Digesting Yet Another Disappointing Finish

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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

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).

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Manufacturing Offense

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.

In Conclusion

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.

  • UkeeRob

    “It is the GM’s job to bring in players to produce.”

    This needs to be flushed out .

    The CORRECT notion IS GM brings in players who historically HAVE produced.Which Gillis HAS done it!

    It is the coach’s responsibility to get those players to produce. Booth didn’t just forget how to score on the airplane?

    Ballard didn’t forget to play D
    Garrison was brought in he has scored on Power play — But was not used by the coach!

    One more thing biggest injury of all WAS Manny.
    Bad luck! He hasn’t been replaced.

    (On GMMG)

  • UkeeRob

    There is a reason they have regular season success and not playoff beyond playing inferior teams. Simply put come playoff time the rules change. That’s the issue with the reffing. Punches, dives, hooks, grabs are stopped being called, and by allowing them it neutralizes the Canucks attack.

    I think we need to accept it and build our team for playoff hockey. Stack it with tough grinders, big players who drive the net. Sedin’s are useless in the playoffs because they are not allowed to move.

    I think Gillis has tried to bring in some tough pieces, but our core is all the same pedigree, with the exception of Kesler who is a playoff performer.

    And you can see a lack of passion. That comes from the coach.

    • the rules changes come every playoff time. This has been the case since the the nhl was born.If anyone thinks the play offs are nasty to play in now compared to the regular season, they should go back to watch the playoffs in the past.

      If you dont have a team that can take and excel in all that playoff nastiness, you will not succeed. Even little kids can see that, why can’t a grown so called hockey man gilli’s?

      No one is going to hand you anything in the post season. Maybe the Sedins and their play mates need to understand that instead of wishing they can win or telling themselves that they deserved to win. Based on their play, the only thing they deserve is a big bowl of soft jello.

  • UkeeRob

    @ Jeff

    Wow, I like this anger! Calling it all out!

    There’s going to be serious re-evaluation this off-season, and, if it looks like a closed window, look at SJ, where Thornton is taking another kick at the can in a lesser role. Let’s be overly optimistic for a sec. If one of Kassian, Jensen or Gaunce start to be able to play larger roles, then maybe in two-three years, Henrik and Kesler will center 2nd/3rd lines, and the younger players will meet the checkers. The window may re-open, briefly.

  • Don’t want to be an absolute grammar Nazi or anything – but you might want to fix up the title. Unless ‘disappointing finsh’ is a purposeful ironic turn of phrase.

    Great article as always though Jeff.

  • @Jeff

    Good article, though there are some points with which I take issue.

    “At the time, there wasn’t a person in hockey who didn’t think the Luongo contract was a slam dunk for Vancouver.”

    That’s way off. The majority of hockey liked Luongo the player. But I really don’t remember people praising the contract.

    It was a terribly structured contract from the beginning even with the cap benefit the Canucks received during the cup run season.

    And the contract has been made even worse by the fact that Gillis likely will have to give away a top 10 goalie and future hall of famer just for the cap relief.

    “(Gillis) convinced many players to take significant hometown discounts (Sedins, Kesler, Burrows… the list goes on).”

    Most players are willing to stay on big market cap teams. That’s why very few good players reach free agency in the first place. This isn’t a skill so much as a big market advantage.

    Ehrhoff was highway robbery, no doubt. But the Hodgson-Kassian trade, though still early, cancels out two years of Ehrhoff all by itself. Kassian may end up being a good player. But his asset value in the league can’t be very high right now.

    And let’s not forget that if Gillis had his way and signed Sundin for 2 years and $20 million, the Sedins would likely not be here. He got lucky.

    “(Gillis) and ownership went to great lengths to provide an atmosphere to attract top talent (state of the art facilities, sleep doctors, and so on).”

    Who are these top talents that Gillis has attracted? BC-born defensemen Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison? BC-born defenseman Willie Mitchell was signed by Dave Nonis without all these state of the art facilities.

    A lot of people were mesmerized by year 3 of the Gillis regime, including myself, because the team reached unprecedented heights. But when I take my homer hat off and look at the actual transactions he has made, it’s pretty clear Gillis has lived off the bounty he inherited from Burke/Nonis & Nonis.

    There absolutely is a rational argument for Gillis to be fired, though I’m not necessarily advocating it. I’m okay with one more year to see if he can retool the team.

    But his transactions record is very, very middling at best.

  • You forget the Pahlsson trade, and giving up a good righty depth d-man for Gragnani who they didn’t even qualify. They had been chasing Gragnani for over a year.

    It’s not just the bad trades, it’s the drafting that’s most worrisome. The current NHL sees very little quality players hitting free agency every yr. Teams have to rely on their ‘system development’ to consistently bring in players. Canucks are one of the only teams who haven’t had that luxury cause their drafting has been poor. they’re always trading away draft picks to fill roster spots they should have signed in the summer before. It’s a vicious cycle.

    How comes teams like Fla, Dallas, NYI can find good draft picks in late rounds, but Van (who has largest scouting staff in NHL) can’t? It makes no sense. That dept clearly needs an overhaul, even if it means letting go of Smyl. Van fans have seen enough of the yearly ratings saying “Canucks are bottom of the league in quality prospects”. It’s yr after yr after yr after yr. No more excuses.

    • I would say that drafting players in late rounds has a lot more to do with luck than the actual skill of the scouting department. A lot of what I’ve read from scouts indicates that after about halfway through the first round it becomes a crapshoot. All you can do is hope that management has given you enough picks to increase your odds at one of those prospects becoming an NHL talent and that the coaching staff has developed a system that can help acclimate them.

      It’s common for the media to fetishize the skills of a scouting team based on how well a certain player is doing now. Look at Milan Lucic; they still make articles about how the Canucks screwed up in ’06 by passing on him in the 2nd round. Well 29 other teams did as well so either Boston used the flux capacitor to find out how he would fare in the NHL, or they got lucky and turned a player with an underwhelming junior resume into a quality NHLer. If it was such a foolish move to pass up on him why didn’t the Sharks take him in the first round instead of Ty Wishart? Or the Rangers, instead of hometown boy Bob Sanguinetti?

      I just don’t buy into the notion that certain teams are performing head over heels better at the draft based on more than luck alone. The only way to truly increase your odds of finding that diamond in the late rounds is to to trade for more picks.

  • “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”

    Wow, a CA blogger talking about “intensity” and “effort”? This loss is affecting everyone!

  • ” disappointing finish ” would be a true statement if one were to believe that the Canucks truly were the team their fans believe them to be. I for one, do not buy into any of the over rated labels. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fluke run to the finals, this team with its core has been an abysmal failure. No one in that franchise aside from the equipment people and caterers are safe from being fired like junk out of a cannon.

    The Cancuks scouting couldnt draft a beer, the GM’s have all been clueless among years of losing.The coaches have all been incompetent, and the teams have all deflated like one of Roberto Luongos over pumped tires. then there are their fans and homer media like Don Taylor.
    According to them and esp Taylor, the Canucks can never do wrong. And if they ever do, the one’s who should pay the price are usually the fringe players , not the key faulty players.

    Next year will be all the same, more window dressing and over rated wins, celebrating wins that don’t count with weak teams, a system that works in the regular season with weak teams but will like clockwork fall apart in the post season. Then, after about a decade of failing again, the core will be replaced with yet another same team, only to repeat the same losing process for another 10 years.

    The question to me is not when will the Canucks win the Stanley cup but rather, will this team keep losing for a 100 years or will they go bust before then? Misery loves company and maybe this team has to reach the 50 year mark of futility before even the hardcore band-wagoners finally wake up. Life, death, taxes and the Canuck’s losing… those things you can be sure of.