces and buy a new one. Because while the window may not be closed, the view from it sucks at the moment.