There isn’t one single way to win in the NHL.
NHL teams often look to the recent Stanley Cup Champion(s) for some insight into how to construct a winning roster. The Washington Capitals went away from their successful run-and-gun strategy because a defensive Montreal team stymied them back in 2010. Washington finally found success again this season, largely because of a return to a more offensive brand of hockey.
After watching the Bruins and Kings steamroll their way to the Cup in 2011 and 2012, respectively, many teams (including the Canucks) have placed a mandate on getting bigger. With fewer infractions called in the postseason, bigger players are at more of an advantage. They can use their size to wear down smaller opposing players, and the speed factor isn’t as pronounced with an increase in obstruction.
However, the Kings didn’t decide to get big over night. Neither did the Bruins. And we aren’t talking about either of these teams if not for unbelievable performances from Tim Thomas (Conn Smythe, 2011) and Jonathan Quick (Conn Smythe, 2012). Building a team or forging an identity takes years and years. Boston has size throughout the lineup, and their big players are forwards, defensemen, scorers, checkingers, and agitators. The same holds true for Los Angeles. Both teams are also blessed to have elite franchise defensemen running things from the back end, too (Zdeno Chara and Drew Doughty).
And for players on both teams, it is more a mentality of playing big than being big. Look at Brad Marchand, Mike Richards, Andrew Ference, and so on (although it does speak to their overall size when I can only pull three players who aren’t "big").
Back to my original point. Looking exclusively to recently successful teams for inspiration isn’t a terrible idea, but it is a narrow-minded way to build a team. Luck, health, and goaltending (as previously mentioned) are all significant factors in postseason success or failure. A good goaltender or a bad injury can derail even the best laid plans and rosters.
Entering the offseason with the mandate to get bigger, stronger, grittier, or younger is also very narrow-minded. There isn’t one way to win in hockey. The team with the most depth, the most talent, and the best goaltender will win more often than not. Are the Chicago Blackhawks big and tough? They have some players that play that way, but they are routinely outhit. That’s because they usually have the puck, and as Patrick Kane said, it is hard to throw hits when you have the puck all the time.
And, of course, health is the unspoken factor at work here. The Canucks have been injured too much in recent years. Their entire defense was hurt in the 2011 Final. You can’t plan for the Sedin concussion (last year), but better depth minimizes the negative impact of such an injury. Are the recent injury problems enough to warrant making a change behind the scenes? I’m not sure, and I don’t want to speculate. But it is worth looking into.
For whatever reason, the Canucks seem to be more banged up than their opposition. In 2011, they had a lot of depth and were able to overcome the injury problems all the way until the Boston series. This year, the Chris Tanev injury killed their defense. And Ryan Kesler was finally healthy, but he was far from ready in terms of conditioning and game shape.
The only way to go from here is to get better. I realize that is incredibly basic, obvious, and intangible advice, but it is the truth. Vancouver’s depth this past season wasn’t very good. It didn’t matter against Edmonton, Calgary, and Colorado, but not having a fourth line (and barely having a third line) won’t work against the top teams in the league. And that is what I have picked up from watching Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, heck, even Ottawa – they have four lines that know their respective roles and can play hockey well.
When was the last time the Canucks had a fourth line that wasn’t a liability? How about one that gave them the advantage over an opposition’s fourth line? Cooke-Chubarov-Letowski? The team in 2011 had three fantastic lines and a fourth line that was often a mix of Jeff Tambellini, Victor Oreskovich, and Alexandre Bolduc, among others. Boston’s fourth line is a huge part of their overall identity. The Penguins have third line quality talent on their fourth line (particularly Brandon Sutter).
Approaching the draft table or free agency with the mindset of getting better is the only way to properly get this thing back on track. Trying to force a new brand of hockey onto a group of players better suited for something else rarely – if ever – works. Just ask George McPhee.
Another common trait among most of the remaining teams is proactive GMs. When Bryan Murray (for my money the best GM in hockey) moved David Rundblad and a draft pick for Kyle Turris, he was lambasted for overpaying. Rundblad had just dominated the SEL and was expected to anchor the top pairing for years to come. Turris was struggling in the Phoenix system. Fast forward a few years – Turris is a legitimate top six center that can log tough minutes, while Rundblad is still toiling away in the AHL.
Ray Shero recognized that this was the season to go all-in, and go all-in he did. Evgeni Malkin’s contract expires after next year, and the Penguins will have to cut a lot of salary both this summer and next to fit him in. Sure, he added size and toughness (Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow), but he also went after versatility (Jussi Jokinen) and offense (Jarome Iginla). Pittsburgh is an aggressive team and they hit a ton, but they aren’t known for their size (relative to LA or Boston, at least).
Peter Chiarelli didn’t make a ton of moves this year (or last year), because he has built a team that is rock solid from top to bottom. Great trades for the organization (Phil Kessel for Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton/Gregory Campbell, Dennis Seidenberg, Chris Kelly) – these all helped to develop and maintain Boston’s identity as a big – and skilled – puck possession team.
The Derek Roy trade was a huge flop, but at the time it made sense. Roy played pretty well in the regular season, and early returns looked pretty good. The team needed depth, and Gillis went out and got it. But it is completely baffling how the club has avoided making a move with Keith Ballard over the past few years. In 2011, he didn’t suit up ahead of Christian Ehrhoff (playing with one arm, basically) or Alex Edler (who couldn’t even grip his stick).
And this past year, the Canucks wasted a year of Frankie Corrado’s ELC because the coaching staff didn’t trust Ballard. Gillis may say that he lets the coach do the coaching, but it is the manager’s fault if a $4.2 million asset can’t crack the lineup when the games matter most. Ballard simply wasn’t reliable enough in Vancouver for Vigneault to trust him in big games.
Gillis has done some good things since 2008, but he has struck out more than he has connected since the summer of 2010 (thankfully Dan Hamhuis turned down bigger offers from both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to come here), and that is why the Canucks need to ignore the pressure to go one way or another – they simply need to get better.